Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this subject, I wanted to write a little introduction to make my intentions clear.
I was asked by Ira, Christopher, Steve and Leo who are readers of the blog, to discuss ideas and challenges for an older guitarist. The word old, is a loaded one, and I want to be clear that I intend no disrespect by using it, I am just not going to dive into euphemisms.
Ok. Let’s get down to business.
Yes. You can.
I have been asked several times by readers of the site if I think they can take up guitar study at a later age. The resounding answer is yes.
There really is no limit to what each one of us can achieve, and in many respects age is no restriction. The basic tenets of learning apply to everyone, regardless of age, advantages or disadvantages. Success requires hard work, dedication and perseverance.
More often than not, the marker of success will not be receiving a standing ovation at Madison Square Garden, the mark of success will be reaching goals, expressing yourself through music and having fun along the way. If that happens to be on stage at the Garden, so be it, but believe me when I say there is no “making it”. There is only the journey we each take, guitar in hand.
Choosing your pieces.
This might be the biggest take home point, and I am going to repeat myself later, but I believe the point is so important it warrants repetition.
Music that is too difficult is the biggest impediment of your progress.
I have some young kids that I teach. They are great fun, and they will do anything for a sticker. More often than not, they are not familiar with the guitar repertoire, and as I work through books that have simple melodies and a steady progression, they just accept what I give them and will be happy if it is not too difficult. As a teacher, this means I can build their technique and foundations to be strong and comprehensive. As students, this means that they improve, and they improve fast. Have you ever seen a little kid play like a pro at the age of 8? It is because they had a good teacher, and did what she asked.
Adults and teenagers, however, will most likely come to the classical guitar because they know and love the repertoire. Because they know the repertoire, they want to play it. Even if it isn’t going to be good for them! This means, as a teacher, I am constantly trying to bargain about what piece to play. I know that simpler pieces will be more productive, but they want to get to the greats as soon as they can.
There are two ways to go about this. The first is to look at the goals and objectives, if the answer is to have fun and you don’t want to go through the less entertaining studies and simple pieces, then, go for it. You need to know, however, that you might be plugging away at your favorite Hendrix piece for a number of years, and it might cause great frustration as it may never reach the level you had hoped. It might not be “fun” for that long.
The second way, is to play the long game, and hold off on the more advanced pieces. Start with simple pieces, and progress through the repertoire to arrive at your dream pieces with a technique that is up to the task. I think the payoff of this route is bigger, and if you can learn to enjoy the process, then you might forget about rushing to those concert pieces and start enjoying what is right in front of you.
Goals and objectives
At the outset of study, you need to answer the question:
Why am I doing this, and what do I want to achieve?
The answer will be different for everyone, but as an older student you might be looking for personal enjoyment and fulfillment over career aspirations.
By no means is someones age a requirement for a professional career. Actually if there ever was a requirement, it would be sustained passion and hard work.
If your goal is personal enjoyment, perhaps the realization of a long time desire to play music or learn the guitar, you need to think about how you are going to achieve that goal. What is actually going to make you happy during this process?
If your goal is going to be along the lines of a professional career, I would simply advise to start from the beginning and work patiently and steadily through a comprehensive method. No corner cutting.
An amateur is someone who loves the craft. For me this is the most pure of pursuits. It is not distracted by trying to earn money or appease others.
Goals I have encountered in the past from older students have included:
- Wanting to play a certain piece or pieces like Tears in Heaven or Blackbird
- To play in a band
- Study for the sake of studying and have projects to work on
If you want to perform a masterwork, you can. Know, however, that the path is long and if you want to make it to your destination you need to be mindful of developing frustrations and being impatient. Be focused on your own development and do not try and compare yourself to anyone around you. The speed at which you progress might be slow, so I believe at an older age you will need to exercise even more patience, and be more disciplined than others to achieve your goals.
Play in an ensemble
Playing with others is a wonderful experience and education in itself. If you want to play in an ensemble, you will need to develop good reading skills, and a technique that is sufficient to play fluently. Not a virtuosic technique, but one that allows you to play in time and respond to changes in tempo/dynamics etc. Once again, these skills will need to be developed steadily and comprehensively.
A great goal to aim for is to play in a jam session, or perhaps team up with some colleagues to form a band.
Study to study
This goal is a little different to the others. It is the only one where I would be inclined to give a green light on difficult songs. If you don’t want to spend time on studies and technique, and just want to approach the pieces that inspire you, you can. I strongly believe, however, that this is a short sighted approach and that it will lead to frustration very quickly, and abandonment soon after. It will be ten times slower than walking a steady path, and it can be tiresome for the teacher too. So it might make you happy, but not for long.
So, as you can see, the best approach to all of these goals will be to study from the basics and build your way up in a comprehensive fashion. The goals you set might influence the type of repertoire you choose, and the training you get (for instance sight reading will be important for ensemble playing), but in reality the most fulfilling, enjoyable and fun way to achieve these different goals is to work slowly and steadily.
Enjoying the process
I could get very philosophical here, but I think there is a great deal of fulfillment and enjoyment to be found in the learning process itself. Small increments and small achievements can feel as profound as any other. Make sure you celebrate, or at least acknowledge, when some progress has been made and know that you are in good company if you get mired in doubt and frustration. Not just good company, everyone’s company. We all go through peaks and valleys.
I sometimes like to work on pieces that I never intend to perform and that are well within my technical abilities. In them I find joy because I can focus on making a good sound, phrasing and expression. In a word, I am focusing on music and I can assure you that even in the simplest folk song, there is music to be enjoyed. Don’t always feel like you have to push and progress.
Speed of progress
At an older age progress could be slow, and for this reason, it is important to set realistic short term goals and celebrate successes. I would advise this for anyone at any age, but I think that older guitarists can be impatient as they will often have a great knowledge of the classical guitar repertoire. Being familiar with all of the great works for our instrument and knowing how the masters can perform them might give you doubt and frustration at how far away it seems. Once again, focus on your path, your playing, and your progress.
Almost every individual has physical challenges that need to be addressed when it comes to playing the guitar. It is very rare to come across someone with a good back, good nails, good memory, and good hands, regardless of age.
I have had my fair share of run-ins with physical therapists by the age of 32 and I am not looking forward to when the famous “Powis back” and gout come into play. Genetics, gotta love ‘em.
An older age brings the likelihood of more problems, however, by no means should that discourage you from learning the guitar. You, and I just need to get creative about adapting your technique to make it work for you.
Let’s take my student, Peter. He has some tendons that don’t work in his left hand (he is left handed so that is his “strumming” hand. Because of this, finger style guitar is not going to be an option, well, it could be but only with his thumb and index. Instead we are using a pick, and playing single melodies, along with strumming chords. Having a good plectrum method, can almost be as agile as the fingers when developed well.
So, if you have some fingers that are not going to work for you, maybe you can leave them out of your technique? In the very famous case of Django Rheinhardt, he had several joints of his fingers missing and he actually used the shorter fingers to create a barring technique that influenced his sound and overall style. He also did some AMAZING things with just the index and middle finger in his left hand.
The point is, your physical impediment does not have to be a roadblock to your learning, just be open minded about adapting your technique to make music.
Preventative measures for physical health
At an older age you need to be more mindful of how you treat your body, and playing a musical instrument is quite demanding on the body. It may seem passive, even sedentary, but you are holding tensions in unusual places (neck, back, shoulders) for large amounts of time.
You should incorporate stretching, breaks, and be mindful of your posture.
Also consider your set-up. Is your chair at the right height? Are you using a footstool or a more ergonomic solution like an ergo play or guitar support? Is the stand at a good height so your neck is not strained?
These considerations are important for all of us, but the negative effects will surface more quickly as an older student.
Mental focus and memorization
At an older age focus and memorization can prove a challenge. To this I say as the Delphic oracle did, “know thyself”. You need to consider your strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly.
If you have poor focus. Set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes and decide on a specific exercise or passage to work on. That timer can end up being a great focus motivator.
If your memory is not strong, develop your reading skills so that you perform from the score, not from memory. If your sight is not great, blow up the print to a large size.
You get the idea. Where there is a will…
Patience & Discipline
You can achieve your goals, but you will have to exercise more patience and discipline than others. Getting frustrated can be avoided by working in small increments and being mindful of how you practice and progress. Returning to the role of a student can be intimidating and feel unnerving but the joys that are awaiting you are many and varied.
Many of the points here pertain to everyone. Young, old, beginner and advanced. I have chosen them, however, because these points are the most important ones to consider as an older guitarist.
I hope that you found some ideas and inspiration here, and if you have your own knowledge or experiences to add please share them in the comments below.