Changes and Milestones, a Question and an Answer

Full Moon at Sunrise, October 15, Newhalen Alaska
I had been looking at this particular landscape about five miles from our house ever since June when we moved to Newhalen. The scene had elements of a good photo, but I just couldn’t see a picture. Then, one morning a few weeks ago as a full moon was hanging low on the horizon, the rising sun put some nice color in the sky. Sensing that their might be a moment, I drove out and there it was.

I began 2019 with four major goals. I wanted to:

– send out a few articles to magazines for publication

– write a book

– run a half-marathon after my 60th birthday, and

– starting from scratch with very little meaningful background in music, I wanted to put in 500 hours on the guitar and see where that got me

After putting together a couple of articles I quickly abandoned the first goal as both too time-consuming and not reflective of the kind of writing I want to do, and therefore not where I want to put my energy at this point in my life and career.

From Gavia pacifica (Pacific Loon) to Pinicola enucleator (Pine Grosbeak), I documented some 80 species of birds at Chignik Lake, including species that had never before been recorded in the region. Redpolls (above) were among our favorites.

Nonetheless, writing remains a central part of my life, and while I didn’t finish a book, I’ve begun. Over the coming weeks (and months), look for Birds of Chignik Lake to be published in installments on Cutterlight. It is my hope that I’ll be able to make a meaningful contribution to the work of others. Perhaps I’ll even be able to interest a publisher in producing a printed edition of this book when it’s finished. Either way, I’m excited to have begun the book and I’m eager to begin sharing my findings on Cutterlight.

Commitment to a fitness regimen paid off, and on October 23, running side by side, Barbra and I completed our first half-marathon in over 10 years. We did this as a “virtual run,” signing up for the Long Beach Half-Marathon (a race we did in person 12 or 13 years ago), and having documented our successful completion of the run up here in Newhalen, we’re now awaiting our finisher medals and T-shirts which should be arriving in the mail soon. Time was never part of the objective; my racing days are behind me. But I am happy to report that we remained injury free and were able to complete the full 13.1 miles running the entire distance. This bodes well for another season of hiking up and down salmon and trout rivers.

The nearby Tazimina River flows through a spectacularly wild  landscape. Cold and pristine enough to drink from, it’s loaded with large grayling, trout, and in fall, salmon.

All of this was terrific – including the manner in which not achieving the first goal led to the positive outcome of more clearly defining what it is I want to do with my writing and my time. I’m in the process of putting together templates for each of the 80-some species I recorded at Chignik Lake, and with other foundational work already done – and with permission from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to use their range maps secured – I hope to begin publishing installments later this month. And finally, fresh off the success of our October half, we’ve already signed up for another event, the February 2 Huntington Beach Surf City Half-Marathon. This is another race we did on site some years ago (coinciding with the Pittsburgh Steelers scoring their sixth Super Bowl victory), and that we’ll participate in virtually up here in Newhalen.

That leaves just the final and most important of the four 2019 goals to account for – the goal that I believed would help me answer a question that has been on my mind since December 31 of 2018.

Can a 60-year-old person learn to play the guitar to any meaningful skill level starting essentially from scratch?

As I mentioned in a previous article, the Internet seems to offer no answer to this question, though it’s clear others have posed it.

Again, this is not about having learned at a younger age and continuing to play into one’s seventh decade. Nor is it about picking up an instrument again after a hiatus of a few years. My question had nothing to do with learning to pick the notes to Happy Birthday or similar songs, as one site suggests. And it’s certainly not about “deriving benefits,” or finally playing well enough that the “cat stops yowling,” as per a particularly insulting Washington Post article.

We age. Our memories grow less sharp, our hearing less keen. Fingers slow. Nails grow brittle. New skills are acquired less easily. Even sitting for a long period of time in a given position can present challenges that our younger selves didn’t imagine. Over the years, injuries accumulate – a broken finger here, a finger sliced to the bone there – injuries long forgotten… till you sit down with a guitar in your hands.

It’s a simple question, and the manner in which expert upon expert appears to avoid directly answering it left me fearing that… Well, time marches on. At some point windows close. Patronizing assurances that begin with “Anyone can…” are invariably fibs.

At the beginning of the year, I made a commitment to stick with it, put in 500 hours with no expectations, and discover what I might discover. Good, bad or indifferent, I promised to report what I learned.

Yesterday morning, I completed my 500th hour of practice. I will report soon.

To read more about my journey with the guitar, type Learning to Play the Guitar in the “Search Cutterlight Articles” bar near the top of the page.

In Dandelion Sugar

More than halfway into my first 500 hours on the guitar. Irresistible to take it outside into the yard today, sunshine, swallows swooping, sparrows chirping and singing, warblers chattering from bare alders and newly leafed out willows. Working on my Travis picking patterns. Barbra took this photo for posterity.

After starting off the new year with three consecutive months of not looking at the news, I got sucked in again. A mistake. Monotonous. Depressing. It doesn’t matter which news source you look at, there’s nothing like it to simultaneously rile you up while making you feel powerless. There are better places to focus energy. In fact, we’ve decided to go back off TV altogether. Extra time on the guitar. Extra time to write. I think I’ll start reading Ted Leeson’s The Habit of Rivers this evening.

Still trying to get a decent photo of our Hermit Thrushes. Of course, if I could capture an image of their otherworldly song, that would be the real trick.

I imagine someone will let me know if we go to war.

These final days at The Lake, I want to savor it.

In dandelion sugar.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: The Final Philosophy

Sunrise April 6, 2019. A golden new day in Chignik Lake.

Philosophy #21

Express Gratitude. Growing up, I had a difficult time imagining what 60 would be like for me. The people in my life who were around that age seemed old. I think, looking back on it, that in truth most of them were old. I wasn’t exposed to many (any?) models of older people who were physically fit, active, still exploring new ideas, and welcoming into their lives new music, new passions or fresh perspectives. A few of the older people I knew sometimes got into a car or boarded a plane and went somewhere – to go see, more than to go do.

Sitting. What I remember most about the older people I knew back then was the sitting. Lots and lots of sitting.

In 1974 my family took a spring vacation trip from our home in Clarion, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. I was 14. The ostensible reason for the trip was my father’s interest in an international wrestling tournament in which one of Clarion State’s wrestlers, Wade Shallas, was participating. But to my young mind, the wrestling tournament was almost irrelevant. In the spring of 1974, Washington was electrified. 

Further south than Clarion, everything was already bright spring green. Magnolia trees covered with big, showy blooms seemed to be everywhere. Attired in the kind of post-Haight Ashbury garb I’d only seen on TV and in magazines, people were busking, selling art and hand-made pot holders, giving soap box speeches or loosely milling around signs, tight in their own earnest discussions. The Watergate Scandal was exploding. Then President Richard Nixon had fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox the previous November, senior Whitehouse aides J. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman had just resigned and Whitehouse Counsel John Dean’s head was about to roll. Impeach the Cox-sucker! one of those signs shouted. Coming from the tiny mountain town of Clarion it was like leaving a world of somnambulance for one wide awake.

But amidst the flowers and buskers, the street hawkers and protestors, the wrestling and the (in my then very limited experience) fancy hotel where we were staying, over the years my mind has continually returned to one image.

Tennis was hugely popular in the ’70’s, and as we strolled the streets we came upon a park of lovely, tree-shaded courts. With heads of impeccably coiffed white hair and crisp, white tennis attire, the couple volleying a ball back and forth must’ve been in their sixties. Yet both the man and the woman hit with real power, and the way they dashed around the court gave them the impression of being half their chronological ages.

In that moment, watching them play, I formulated what was to become a salient life goal. I could be like those two.

The image that couple modeled, and the goal I set for myself back then have stayed with me for 46 years.

And so, in my 50’s, I learned to sail, guided myself to fishing firsts including fly-caught salmon, backpacked remote country in Denali National Park, found my own dinosaur fossil on a trip to the Gobi Desert while living in Mongolia, helped a group of Eskimo friends haul a whale up onto the ice, took up photography, got into birding, kept my cool when charged by a thousand pound bear and at 59 went off on my first-ever bike trek, a self-guided 1,300 miles through Hokkaido, Japan.

I wake up every day grateful for every day. I go to bed every night thankful for the day that transpired and looking forward to the next. And between those two times, I strive to keep myself fit, active and growing. I don’t do this merely for myself. If my own interests were the only motivation, I’m sure I’d have lost momentum and replaced it with the TV remote control years ago. My hope, every day, is that in some way I might help or even inspire someone else. I’m lucky, and I know I’m lucky. Maybe a young person who saw us on our bike trek will one day herself embark on a similar adventure. Maybe a fisherman who has always dreamed of catching a salmon will make this the year they go out and give it a try. Maybe someone who had given up the idea that they could learn to play the guitar will revisit that dream.

None of us knows what tomorrow or even the next moment will bring. It’s good to be alive.

 

 

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Exercise

Ray Troll designed T-shirt from the annual Salmon Festival and running events in Cordova, Alaska

Philosophy #20

Exercise. Playing the guitar for an hour or more a day is physically demanding. For one thing, it requires a certain amount of hand and finger strength and stamina. You’ve probably thought of that. But it’s demanding in other ways, too. You might not have given much thought to the way repeated finger and hand motions can lead to overuse injuries such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Meanwhile, sitting for a prolonged period of time with a guitar in your lap, perhaps craning your neck to see your hands on the strings, one leg elevated, your shoulders maintaining a certain position can lead to another set of problems which you might end up feeling in your back, hips, neck or shoulders. As a writer who has spent many, many hours at desks and keyboards over the years, I have experiences with some of these issues.

And according to what I’ve been reading, so do a lot of guitarists. As older learners, we’re probably especially susceptible to these overuse injuries. We want to avoid visits to our doctors and we really want to avoid being forced to take time off from the guitar, so let’s take a look at what can be done to stay healthy and keep playing.

1. Always warm up. Bring your hands and fingers into practice sessions gently. This is a good time to run through scales, checking each string and each note for tone. Move your hand up and down the fretboard with a shifting exercise. Make a finger stretching activity part of your warm-up routine for your left hand and throw in a finger-picking exercise for your right hand. Focus on technique, keep the pace slow, listen for tone and in a few minutes you should be ready to dive into your practice session.

2. At a minimum of every 30 minutes, get up and move around. I use these breaks to get in fairly decent micro-workouts. Here’s my routine:

  • Five pushups, taking care to go all the way up and all the way down with good form. Pushups might be the single best exercise ever invented anyway, but they provide special benefits to guitarists. First, they do a good job stretching and strengthening forearm tendons and muscles. Second, they help maintain a strong core which by itself helps prevent posture-related neck, shoulder and back pain.
  • I then go up and down a flight of stairs a couple of times. I take the steps two or three at a time. This flexes and strengthens my hips which become tight after sitting for long periods of time. It also strengthens my core. (In fact, throughout my life, I’ve always avoided elevators and escalators, instead taking stairs whenever I can. And I always take ’em two at a time.)
  • Maintaining good posture (head up, shoulders back) and striving for nice, easy, long strides, I take a short brisk walk. Short? As little as a minute is enough to get blood circulating and restore skeletal alignment.
  • Lastly, I stretch a little. I stretch my forearm tendons, I stretch my hamstrings, glutes and IT band, I raise my arms to shoulder height and pull back to offset the tendency to roll my shoulders forward when I play the guitar, and I’m ready to go for another half-hour.
  • I rarely play for more than 30 minutes without taking one of these mini-workout breaks.
  • Every hour, I take a longer break of at least 15 minutes. Often much longer.

3. Beyond those mini-workouts, I’m committed to an overall fitness regime. I usually work out five days a week. My routines include resistance training, aerobics and stretching. I pay particular attention to keeping my forearm muscles and tendons stretched and strong – because typing and fishing have taken a toll on those extensors. I also do most of my writing and photo editing at a stand-up work station; I spend enough time sitting with my guitar, and my back and hips appreciate the break.

In the world of running, trainers have a term for athletes over the age of 40 who don’t regularly cross-train (with resistance training and other non-running exercises) and who don’t stretch. That word is “injured.” I can’t speak about younger guitarists, but I strongly suspect that the same word, “Injured,” will apply to older people coming to the guitar for the first time, especially those of us who practice every day for an hour or more if we don’t take care of the new demands we are placing on our bodies.

So think of yourself as an athlete-musician. Cross train, stay healthy and play on!

By the way, if you have experience with avoiding or overcoming guitar-related injuries, I’d love to hear about them!

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: History

Photo: William Edward Hook, 1910: https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=482030

Philosophy #20

Study history. When Lonnie Donegan released his recording of Rock Island Line in the UK in 1955, the song ushered in the birth of skiffle which in turn sent young British guitarists scrambling to learn more about American roots guitar music – much of which had been all but forgotten in the US. Over the next few years, UK rockers transformed this music until bands like The Beatles, The Animals, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and The Who exported it back to American shores in the British Invasion. The The Yardbirds, where guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page got their start, joined the ranks of British groups heavily influenced by American roots guitar music

Meanwhile, back at The Lake…

For a village of only 50 to 70 people, there are a lot of guitar players out here. The other day one stopped by to talk.

“How’s the guitar coming along, Jack?” he asked.
“Good. I just started practicing the Travis finger picking style,” I replied not knowing whether or not that would mean anything to him.
“Oh! Chet Atkins!” he exclaimed with a knowing smile.

Yeah, Chet Atkins. We went on to talk about the connection between Merle Travis and Chet Atkins and about the different directions their careers took. I wouldn’t have known any of this just a few days ago.

The history of guitar music in all its forms, classical, jazz, rock, folk and more, is fascinating. Let this history become part of your history. As you do, you’ll find yourself exploring paths you may not have even known existed prior to your studies. Additionally, as your guitar playing brings you into new social circles, you’ll find yourself engaged in conversations with people who are interested in these subjects. Strive to contribute to those conversations and additional doors will open in an ever expanding, newly discovered world.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Reading Fluency

Philosophy #19

Learn to read fluently. Music, that is. With the guitar, this means acquiring the skill to effortless sight read every note starting three spaces below the treble clef with the low E all the way up to the highest C on your fretboard. It also means fluency with tablature and the ability to instantly recognize chords. It is true that there are many examples of guitarists who never learned to read music. It can definitely be done. But my guess is that having come to the goal of learning to play later in life, you’re looking for the fastest, surest, most efficient way to learn. That path lies through reading fluency. 

Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1 is an excellent resource in this regard. The book is driven in part by a string by string, note by note acquisition of reading literacy. In the long run, if you follow this approach and learn to sight read, you’ll be further ahead than had you played by ear or learned only tablature notation. There’s also a dark side, so to speak, to skipping the literacy process. It is almost certain that if you stay with the guitar that at some point you will wish you had learned to read. This often happens to younger musicians who were trained to play by ear. The process of going back and learning to read after you can already play can be laborious and even downright painful. Another way to look at it is like this: I doubt anyone has ever said, “I’m sure glad I never learned to read music.”

And who knows? You may eventually want to write down songs of your own creation.

Good luck and keep practicing!

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Embrace Difficulty

Philosophy #18

Embrace Difficulty: At the outset, any complex task might appear daunting. Overwhelming even. Keep in mind the proverb that a mountain is climbed one step (or handhold) at a time. Chord changes are initially difficult for everyone. No one begins with a beautifully cascading fingerpicking style or a rapid tremolo. These things take practice. With practice, things that once seemed unattainable will become achievements.

Keep a journal. Record dates and make brief notes about improvement and achievements. Use a metronome to measure gains in speed. Occasionally make video recordings of yourself for comparison to past and future performances. Keep track of how many scales you’ve learned, how many songs you’ve memorized, how many chords you know and so forth.

The goal of reaching your first 500 hours of practice is, by itself, a fairly daunting objective. In the room where I do most of my practice, I’ve hung a calendar on the wall where each day write down how much I’ve practiced. I’ve also put a goal thermometer on the wall – a more visual means by which to show the same thing. Measuring in increments of 10 hours, it starts at 0 and goes to 500. Every 10 hours, I color in the space and write a date. Three-hundred 340 hours to go.