Life Lessons and Playing the Guitar

Three of the things that being a musician has taught me

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It’s been a hectic and stressful day, and finally, I am home. It is time to relax a little before going to bed. I put my feet up, have a glass of wine, and unwind. Without thinking, I pick up my guitar and strum and finger-pick a few notes and chords. No particular song or pre-decided chord progression, just a soothing distraction to take my mind away from the hustle and bustle of the day that is now drawing to a close. And it works. It is a kind of meditation or a mental salve which soothes away the trials of the day.

Thinking about my guitar in this way has made me realise how playing the instrument has been so much more than simply having a little fun making music but is an integral part of who I am. I have realised that the process of learning to play and honing those playing skills and personal musicianship is very much a metaphor for life. The relationship and journey with music have shown me lessons for the journey through life.

1 The impossible is only something you have not yet accomplished.

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The guitar is a versatile instrument and one on which the novice can achieve a few recognisable sounds quickly. However, the early euphoria gained when succeeding in changing from one simple chord to another and being able to strum along in time, is soon overshadowed when watching a true virtuoso playing.

Suddenly the bar chord or fingerpick pattern you have just been shown seems an impossible stretch, both literally and metaphorically. The fingers hurt, and will not quite reach. Whilst concentrating on making one hand hold down the correct notes, the other is forgotten until you find you have hit the wrong string. No matter how much you practice, it seems as if there is no improvement.

It is only in retrospect that the progress becomes apparent. So as I am sitting here playing what is quite a complicated series of chord changes, I am not really aware of how I am doing it. It’s just that I have been doing it so long that the fingers move instinctively and I can concentrate on expression. I don’t remember how I got here, playing as well as this, but I can remember the time when any subtle nuances on the guitar were seemingly unobtainable. Now they are not. The lesson is not to give up but to keep trying again and again. When an impossibility becomes a possibility, you will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

2 There is more than one way to skin a cat.

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When I first learned to play, it was Bert Wheedon’s “Play in a day” beginner’s guitar book that showed me those initial rudimentary steps. Nowadays, budding musicians are blessed with a plethora of online courses and YouTube videos.

Each teacher has a different way of explaining techniques and encouraging the student to practice. One may give quite contradictory advice compared to the teaching of another. I used to find one player would show me how to do something in one particular way whilst another would demonstrate the same result via a completely different route. Often, I would work out my own version, which whilst unorthodox, worked well for me.

The principles also work well with achieving goals in life. Many roads lead to the destination. Destinations, however, are not static and fixed but fluctuate according to circumstance. Sometimes the journey to get there is more important than actually arriving.

3 Don’t be too serious and have some fun.

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

Some musicians seem to play anything with no effort at all. They brim with natural talent and are blessed with technical skills way beyond my level of competence. Some of us may need to practice something over and over before it sounds anything remotely similar to how it should. There is, however, a danger in working too hard on a piece of music you want to be able to play. The process can become boring and repetitive, and the joy is all lost. I am not advocating a total laissez-faire attitude, as hard work brings its own reward, but keep it fun.

In the struggle to achieve a goal in both playing the guitar and in life, this is the advice most often ignored. Have some fun whilst doing it and enjoy the process, whether it is learning the guitar or any other activity in life.

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Dave Eldergill MA

Dave Eldergill MA

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Dave Eldergill travels the long distance paths of the UK. He writes about art, music, history and the encounters he finds interesting on his journeys.