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.