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In February 2007, I decided to take guitar lessons—an old guy with small slightly arthritic hands—amazing or ridiculous, take your pick. It was a commitment to do something for its own sake—to finally, in retirement, fulfill a latent desire. It was also a commitment to keep my mind sharp and, selfishly, for my personal enjoyment. On September 13, 2010, I stopped my weekly lessons. This is a story of my journey:

It has been said that one proof of God’s existence is the presence of music in our lives. And as Aldous Huxley said, “After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” I’ll leave those two thoughts alone for further pondering, if the reader is so inclined, as it is not my intention to argue the validity of those ideas; but rather to merely offer my own experiences and thoughts on music. The reader can determine whether I have, by implication, given some minor support to those views.

Like many people raised in a typical midwestern bourgeois household in the 1940′s, my first experiences with music involved the radio, church, and singers in the family. At age five, I sang I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover in a St. Petersburg, FL bar, an act that resulted in basket of coins coming my way. I was a “professional” for one brief moment; it never happened again. Around the same time, I took piano lessons from my grandmother, my greatest achievement being able to play a simplified version of Debussy’s Clare de Lune. My lack of commitment to practice and greater interest in “being outside” resulted in slowly drifting away from the piano. But at about age eleven, I took up the trumpet. I gave it up when I went to high school. For a couple years, I sang in our Presbyterian church choir and when in college I enjoyed our annual fraternity glee club competition. I even participated in a quartet singing Four Freshman style music to supplement the occasional late night serenades under the windows of the Chi Omega sorority house. I graduated, and a long sabbatical followed.

Later, I bought a cheap baritone ukulele and sang songs like Puff the Magic Dragon to my kids while they bathed. Children are a great audience. Then about twenty years ago I bought an inexpensive Takamine guitar and learned some easy songs requiring three or four chords at the most. I dabbled with it off and on, but since I traveled over 50% of the time for my work, intermittent dabbling was all I asked of myself. I reasoned that it would be difficult hauling a guitar around Asia during a two week business trip full of meetings and dinners, for example; so I didn’t. There was precious little free time on my typical excursions anyway. Higher expectations would have resulted in frustrating disappointment. It would thus be safe to conclude that I was never a substantial producer of music.

As a fan, I like numerous forms of music but my first love was jazz, including all those old torch songs. And I have no idea why. When others were buying Elvis Presley or Fats Domino records, back in the 1950‘s, my very first record purchase was Jazz Goes to College by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, a wonderful album which I purchased as a CD shortly after it became available in that format. In those early years, I also enjoyed John Coltrane, MJQ, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Charlie Mingus, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Chet Baker, and of course Miles Davis whose album Kind of Blue is rated one of the top jazz albums of all time. I still listen to it. There are many more jazz greats, but enough name-dropping.

In the summer of 1961, between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I worked in New York City at a printing company on 12th Avenue and 26th Street. One Saturday, I rode a bus into Manhattan from New Jersey where I was living with my sister, and went to Basin Street East, an upper East side jazz lounge, long defunct, and saw The Dave Brubeck Quartet and Carman McRae. The cover charge was $2.50, a steep price for me at that time, but it allowed for two beers. I unassumingly stood alone at the corner of the bar for two complete sets nursing those two beers. It was the musical highlight of my life. In June 1970, on our honeymoon, my wife and I got to see MJQ in the Rainbow Room on the top of Rockefeller Center in NYC, a more upscale experience to say the least.

In the 60′s and 70′s, I also enjoyed the emerging styles of rock and roll— The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Blind Faith, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendricks, Crosby, Stills and Nash, etc. I saw Cream live in the late 60′s in Cincinnati, OH. Then there were the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles, CCR, Dire Straits, and more. But I bought very few records of the rock greats. Mostly I bought jazz. I should add that, being frugal, I possess no stunning record collection. I was very selective with my purchases.

I also enjoyed albums of the sultry female singers like Julie London…the romantic in me, I suppose. I liked June Christy (Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most is one of her classics), Chris Conner, Peggy Lee and many of the great Black female singers starting with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. And there was Morgana King, a classically trained singer that did a fantastic version of Corcovado as well as A Taste of Honey. I remember a Chicago jazz radio station in the sixties with a smooth slow talking late night Black disc jockey who would play Morganna King over and over. I dislike the modern screamers, e.g. Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. I know they can sing—I’m not knocking their talent—but, of the moderns, I prefer Diana Krall and Norah Jones. As I said, “sultry.” My wife and I have seen them both live; Krall in Irvine, CA many years ago and Jones in Sedona, AZ about five years ago, plus both again at Red Rocks in Morrison, CO in recent years.

Probably because of their jazzy roots and musical talent, I became a Steely Dan fan. I enjoyed their obscure lyrics. My children, now in their late thirties, know all their songs because they grew up with them. We all went to a reunion concert in Southern CA several years ago. Our kids also grew up listening to our Simon and Garfunkel records. We saw them at Dodger stadium during their reunion sometime in the mid 80′s. (Prior to their stage entrance—there was no opening act as I recall—they played Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” over the sound system, one of my favorite records.)

I like classical music, church choir music (as long as the hymns were written before 1930), old country and western (e.g. Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash), bluegrass, Bossa Nova, jazz samba, blues (When I worked, I traveled to New Orleans every year on business. I seldom missed seeing the blind Bryan Lee perform vocals and blues guitar at a Bourbon Street bar), Doo-wop, R & B; folk music (remember the Weavers?) And I’ve also developed some odd tastes. Three examples: Greek folk legend Nana Mouskouri, Willie and Lobo (violin and guitar Gypsy boogaloo music), and the Texas swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys!

Strangely, I became interested in Tom Waits in recent years. He looks and sounds like a derelict but his song lyrics are penetrating. Further, I found Adam Levy (Norah Jones’ extremely talented lead guitarist. He looks like an accountant), and the young haunting sound of M. Ward, aka Matt Ward—excellent stuff. My favorite guitar player currently is Monte Montgomery. About a year ago, I literally planned a trip to Portland, OR in order to see him play live.

British philosopher, Roger Scruton in his book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy (1996), has a beautiful essay on “music.” An excerpt: “Music is, or resides in, sound. But that is not a helpful thing to say, if we don’t know what sound is. It is tempting to divide the world into things (tables, chairs, animals, people,) and their properties. But sounds don’t fit into either category. Sounds are not properties of the objects that emit them: they do not inhere in objects, as colours, shapes, and sizes do. But nor are they things. Sounds, unlike things, occur; they do not fill physical space in the way that things do, nor do they have boundaries. A sound is produced in some way, and it ceases when the mode of production ceases.” He says sounds are events of a “peculiar kind” for they are “pure events,” unlike a car crash event, for example, where something physical changes. He speaks of tone, music as activity, harmony and melody, chords, and acknowledges the difficulty of describing what we hear in music; “however, there is no doubt that we hear it, that it is utterly immediate and intelligible to us, and of consuming interest.” Yes it certainly is. Large multiple industries exist because of that interest in music; and a good deal of pleasure is derived from it.

It must be a horrible thing to be deaf—to not hear the sounds of children talking and laughing, or the birds sing, or, luckily for me, the haunting squeals of the elk that migrate near our home. And it would be awful to not hear music…I won’t dwell on this, as there a lot of terrible things people live with; and music is one thing that helps us all cope. Martin Luther called it a “gift of God.” Even philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that “without music, life would be an error.”

As retirement unfolded, officially October 31, 2005, I considered a message from a Thomas Fitzgerald in an article titled, “The Loss of Work: Notes from Retirement,” in the March-April 1988 issue of the Harvard Business Review:

“Start with a simple assertion of yourself, however, symbolic. Take some time to pursue an adventure wholly your own. Get connected with other people whose exotic skills you admire, people with a different outlook. For me, today, living means doing something of no greater importance— and no less—than mending a broken chair, speaking up at a public meeting, or, indeed, writing this article. The point is to learn to do something for its own sake.” (Emphasis mine)

And so I took guitar lessons—the hard way, by learning music theory. When I started, I joked to friends that they should picture a nine year-old starting out on violin…not pretty. I took a half-hour lesson once a week. It was an appropriate amount of time because I wasn’t good enough to absorb any more by taking longer lessons. My instructor, Brian Lewis, was thorough, extremely patient, and consistently offered encouragement. Early on, he told me that someday I would plateau and then it would take some kind of break-through to advance.

As an indulgence and a motivator, I bought a used 2004 Martin HD-28 from a University of Colorado student (via Craigslist) a short time after I started the lessons. I’ve known people with Martin guitars, and known about them, for years. I wanted one but didn’t want to pay the retail price. It certainly sounds better than the Takamine. The guitar became a friend. I felt strange even saying such a thing, but no longer. Later, I bought an Ibanez hollow body electric jazz guitar to play those great standards from The Real Book.

It’s not practical, certainly at this stage of my life, to try to be good at every genre so I needed to settle on some simple styles, practice a lot, and develop a smoothness. Early on, I had to work on mechanics and some of that was difficult, particularly barre chords. I was slow, my fingers fumbled, and I sometimes forgot what I was doing. My creativity, my improvisation, continues to be weak. And I have no aspirations to be part of a group, although I know some other real players locally and with some assertiveness on my part, I might be able to jam with them. I simply wanted to be able to play and sing a few nice ballads—jazz and pop—and hymns, and some ironic songs, like Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe, ironic because I’ve been happily married for 40 years.

I loved my weekly lessons and I admire my teacher, Brian Lewis, immensely. He taught me a lot about the guitar, the life of guitar players—the good, the bad and the ugly—and he is a role model of disciplined practice. I simply felt the need to be on my own and work on all that I have learned so far. The lessons were perhaps becoming a crutch…a means to avoid actually playing in front of people. I’ll no doubt revisit Brian when I need some specific help or wish to explore a new genre.

On a recent weeklong trip to Lake Powell with twenty-one other people, including my wife, I took my old Takamine and played every day on the boat. People would walk by and occasionally offer positive comments. One evening, a small group of us gathered and we sang folk and pop songs. I brought the music and played. This went on for about an hour and a half. Nobody knew it, but it was the first time that I played in front of a group of people. It was easier than I thought…and more importantly, it was a lot of fun.

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One Response to “Adventures with the Guitar”

  1. Jaltcoh says:

    “After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

    “The thoughts that are expressed to me by music I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” – Mendelssohn

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