During my childhood, I always kept a few albums and a record player in my bedroom. I even sang in choir during grade school and junior high. Still, music never really played a fundamental role in my life. In fact, it took decades before music changed my mind.
Looking back, I realize that I kept letting one thing – a guitar – escape my grasp. On some long-ago Christmas, one before I was even 10-years-old, my parents gave me a kid’s cowboy guitar. I can still see the orange-like color of that guitar’s body, with a rope painted along the edges. I strummed it some, made some awful sounds, and soon stopped even reaching for it.
A couple years later, my parents gave me a real guitar, and I started taking lessons at a local music store. I’d go in once a week, where the instructor picked out simple notes and gave me things to practice before the next lesson. Usually, I only grabbed that guitar once a week, mostly right before going to see my instructor. So in lessons, I hit wrong notes, if it could be called that instead of noise. I failed to remember one chord from another, and never really got to a point of naturally placing my fingers on any chord. I could slowly and painfully pick out the melody to a very simple version of a children’s song, but that was it. After about six months of lessons, I stopped going and left my guitar in its case. Eventually, I gave it away to a friend with far more interest in a guitar than me.
Picking at my brain
As my interests turned to sports and academics in high school, guitars rarely entered my mind. I finished high school, went to college, earned a Masters degree and then a Ph.D. – all related to biology – and music continued to play little role in my life. Nonetheless, I always wished that I knew how to play an instrument. In the back of my mind, I wondered: What if I’d kept taking guitar lessons and actually practiced?
That question lingered on my mind for decades. The older the idea got and the older I got, that question picked more at me. By 1998, at the age of 39, that question rumbled around more than ever. I felt like I was missing something, maybe missing out on a different world. I don’t know why this thought kept mingling with my guitar past, but it did. At the same time, I felt a little old to learn something that seemed so magical to me.
One day, though, it felt like time to put the question to the test. I bought an inexpensive acoustic guitar, and found someone who taught guitar lessons from her home. I arranged one. Sitting in her living room, I heard really nice guitar music coming from another room. After a few minutes, the guitar teacher opened a door, and out walked a little girl who seemed smaller than her guitar. Oh wow, I thought. Maybe this is a crazy idea! Still, I followed the teacher into the practice room, and clumsily pulled out my guitar.
As I got settled, the teacher asked: “Have you played before?”
“I took some lessons years ago,” I said, “but, really, I don’t remember anything.”
“Well, let’s start with that,” she said.
Picking with persistence
And that’s where I started. I learned how to hold the guitar, and I got to where I could slowly pick the strings with my right hand, not doing anything with my left hand. I plucked out simple quarter-note patterns – picking one open string and then another, working my way across the notes: E, A, D, G, B and E.
At the start of my second lesson, my teacher asked: “Do you know how to read music?”
“Not even a tiny bit,” I replied.
So, she gave me a simple book on music theory, and said, “Read this.”
I read that book. Then, I’d look at notes on a staff and try to play them. I practiced every day. I started listening for the guitar playing in songs. I started buying CDs. I read guitar magazines.
After about a year of guitar lessons, I moved to another state. That year didn’t make me much of a guitar player, but the lessons and the hours and hours of practicing taught me to read music, play quite a few chords and even fingerpick some songs.
More than music
Even with 14 years of playing guitar, I remain a total amateur at best. Still, my guitar stays out in a corner of my office, and I play a little bit most days. I’d say now that I can play an instrument, at least enough for my own enjoyment. But I never expected how that would change my mind.
Not surprisingly, playing a guitar amped up my interest in music. I enjoy listening to it much more. It even seems like I can hear it better, or at least it sounds different. When I listen to music now, I feel more of a connection to the notes and the rhythm and the riffs. Music touches me now in a way that I never expected.
Some of the other mind-changing results, though, really surprised me. For one thing, time with my guitar always relaxes me. I slip into playing the notes and keeping the rhythm, and the challenges in my daily life disappear, at least for that period of time. And after playing, those challenges seem, well, less challenging. It even turned out – most unexpectedly of all – that playing a guitar made me better at unrelated things, like shooting a basketball.
Most of all, this entire experience taught me some important lessons about life:
- When an idea keeps popping up in your head, explore it
- You’re never too old for a new adventure
- Adventures taken in one part of your life can enhance others
- Small steps can take you places that you never imagined.
I might never know why I bought a guitar in 1998, but I’m so glad that I did. Music really did change my mind.
Do you have nagging ideas that you should explore?