Strumming My Way To Freedom: Why it is never too late to take center stage
When I was 10, I discovered my Dad’s guitar from college in the attic, dusty and out-of-tune. At some mythical time in his past, he had ambitiously bought the guitar to learn to play and perhaps be a rock star, but never got around to it, so it lay forgotten in our attic. I thought it was a beautiful instrument, and suddenly felt inspired to learn to play his guitar. I looked up guitar studios in the local Yellow Pages phone book and scheduled weekly lessons. This was going to be amazing! But when I revealed my exciting new plan to my Mom, she gently pulled me aside, reminding me that my Dad was currently unemployed, so covering costs for music lessons was out of the question. Reluctantly, I cancelled the lessons, thinking that perhaps learning music was for other people, not me.
Over the subsequent years, my three younger sisters became musically proficient in viola, violin, guitar, and ukulele, while I accepted my role in the audience. If anyone inquired what my musical talent was, I quickly pointed out that artists needed an audience, and that was my role. One sister ended up getting a college scholarship for playing viola, another played guitar songs all summer long while we hung out at our family cabin by the ocean, and never once did it occur to me, during all those hours of listening to my sisters play, to pick up an instrument and try it out, so effectively had I snuffed out my own desire to learn how to play.
In my early thirties, my Dad and Grandpa both died unexpectedly within two weeks of each other, and I ended a 4-year relationship. Devastated by the quick succession of losses, I started to question things I had taken for granted. At one point while I was grieving, I met a guy, Marc, who had taught himself to play guitar over the past year by practicing daily. This intrigued me, as I had long accepted my non-musician status. Yet Marc had somehow managed to learn a totally new instrument from scratch as a grown-up. This was interesting.
And then, the dare. My geeky friend Jon kept advising aspiring software developers in college to learn guitar rather than focus solely on coding skills. He asked me if that didn’t seem like a better use of their time, and I couldn’t help agreeing, while also acknowledging that neither of us actually played guitar ourselves. Our role was in the audience, or perhaps playing Guitar Hero and virtually living the dream. But then, somewhere inside me, a stubborn, contrary voice asked: “Why can’t I take my own lessons? I can pay for them myself — why not? Why can’t I be a guitar player too?!!”
So I nervously enrolled in the local guitar school with a private instructor, a grizzled old guy who specialized in Led Zeppelin and Neil Young songs that were foreign to me. I then spent several weeks of agonizing lessons learning how to hold the guitar, how the fingering worked, and how to make those dreadfully complex shapes with my fingers. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to keep working even though my hands ached. At times, I wondered if perhaps this whole thing had just been a mistake, that this might have been too ambitious of a project to take on. No one else I knew my age was taking guitar lessons, they were paying for their kids’ music lessons instead. And yet, as I slowly labored through Twinkle Little Star and the C-chord, there were moments when just the sound of a note on a string made me smile, it was so beautiful, and it kept me pushing forward. And then, after about 4 months of lessons and learning chords, something surprising happened. I came across an old song book on my shelf that my sisters and I had used for campfire singing at the summer cabin growing up, and I realized that there were chords included with all the lyrics. Maybe I could play them?
Hesitantly, I propped open the book and pulled out my guitar and started testing out the chords and the songs. It was sheer magic. In much the same way that I imagine Helen Keller must have felt when she finally realized there were words to describe all the objects around her and she couldn’t get enough of the new language, I suddenly began my frantic hunt for all my favorite songs on the internet — hymns, and 80s tunes, rock bands and bluegrass — and was ecstatic to find that I could read this totally indecipherable language of music, and translate it into something beautiful too.
That was two year ago. Guitar music has since become a way for me to meditate and connect with God, to celebrate my memories of my Dad, and to share laughter and joy with friends. I am certainly no guitar pro, but neither am I relegated to my self-imposed spot in the audience any longer. I am a musician too — one guitar chord at a time.
And if my Dad is listening from that heavenly audience, I like to think that my music makes him smile.