4. Taking the Plunge into Music

Sometime in 2007 my neighbor Michael Awe’s son Caleb began taking electric guitar lessons at a nearby music store. I was told how much Caleb liked his teacher and lessons. My grandson Tom Stamatakos also began taking electric guitar lessons. This got me to thinking…maybe I could learn to play even at my “advanced” age.

On August 27, 2007, I pinned the address of the store on my wall to remind me to check it out, but it stayed there for months. Every time I listened to a rock or blues CD (especially one by Otis Taylor), I fantasized about making music, instead of just listening to it.

Finally, on June 19, 2008, I drove to Kagan & Gaines and asked about guitars and guitar lessons. Whenever I’m considering something like a major purchase, I always do research, check it out and then think about it before deciding. I expected to do that in this case as well. However, I not only decided on the spot to sign up for lessons with Jim Goelitz, their blues specialist, but bought a beginner’s electric guitar kit (a blue Fender Squier Strat—made in Indonesia—with a Fender Bullet 150 15W solid-state practice amplifier and accessories). It looks like a “real” Stratocaster and my ears probably couldn’t hear the difference anyway.

Squier by Fender Strat

Squier by Fender Strat

Significant blues and rock musicians who play/played the Fender Stratocaster include Dick Dale, Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend (The Who), George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Ry Cooder, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robbie Robertson, Ronnie Wood (The Rolling Stones), Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt and Otis Taylor.

My first lesson was on Wednesday, June 25, 2008. My life hasn’t been the same since. Even a year later, I still felt like a beginner, but I was making music and it was very satisfying and at times thrilling.

My teacher keeps reminding me that what matters is not how much you know, but what you can do with what you know. That’s very reassuring when I listen to a blues musician and am reminded of how much there still is to learn. Fortunately, I’ve always loved learning.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), Malcolm Gladwell talks about what he calls “the 10,000-Hour Rule”—the number of hours of practice that neurologist Daniel Levitin says are likely required “to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything.” If you spend 2.74 hours per day 365 days a year, that equals 1,000 hours. At that rate it would take 10 years to become such an expert.

I aim to practice everyday and do my best to play at least an hour, but don’t always succeed, though sometimes I practice more than that. At that rate, it will take me more than 10 years. I remind myself that I don’t need to be a “world-class expert,” but I would like to reach a level of accomplishment that allows me to play with other musicians, and I even fantasize about “playing out” (performing) someday.

Unlike when I was young and tried to avoid practicing the piano, I always look forward to playing the guitar, though it can be hard to make time for it. I think of practicing the guitar as a spiritual practice in the same sense that meditation is. It’s not drudgery, nor is it simply a necessary means to an end. It can be frustrating at times when my fingers are having trouble doing what the music requires of them, but I can already look back on early exercises that seemed challenging at the time, but which now are easy. It helps to know from experience that repetition and practice do lead to improvement and to more satisfying playing. It’s also helpful that I find the process of learning to play enjoyable in itself. I like hearing the sound of the notes I can play on the guitar (I told a friend, “There’s magic in the notes.”), so even if I never play at the level of the master musicians I so admire and enjoy, I take pleasure in what I can manage so far. At the same time, I want to play as close to the level of my blues heroes as I can manage. I look forward to adding more elements of the music to my comfort zone. Part of the spiritual practice of playing is to remember to take it day by day, even hour by hour.