Am I too old to start now?

I often meet people who are approaching retirement or have been retired some time who say they’d love to learn to play the guitar.

“So what’s stopping you?” Iask.

“Oh I’m probably too old now” they often reply.

Now for me this suggests a couple of things are going on in their heads. Either they like the idea of playing the guitar -but it is just that -an idea they like – or they’ve really have bought into the idea that after a certain age you can forget learning a new skill, …and that is pure tosh.

Some of the best guitar students are older beginners. Provided they have the desire to learn and are prepared to put in the practice time and work through the frustrations of not being able to do something immediately, most people surprise themselves at the progress which can be made.

Indeed people who are retired usually make excellent students because they tend to have more control on their time than someone in a job or in education. I suggest it is more a question of deciding what you want to achieve as a guitarist, which is the question I tend to ask people contemplating lessons. I can then advise on the best route for them to take.

The first step, however, is to make the decision to learn. You’ll make that decision whatever your age if you really want to.

And to echo the words of Henry Ford “either you think you can or think you can’t;  either way you will be right”.

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Practice Time

It’s a funny thing but I can usually tell within a few weeks if someone is going to really progress with their playing. It hinges on what’s happening between lessons. Now to be fair to a lot of folks, the problem is not whether they want to play a guitar (rather than just own one) it’s how practice fits into everything else that’s going on around them. The ones that really want to progress schedule some practice time on most days. I’m not saying practice needs to be your main priority every day, but you do need to make a regular “appointment” with yourself and try to stick to that.

Some people have a tendency to have one big practice session, often on the day before their lesson is due. However, in my experience both as a teacher and student of the guitar, the principle of “little and often” works best.

So to practice well, look at it in the context of your life -what other commitments do you have? Then make a realistic assessment of what time you can devote to your playing (preferably each day and at a time you feel alert)-and above all make sure you don’t try to crush your practice all into one session. Five minutes alert practice everyday will probably yield better results than a long evening’s slog, after a hard day’s work once a week.

Make sure you concentrate on what you are doing when you practice. If your mind wanders it can cause problems because you continue to learn. Unfortunately, you may learn incorrectly because the “muscle memory” develops unhelpful playing habits which may need to be rectified at a later date. The result is slower progress and frustration.

So to conclude:

  1. Be realistic about the time you can give to practice.
  2. Schedule a little time on a frequent basis.
  3.  When you practice be alert and aware of what you are doing.
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How long does it take to learn to play guitar?

I got a phone call today asking this question.

My response is that it depends what you want to do. It can take a few minutes to learn a couple of simple chords and strum a simple accompaniment to a tune or a song, and if that’s all you want -then it’s job done.

However, the other side of the coin is that you never “learn” how to play the guitar, because the more you study and practice the instrument, the more you realise there is always something new to explore.

For those of us who seriously have the guitar bug, learning becomes a life sentence, but if you love the instrument, in its many forms, it is a light yoke to bear and every new challenge is something to relish.


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Should I take music exams?

People often ask me whether they need to take music exams. There is no clear cut answer, it depends why you want to learn the guitar, what level you hope to reach, and the type of  learning structure you need so you can make satisfying progress.

I always  loved  music, but for many years my guitar  gathered dust in the corner of a room. I started playing again when I  recognised  I needed a diversion from my work.

I started playing guitar again , after a 20 year gap, to pursue a pastime which engaged my attention at different levels, and at first I thought it was the perfect stress buster. However, I soon realised that my “butterfly” nature meant I would do something for a while and then move off when something else caught my musical interest. This was fine until I became frustrated by my slow progress.

I get satisfaction from learning things which give me a clear sense of achievement. I needed a structure which gave me a sense of progress. So, somewhat reluctantly, I found a teacher who worked to grade exam standards…and …(this hurts me to say)…I made more progrss as a guitarist and musician in 6 months than I had in all the years I been playing and trying to improve without a proper structure. The exams forced me to work on my technique and knowledge, and they helped me to manage  my “butterfly” nature to stay on track.

However, the real pay off was not the exam passes. It was the fact I was able to play a much wider range of music, and the scope of music I could handle grew as I progressed through the grade system.

So for me it was a good decision to take exams, but it might not be the best approach for everyone. Therefore, some of my own students are following the examination path, others just don’t want that kind of pressure. However, in all cases I have people following a structure which helps them to improve steadily to handle more complex music and keep developing their technique.

The learning structure needs to be right for the individual student, exams may be part of the overall process, but they are just one of a series of benchmarks people can use to keep improving and manage the frustration that can arise when progress feels slow.

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