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Another Guitar Zero

A few years ago, I don’t remember exactly when or where, I came across a beautiful “surf green” Fender guitar that I decided on the spot I needed to have. Not just for its alluring beauty, but because I have long aspired to play a musical instrument. For many years I’ve regretted that I once squandered the only opportunity I was ever given to become musical as a child.

That short-lived experience harks back to fourth grade when I was only nine years old. I was taking clarinet lessons right there in my elementary school along with a couple of other students. My instructor was a kind but serious old gentleman who spoke with a distinctive German or Austrian accent. I’m sure he was the music teacher and/or the orchestra conductor at the junior high school next door, and I recall that he would make one trip over a week just to train us up-and-comers. The only problem was that my weekly clarinet lesson happened to fall on the same exact day and time as my weekly gym class. And the bottom line is… I liked gym class a lot more than I liked music lessons. I mean when you’re nine, running around and playing with your friends just feels like the more appealing option. So I came to a fork in the road and I chose the direction perhaps most traveled. Maybe if I was never confronted with that circumstantial and yet colossal decision, to choose between sports and music, I’d be a musical virtuoso today, splitting my time between classical and jazz ensembles, rubbing shoulders with famous composers and my fellow Berklee alum, and accepting my umpteenth Grammy award. And yet I digress…

In more recent years I followed along intently as my son Aren took piano lessons, then learned to play the violin, and then added guitar lessons on to that. Anything the kid touched he could seemingly play well and with minimal effort, or more accurately, minimal practice. To this day I marvel that he can just pick up a guitar and play songs to entertain himself, and even to entertain his friends. His great success only accentuated my own previous failure, as far as I was concerned. Not that I was ever really concerned per se, because I’ve always speculated that I could, and would, circle back to music lessons one day. And so here I am writing this and gazing at my beautiful new guitar.

My fancy new guitar. The surf green Fender Sonoran is reminiscent of vintage Stratocaster and Telecaster electric guitars that had a similar color and headstock. The white “pearloid” pickguard also gives it a fun and classic look.

Shortly after my purchase, I also picked up a copy of the best-selling book entitled Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning by Gary Marcus. The general assumption among many people is that, if you don’t learn to play music in your youth, then you’ve missed the window of opportunity. The book chronicles the author’s quest to learn to play guitar (and join a band) as a middle-aged man. He also delves in to some of the scientific research regarding the ability of older folks to acquire musical (and other new) skills. I ended up switching over to the audio book so I could listen to Mr. Marcus personally tell his story and relate all his fancy findings. It’s pretty fascinating stuff, and the ultimate conclusion is very positive for catcher-uppers like me.

So with newfound confidence, I hired an instructor; a sweet old fellow named Tim that came highly recommended on one website or another. Conveniently, Tim only lived a couple of blocks away from me and he was more than happy to conduct the lessons right in my living room. Progress was slow, but what I did learn quickly about Tim is that he’s kind of a lonely soul that likes to chat and to recount tales of his heyday, playing in bands back in the 1970s (coincidentally contemporaneous to me playing dodgeball in fourth grade). So over the course of a given hour we might get in about fifteen minutes of actual instruction. And, unfortunately, I just couldn’t get excited about any of the stuff we were working on. Additionally, he’d show me how to play a song in about three minutes, and then we’d never talk about it again in subsequent lessons. There was no structure nor continuity to what we were doing. I was essentially paying the man to talk about his glory days.

Fast forward to today, I’ve had no further private lessons for two years and a guitar that’s been collecting dust over the same amount of time. So let’s try this again. I’ve just enrolled in a beginner guitar class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE) and for almost a month now I’ve been consistently playing the instrument a little bit every day. I’ve already had two classes at the CCAE and learned so much; including the physical parts of the guitar, how to read tablature, and how to play scales and catchy little riffs to build up hand/muscle memory. In addition, I’ve learned that by knowing just four or five basic guitar chords, any person has the potential to learn and play hundreds of great songs, new and old. “You had me at…” catchy little riffs.

So, after several decades, my musical endeavors are back off the ground. That said, it’s also pretty hard work. Teaching your fingers to manipulate the guitar frets is no easy task. It requires building up strength and dexterity. It means creating some new callouses on those tender fingertips. And it mandates a newfound respect for rhythm and for playing in time. In short, it means practice, practice, practice. More to come on all this at a later date. Until then… I’m finally having just as much fun in music class as I am in gym class.