Archives for category: Guitar

This is a big topic. It might be the biggest topic. In the last post, I suggested it was possible, doable, and good to bring your whole self, with all your loves and passions, to work (as the old prayer book said, “It is meet and right so to do.” I don’t know why my Episcopalian background is surfacing. Maybe it was writing about Saint Paul’s)

I believe that’s true and I’ve found my best work at work from having been fully there with the kids, talking about something true in my life. Possibly painful. Utterly true.  That’s when they get quiet and stop fidgeting and absorb what you say.  You know you’re speaking to their unique, individual hearts.

But if the kids look to you like an undifferentiated mass, and you believe that they will snigger and deride your true self, what to do then?

Hmmm. That, my dears, is a good question. Do you hide yourself or withhold yourself? Sometimes you might. Sometimes you might have to. But that’s the path to survival, not flourishing.

Survival is good! Survival is necessary. In your first few years, survival is your main goal. But there will come a time when you will want to do more than survive.

I sometimes play my guitar a little, at the end of class. I am not a talented nor accomplished guitarist and that’s not modesty but the pure unadorned truth. But I’m lucky enough to have sufficient understanding with my students that they know I know I’m not good and that’s not why I’m doing it. I want to show them what learning looks like. I want to offer them everything I have, even if it isn’t very much, at least not yet. They know they are to ignore my strumming or picking and pretend they can’t hear, because if I think they’re listening I’ll do even worse, but that this is my way of leveling the playing field, being a beginner at something some of them are pretty good at, right out there in front of them.



The encouragement of someone you love helps a lot.

I didn’t have the courage to do this in my early years, but I do now. One of you who (I hope) follows this blog asked me one day after observing my class, “What do you do if they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer?” Oh, T. I love you so! I replied, “You say, ‘Gee, I don’t know! Let’s go find out!’”

Maybe teaching courage is more important than anything else we do, and maybe teaching courage is best done by having it palpably right there in front of them by being goofy or unskilled or ignorant and owning that and going to work on it then and there.


Teachers get a medal for courage, no matter how scared they feel inside.



Some time ago, but well after age 50, I determined to learn to play the guitar. I can’t say why I did, but all of a sudden it mattered to me. Since I last learned anything really hard, I’ve developed quite a lot of discipline and stamina—surprise!—and I worked hard at it. Then I lost my teacher and found a new teacher and to my sorrow, discovered that I’d learned some bad habits that were going to hold me back if I didn’t reform my ways. This felt like going back to the beginning. Discouraging. Very.

Yesterday at my lesson, my new teacher, Dan C., cautioned me against overthinking and trying to get too far too fast. He said if he were going to try to learn gymnastics, he wouldn’t start on the parallel bars. First he’d have to lose some weight and get stronger—before he even approached any of the equipment. He said just as you don’t start teaching babies the Latin name for fruit trees before they’ve learnt “apple,” so you can’t get ahead of yourself in any other enterprise.

But I don’t want to be where I am! I want to be farther ahead. Now.

And that driving, striving attitude will defeat the most disciplined learner. You can’t be where you aren’t. You have to be where you are, fully, deeply, without judgment. You have to live rich and open in the place you are. Only in that way can you move forward.

It’s a little like walking along with a stack of books piled high on your arms.



This guy is content to be where he is.

As you learn, the books go inside you and your arms are freed up for more. This takes time. The only way is bit by bit. You can’t just pile more books on top and run ahead, grabbing more books. It just won’t work.


This guy is trying to get where he isn’t.



This guy is going to have to put some of those books down.

To learn stuff best, whether it’s guitar or how to teach or what were the causes of the Civil War, you have to be where you are with it, possessed of curiosity, tolerance, patience, courage, and faith. Trying to motivate yourself (or others) with chiding and yelling merely communicates that where you are is no good. How can it be no good? It’s where you are! You have to start there.


It helps a lot if love and respect flow freely between teacher and student.

It turns out that the fastest way to go anywhere is to be fully where you are. You have to pay attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

So mindfulness and learning, it turns out, go hand in hand.



Do older learners really take more time and have more trouble or do they just think they do? As we get older, do our brains really become less flexible– or are we more sensitive to their balkiness and believe it’s because they’ve aged?

I’m questioning my assumption that I’m slower to pick up what I need to know on the guitar than I was. My son called me on this and I brushed it aside as a no-brainer, but then I got to thinking. My mother told me of a friend of hers who is past ninety, a former college professor, whose eyesight has declined so that he needs huge sized print. I suggested an e-reader and she said Oh he would never be up for learning how to use one. So he’d rather not read?! They aren’t hard to use, after all. She agreed, having one herself. We concluded that there’s an emotional laziness that sets in, a willingness to be daunted that increases with age.

Some of it has to do with how much we already know how to do. Little children know so little—they can’t afford to get lazy about the things they don’t know. Like language acquisition. They just plunge in and never seem thrown by all the words around them they can’t possibly understand. But once you get older, you understand most of what you need to get along and you get out of the habit of productive confusion, which is disorienting and feels like a loss of control and competence. Scary.

Perhaps there is a cognitive decline, but I’m persuaded it’s insignificant compared to the gumption decline. There’s a lack of faith in it, whether cause (“I don’t believe I can learn this so I’m disinclined to try”) or effect (“I find this so hard and confusing that I conclude I can’t learn as well as I used to”) I don’t know.

What does seem clear is that faith and courage are the two intertwined essentials for learning and anything a teacher can do to inspire them will help the learner to face the difficulties ahead, whatever the age of the learner. At my last lesson, my guitar teacher told me to learn a new song one measure at a time. He said that way you can solve the problems, each one as it arises—and there are lots of problems.

There will always be lots of problems in learning something new, whether the learner is young or old. Perhaps older learners just mind that more. Perhaps younger ones mind it, too, but many of them quit or evade our teaching so adeptly that we never get a chance to work with their resistance.

Perhaps working with resistance is the whole ball of wax.

Another thing I learned again yesterday is that linear learning is a myth. Chris told me that many of his students have asked for a way to learn the theory of music step by step—a linear unfolding of the concepts that underlie music. But there can never be a step by step route to this understanding, for it’s an interlocking system. We don’t learn step by step: we learn by crystallization or puzzling. Something falls into place and makes sense to us, and then that fact or concept will attract other related ideas, like when we were kids and made rock candy and the sugar crystals formed on the string.

You have to be patient.

You have to be patient.

Or it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, where you get the edges roughed in and something in the middle starts to grow. How foolish to try to do the puzzle by starting at the bottom row and work left to right, one piece at a time!

Haphazard is the only way.

Haphazard is the only way.


Another bit from Alan Watts (from The Book:  On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are):


Apart from such human artifacts as buildings and roads (especially Roman and American roads), our universe, including ourselves, is thoroughly wiggly. Its features are wiggly in both shape and conduct. Clouds, mountains, plants, rivers, animals, coastlines—all wiggle. They wiggle so much and in so many different ways that no one can really make out where one wiggle begins and another ends, whether in space or in tie. Some French classicist of the eighteenth century complained that the Creator had seriously fallen down on the job by failing to arrange the stars with any elegant symmetry, for they seem to be sprayed through space like the droplets from a breaking wave. Is all this one thing wiggling in many different ways, or many things wiggling on their own? Are there “things” that wiggle or are the wigglings the same as the things? It depends upon how you figure it.

Millenia ago, some genius discovered that such wiggles as fish and rabbits could be caught in nets. Much later, some other genius thought of catching the world in a net. By itself, the world goes something like this:





But now look at this wiggle through a net:


The wiggle is in jail.

The wiggle is in jail.

The net has “cut” the big wiggle into little wiggles, all contained in squares of the same size. Order has been imposed on chaos. We can now say that the wiggle goes so many squares to the left, so many to the right, so many up, or so many down, and at last we have its number. Centuries later, the same image of the net was imposed upon the world as the lines of both celestial and terrestrial latitude and longitude, as graph paper for potting mathematical wiggles, as pigeonholes for filing, and as the ground plan for cities. The net has thus become one of the presiding images of human thought. But it is always an image, and just as no one can use the equator to tie up a package, the real wiggly world slips like water through our imaginary nets. However much we divide, count, sort, or classify this wiggling into particular things and events, this is no more than a way of thinking about the world: it is never actually divided.


This reminds me of “Whoso List to Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt, said to be composed for Anne Boleyn:


Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

But as for me, hélas, I may no more.

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,

I am of them that farthest cometh behind.

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,

Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I may spend his time in vain.

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written, her fair neck round about:

Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.


A deer, a woman, the wind, true understanding: hard to capture with any net, particularly imaginary ones.

Yet this is precisely what standardized tests aim to do and to enforce. They are imaginary nets, grids and graphs for the wide world.

Anyway, I’m going to go on jigsaw puzzling and growing rock candy comprehension. We beginners always wish it wouldn’t take so long, but that’s the way it works.


Yesterday I had the privilege of being the student of a gifted teacher: fascinating on so many levels.

This was my son’s first guitar teacher and he was in town for a short time on his way to a WWOOF placement in Maryland (my kind of guy. He’s also an “avid walker.” I wonder how he feels about otters). He met me to give me a single lesson and I had emailed to say that I’d like to try to untangle my confusion about chords and intervals and to try to improve the sound of the songs I can play.

He was highly encouraging: I came away replete with courage. I liked hearing him tell me I’d done a good job and use my name. It turns out that even we older learners are hungry for faith that we can accomplish and achieve. He exuded confidence, both in his ability/mastery and in his interest in helping people to learn. From an email in answer to a question:

I am indeed, very patient.  I feel like it is the most important skill to learn as a guitar teacher, as well as a good memory back to the days when my struggles on the instrument were the same as my student’s.  I think most guitarists encounter frustration in the same areas of physically and mentally adjusting to the instrument from beginner to advanced.

He had a lot for me to work on. I’d told him what I wanted to learn and he had firm ideas of how to work on learning it. He asked me to figure stuff out and when I couldn’t, he was there with both the answer and some supportive remarks about my thinking process. He gave me a scale to practice that will teach me a number of things, as well as serving to strengthen my fingers. My initial awkwardness at the scale didn’t trouble him. I didn’t feel judged: just part of the process.

The experience was challenging and rewarding. I wish I could take more lessons from him: it felt like being part of something bigger, as if I were a dues-paid-up member of a musical community. He told me two small things that were especially helpful:

  1. when you hear buzzing, that means you need a hair more pressure on a string. Use that buzzing not to be annoyed but to teach you the precise amount of pressure you need to apply. This transforms my relationship to buzzing. Now it’s my teacher.
  2. I’m past the roughest part of my barre chords. The hardest part is making them sound on each string. Transitioning smoothly to them takes time, sometimes lots of it, but I’m already past the part where they don’t sound like anything. So yay for that. There are stages and I’m past one of them.

In addition to learning some good stuff about guitar, I hatched a couple of questions.

I wonder whether yelling at people (using the term loosely, as the kids do) is ever useful? What I got from Chris was kindness, information, encouragement, ways to approach my practice—but no dissatisfaction, no message that I’d fallen short. I don’t need to be told that anyway: I’m acutely aware of how I fall short and I’m highly motivated to do better. Maybe the stern and cranky approach is necessary for those who are dogging it? I know I reproach my students at intervals, when I feel they are blowing off what I am telling them.

Another great teacher of my experience, Madame Menendez who taught me French in high school, once had a sit-down with us about our using the absolutely-never pile-up “de le.” In French, that just doesn’t happen. It switches to “du.” Somehow even as seniors we were sometimes saying de le, which would be like saying “I are.” It just doesn’t happen. For that moment she stopped being encouraging and enthusiastic and registered her frustration. Why, WHY can’t we remember that? And we said, well, it doesn’t come naturally. And she replied, okay fine, but then correct yourselves after the fact at the very least. I took that message and I honored her frustrations. It was a legitimate question.

But it was really nice to be with Chris yesterday and not fear getting yelled at, not even once. Is yelling generally productive? Or is it risky?  Is browbeating someone into learning a way to go?  Or does it just antagonize the learner?  Are you asking this question, “No Excuses” charter schools?

And it also raises this question: wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could be a student in my own class? Boy would I learn a lot about how to teach and (I suspect) how not to be annoying.  I wish Chris could be his own student for a lesson. He would feel very proud.

A sincere thank you to Chris for all the teaching about guitar and about teaching. I hope fate has arranged for us to reconvene for more learning and sharing in the future.


WWOOF photo of the month, from their website.  Take by Rodrigo Rocha.

WWOOF photo of the month, from their website. Taken by Rodrigo Rocha.


Banging along to the Lumineers.

Two aspiring musicians plus the Lumineers on stereo.

To learn something, you shuttle between the appalling knowledge of all you don’t know and a nice, plucky, can-do sense of moving steadily along.

Teaching feels like this:  a finely honed sense of whether to help the kids understand (kindly, of course) how completely ignorant and clueless they are?  Or whether to encourage and help them feel powerful and able?  Too much confidence means they think they have nothing to learn.  Too much humility and they’re overwhelmed, crushed to the ground, by all there is to know.

Many thanks to those like my son who step in at intervals to point out the obvious:  no matter how much there is to know, if you work hard at it for twenty years, consistently and with proper effort, you’re apt to wind up pretty good at it.  Even if it’s as hard as guitar.

Christopher had a great idea:  buy an inexpensive guitar and bring it along.  When do you have more time to play than when you’re on holiday?  So he did, and taught me some wonderful things, encouraged me, and then left the guitar behind when he returned home so I could continue to practice.

I persevere, although the gap between how I want to sound/what I want to play and what I do sound like/can play is so great that I’m still plodding on faith.

Practicing a new skill, I am finding, takes as much faith as it takes hard work.  This is one of the big differences between starting young and starting old.  When I was young, I had so much faith I didn’t even know I had any.  It was my default setting:  of course I’m going to learn to do this awesomely!  I always DO.  Many years and some hard knocks later, it’s less of a given.

Kindness and encouragement by the pool.

Kindness and encouragement by the pool.

But when you really do want something, you just keep going.   Ask John Wesley Powell.

Not the face of a quitter.

Not the face of a quitter.

He said it beautifully, at a moment of profound discouragement:

I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canon which I cannot explore, having already almost accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.

And let’s be honest:  the difference between where I am now and where I was when I was young is more about the grit.  Yes, I had a lot of confidence then that I’ve learned to think better of, but when I tried to play guitar when I was in high school I quit within the first couple of weeks because it hurt too much.  So what I lack in hubris, I’ve gained in tenacity.



Tuesdays are guitar lessons.  I appreciate my teacher.  (I appreciate most teachers.  It might take one to appreciate one).  Today I was longing, for the dozenth time, to start learning how Shawn Colvin plays “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,”  which for me was one of those moments, driving along in the car, listening to the radio, that I almost had to pull the car over just to hear it with all my attention.  Richard gently says I’m not ready yet, but I’m getting there.

He encouraged me to listen to how Bob Dylan played it.  Then we had a little lesson on various finger-picking styles, from the Delta to the Piedmont to Country.  They all sound beautiful to me– I want to learn them all this minute.  Richard encouraged me to read Dylan’s autobio.  He said Dylan describes the various artists he listened to, and you can hear it in his songs.

Even Bob Dylan had to start out and learn how.  No matter where you might wind up,  and we all wind up in different places, you still have start at the very beginning.

Sometimes the most obvious things help.

Mister Rogers said, "If you want to learn a musical instrument, first you have to try, and then you have to keep on trying."

Mister Rogers said, “If you want to learn a musical instrument, first you have to try, and then you have to keep on trying.”

Last summer I played guitar with my son and our friends.  I only knew 1 chord.

Last summer I played guitar with my son and our friends. I only knew 1 chord.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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