At neighborhood events, I often see my former guitar teacher, my neighbor who has a guitar studio within walking distance where I once took lessons. And then, inevitably, a wave of regret and guilt washes over me.
I feel compelled to tell him every time that though it seems like I quit, that I really haven’t. No, not me, no quit in this mule. I haven’t given up, at least not in my mind. I’m just on a long, long hiatus. He humors me and listens, probably thinking, “Yeah, sure, I’ve heard that line before.” But I’m serious.
I’d love to be able to play guitar well. I surf YouTube videos of guitar performances and marvel at the seeming ease with which the musicians strum and pick, no need for sheet music. What a thrill it would be, I imagine, to play some kick-ass rock song before an audience with both hands working instinctively to reach the right notes and chords.
But that’s skipping right over those pesky factors of study, practice and work, the disciplines required to develop a skill, no matter if one is highly or modestly talented. Author Malcolm Gladwell promotes the “10,000 Hour Rule,” stating that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required even by the most talented to become truly masterful at a craft or skill. At the one studio recital sponsored by my teacher in which I performed, I verged on Choke City, getting through my piece shakily.
My original inspiration to pick up the guitar goes back 25 years. I had a friend who took guitar lessons. It struck me that I was missing out by not being able to play a musical instrument. I regretted quitting the clarinet as a kid after playing through 6th grade. Music is one of those things that’s easier to learn as a child than as an adult. I remember playing in the Holiday concert and feeling like I had the songs mastered.
I quit playing in school mostly because I didn’t like having to carry the instrument back and forth. Lame excuse, but my parents didn’t force me to continue.
A decade after my friend introduced me to the idea, a colleague’s husband donated guitar lessons for a fundraiser auction. I bid and won the lessons, and stayed on as a student for several months. But then the usual excuses intervened — work, time constraints, two young kids, a 30-minute trip to the teacher’s house — and I stopped. Not quit. Stopped temporarily. Someday, I vowed, I would pick it up again.
Flash forward eight more years. When we discovered we lived in a guitar teacher’s neighborhood, we signed up my 12-year-old son Daniel for lessons. Aha, a chance for redemption! Soon after, I signed up as well.
It was clear Daniel had more aptitude than me, and/or his youth enabled him to develop skills faster. He performed at several recitals, and skillfully played more complex pieces than I could master. As it turns out, college freshman Daniel is strong in math and computer science, disciplines that emphasize patterns, sequences and intervals, and have correlations to music. But he lacked passion and commitment. He didn’t want to practice, and though I encouraged him, I didn’t force him.
About 18 months into his lessons, he announced he wanted to quit. As much as I tried to convince him about his high talent level, and the opportunities he could have if he continued progressing, it didn’t change his mind. It was like having a conversation with the young me, determined to quit the clarinet because I couldn’t envision the benefits. I hope Daniel returns to guitar some day on his own desire. The talent is there.
I continued with the semi-monthly lessons until the night nearly five years ago when I broke my leg in a soccer game. I had become proficient enough to play a book of 20 Easy Pop Melodies by bands such as the Beatles, Rod Stewart and Kansas, just for fun. But I discontinued lessons during my recovery, and lost motivation to practice as a situational depression set in. I never got back to it. I had just started my 5 1/2 year run in a graduate program, and, you know…the usual excuses.
I still have my guitar — actually, Daniel’s guitar — and the lesson and song books. I took the guitar to the beach last summer for my seasonal gig teaching tennis, vowing to pick it up again. But the guitar stayed in its case.
Practicing an instrument is something like exercising. The hardest thing about running for me is stepping out the door. With guitar, it’s putting the music sheet on the stand and taking the guitar out of the case.
April 26, 2017 marks the five-year anniversary of my broken leg and surgery, which signaled the end of my guitar progress. It would be a good day to take the guitar out of its case again. I haven’t quit. I’m just waiting for the right time — any time except the 12th of Never.