Friday, January 01, 2010

Life Lessons, Guitar Lessons

With a couple of exceptions, I have played guitar for at least 20-30 minutes each day since Christmas. Not a lot for some folks, but a whole lot for me. It feels so good. Inspiring, in many ways, but also a bit sad, just because it stirs up feelings of what could have been and what might not ever be. I don’t often think about it—sometimes by conscious choice—but I’ve long been haunted by thoughts of what potential I might have lost as a musician. If I look at the heart-wrenching numbers, I’ve played guitar for almost 20 years. I say that’s heart-wrenching because, in many respects, I play with all the skill of a beginning guitar student. I didn’t do enough with it when I was younger. What I should have done was immerse myself in it—surround myself with guitar players much, much, much better than myself and learned from them. According to the most recent book I’ve read on intuition, experts often learn things tacitly, simply by observing those who are superior in talent and, without conscious effort, absorbing bits of intuitive know-how. That’s what I didn’t do. Where would I be now if I had? It’s not the kind of question you should get hung up on, but music is the one area where I sometimes fall prey to asking myself this question, with sincere remorse. (For the record, I did very briefly take guitar lessons from a very talented musician, but they didn’t prove overly fruitful for, I think, two reasons: (1) I took this approach too late—several years after I started playing guitar, and (2) I took this approach too early—before I had the discipline to make the most of it.)

What can be done at this stage? I don’t know. As a grad student, I don’t really have time (or money) for professional lessons. I really don’t think I do, anyway. But does that mean I’m just stuck? You read about plenty of musicians being self-taught, but that doesn’t mean that’s the best method for everyone (nor do you know what these musicians would have become had they taken lessons too!). I need to do something. As I play through some of my old songs, I find myself invigorated by the potential I believe some of them have. Really, I think I might be better at crafting these songs into something really cool now that I’m older. I can hear the directions some of these songs might go, and I want to take them there. But it’s hard when you don’t have the technical prowess to do much other than strum and move some basic chord shapes around the neck. And another travesty of not having played much over the last several years—I feel like I can’t sing anymore. Even my own songs. For the life of me, I can’t help but start off either too high or too low. Clearly, the notes I’m supposed to be hitting fall somewhere in the middle, but I can’t find them! I think part of it is that I hold back—I try to sing quietly because I’m shy, and I’ve learned that trying to sing quietly makes a huge difference as to what your voice can do. I’d like to try just belting things out and seeing if I can find the right notes that way, but I worry that if I take this approach, I’ll open my mouth and let out a shriek that sounds something like a tomcat getting neutered by a blind veterinarian. I’m not sure where the notes are I’m trying to hit, so how dare I belt them out? It’s a conundrum, to be sure, because I think belting them out might be the only route to success, yet I don’t feel confident enough to take that route. Imagine that you really could fly so long as you really believed you could fly—would that make it any easier to jump off a cliff? Exactly.


  1. 1. Take your own advice: it's never too late! Stop thinking, and ACT! 2. Get over your fears. Who is going to care if you sound terrible? Eddie? Peter? Me?!?

    I don't want you feeling this same way ten years from now. It will never be easy; you just have to do it.

  2. You are much younger than you realize. And you have plenty of time to do anything.

  3. I love belting it out, even if I sound terrible. You know what I learned that after a time, you'll get better. Before my mission according to Crystal I couldn't hold a tune, but my first companion made me sing everyday and I carried that tradition on throughout my whole mission. Eventually I became better and now she says I sound pretty good. Granted she is totally biased. We even used to sing on the street as missionaries and have people laugh and throw money at us. It was pretty hard, but it turned out for the better. So don't give up and I still want to learn how to play the guitar.