Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: Don’t Set Expectations

Philosophy #4

Don’t set expectations. As a wise person once observed to me, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t have expectations.” Goals set too early in an endeavor can be worse than useless. They may lead to disappointment if timelines aren’t met, to imagined competition with others, and to frustration with progress perceived to be too slow. None of this is helpful. Even if you meet some arbitrary goal, so what? You would have gotten there just the same simply by putting in practice time.

As an older learner taking up the guitar, there’s simply no way to know what you’ll accomplish. So don’t worry about it. In fact, try not to even think about it. Enjoy the journey and what you discover about music, the guitar, and yourself.

Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: 500 Hours

Philosophy 3

Humble yourself to 500 hours. How long does it take to be able to play the guitar with basic proficiency? The answer depends on innate ability, prior experience, the quality and consistency of practice sessions, and how the term “basic proficiency” is defined. So any number we might choose will be somewhat arbitrary. That being said…

I’m using 500 hours as a benchmark. That’s about how much classroom, practice and study time I estimate I’d need to really get down all the material in a two-semester college level beginning guitar course. It’s also roughly the amount of work it appears it will take to thoroughly complete the 24 lessons in Collin McCallister’s Learning to Play the Guitar: Chords, Scales and Solos at The Great Courses along with the supplemental material I’m using.

This 500 hours does not include the time it takes to pick up and tune your guitar, locate your music, repeatedly check the clock or take a phone call. This is 500 hours of purpose-driven practice.

Let’s take a moment to consider what this means in terms of skill acquisition.

  • Committing to daily practice of 30 minutes, it will be 1,000 days before 500 hours of meaningful practice have been invested. That’s 2 years and 9 months. With these relatively short practice sessions, a high percentage of time will be spent warming up. Days will go by between circling back to practice certain skills and there often won’t be sufficient time to work through problems. Thus, even with 500 hours (2 years and 9 months) under your belt, you will likely not have attained the same skill level as someone got to 500 hours through longer practice sessions over a shorter period of time.

As a young person, you or someone you know may have been instructed to practice half-an-hour a day on the piano, violin or another instrument. It’s a fairly common prescription. But with time off during summer, missed weekends and holidays, inevitable illnesses, visits with friends and relatives, school projects and other commitments intervening, and (let’s be honest) a certain amount of wasted time during those practice sessions, it is often the case that practice only occurred on about 200 days in a given year. That’s only 100 hours of practice. At this pace – which is a fairly typical one – a person could take lessons for 5 years before hitting the 500 hour benchmark. Meanwhile, with all the interruptions, much of that 500 hours would have been devoted to review. This is one reason so many people who attempt to learn a musical instrument (or a foreign language) come away from the experience believing they have “no talent” for it. In reality, they never gave themselves an opportunity to develop the talent that they probably do have.

  • With 1 hour a day, the time to 500 hours is cut to 1 year, 4-and-a-half months. Because a higher percentage of practice time will have been devoted to skills beyond warm-ups, and because you can both practice a broader range of skills in each session (thus avoiding forgetting and other forms of skill deterioration) and because you’ll have more time to work through challenging areas and to experiment, at the conclusion of 500 hours you’re likely to be well ahead compared with had you committed to shorter sessions.

Still with days off here and there, you’re looking at close to a year-and-a-half before you’ve got 500 hours under your belt. That’s a fairly long time.

  • Two hours a day will get you to 500 hours in just over 8 months. In other words, within a year of first picking up a guitar, you could be playing it fairly well.
  • And so on. A schedule in which one begins with an hour a day in the first month, progresses to two hours in the second month as hands become stronger, and then ups practice time to three hours per day thereafter will get the guitarist to 500 hours in just over 5½ months. Consider the path any accomplished musician – or cook, fly-fishing master, athlete, educator, artist, or writer – took to reaching proficiency. They got there with lots of purpose-driven practice.

From 1960 to 1962 The Beatles worked bar gigs in Hamburg, Germany where they played five hours a night seven nights a week. That’s thousands of hours of meaningful, purpose-driven practice before their first #1 single in October 1962, Love Me Do.  

Keep in mind that the annals of achievement are filled with stories of people who weren’t very good (or who were actually quite awful) when they started, but by sticking with it and putting in the time went on to accomplish great things. Conversely, there are at least as many stories of people who began with great promise but who didn’t invest in the time and who subsequently fizzled out.

I offer the above as grist for thought rather than advice; each person must determine their own schedule and the pace of their own journey. But here’s a further observation. We all know people who have practiced a given skill “for years” and who still aren’t particularly accomplished at it. That’s because, as the above example with piano lessons illustrates, skill acquisition cannot meaningfully be measured in years. Dabbing at or dabbling in a complex skill in short practice sessions interrupted by distractions and further chopped up with lengthy periods when the thing is not practiced at all is a slow, long path and one most likely to end in discouragement.

As to 500 hours… It’s a lot of time. Think of it as a journey, enjoy it, and when you arrive you’ll be able to look back at that time when it (guitar or whatever else “it” is) was just a dream to a present time when you have acquired enough skills to make yourself say “Wow! I’m doing this!”

Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: Purpose-driven Practice

Philosophy 2

A skill is built hour by hour engaged in focused practice guided by a purpose. There is no other way.

Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: Begin

Begin. This first step may seem too obvious. It’s not. We Baby Boomers have known about guitars most of our lives. We were playing air guitars by the time we were eight. Maybe like me, you’ve owned a guitar in the past and even taken a couple of lessons. And then quit. For some reason you’ve put off getting serious about learning to play a guitar for 50 years or more. Part of your journey might be understanding what has blocked you in the past – what was in the way.

It wasn’t lack of time. I think it’s important to accept this. Yes, throughout our adult life most of us must make a living. But no one’s work is all-consuming unless one chooses it to be so. And that’s the operative word here: choice. For whatever reasons, learning the guitar wasn’t made a priority. And so instead of becoming guitar players, we devoted our free time to reading novels and newspapers, clubs and memberships, and on and off commitments (or perhaps sustained commitments) to fitness and sundry other hobbies. There have been social events and Sunday drives, certain time-consuming rituals that probably deserve more reflection than we’ve given them (maintaining a lawn, for example), and TV. Hours and hours of TV.

So what was my story? Well, this is a piece of it.

There was a piano in our home. My mother played. A little. I don’t know what prompted her to enroll us in lessons when I was eight and my younger sister was seven. Something like vaguely defined social expectations, I would imagine.

At the conclusion of our first lesson with Ms. Zilhaver, an older woman who periodically stepped away with coughing fits for a few puffs on a cigarette, we were instructed to practice for half-an-hour each day. I did so with alacrity. The following week I reported back to Ms. Zilhaver, prepared for my second lesson. She seemed impressed. I was given additional pieces of music to work on. And so it went for the next few weeks. Making good progress, there were times when I found myself still at the piano well after the prescribed 30-minute period was up.

My sister came to it more slowly. She put in her time, but not without a fair amount of her usual fidgeting and not a minute more than was necessary. After a few weeks, she was still working on music I’d finished.

That’s when my mother intervened.

I can’t tell you her motivations. I can only guess. She was a feminist with a Gibraltar-sized chip on her shoulder and a mission to prove the superiority of women. And girls. Maybe the answers lie in there somewhere. Maybe they lie elsewhere. I don’t know.

In any event, one Saturday afternoon when she thought I was outside playing, I happened to overhear her end of a phone conversation with Ms. Zilhaver. In the future, Ms. Zilhaver was not to advance me further than my sister. If I got ahead, I was to be held back till my sister caught up. It sounded like there was some push-back from the piano teacher, but as many others have discovered, there was no arguing with my mother.

When she got off the phone, I asked her – with some desperation – why she was giving these orders. The only response I got was a scolding for “eavesdropping.” (I wasn’t. I just happened to be in the house). When I pressed, I was answered with the familiar Nadine Donachy “We’re not going to have this conversation.”

Nonetheless, for the next few days I continued practicing as before. At the following lesson, I performed a piece well. In the past, it would have been starred and I would have been assigned a new piece. Not this time. “Let’s just keep working on these same pieces for awhile,” Ms. Zilhaver said.

At that point, I was done with it.

I spent the next eight years in piano limbo. I did not practice. I did not advance. But I was forbidden from quitting. Thus, I suppose, my mother had her evidence of the inferiority of boys, and I had developed a perfectly rotten relationship with learning music.

Fifty-three years of water under the bridge later, it feels freeing to have thought this through. And now, to paraphrase Jimmy Buffet, I’m not going to think about it too long. I’ve got a guitar that wants to be played.