In my previous post I talked about the challenges of teaching younger students and things they have to overcome to succeed on the guitar. Today I want to address some of the issues older players deal with. I count myself in that group so this is not just observational!
As with most things physical in nature, playing the guitar doesn’t get any easier as we get older. It is very frustrating to have the will and understanding of what we want to do musically but our fingers just won’t respond to commands to the extent needed. I see this on almost a daily basis with some of my students and although sometimes we can laugh it off, occasionally a student will get very frustrated and even angry or depressed. I do my very best to offer both encouragement and every tip I can think of to mitigate those feelings.
Specifically, the biggest frustration seems to be with lack of clarity of sound. With men that often comes from having wide fingers that almost inevitably touch adjacent strings on their fretting hand and dampen the sound. Anyone who’s lucky enough to have fairly narrow fingers (as I do) has a better time of it but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for a guy with “fat fingers.” Correct technique is absolutely vital, i.e., dropping the wrist, keeping the tip of the thumb parallel to the second (middle) finger, arching the fingers and using the tips only, unless you’re playing a barre chord with your first finger of course. Many men want to use their hand strength in a way that is more appropriate for holding a baseball bat or an axe. But it all comes from the downward pressure of the fingertips, not the upward pressure of the inside of the hand. That is a tough one for men understand and conquer, especially older men in my experience.
Women often display anther issue, which is overall strength, or a lack of. Without getting into a whole cultural argument of why this is, most women do not have the experience of pressing down as hard as they can with their finger tips as a man might whose every day job requires similar action. So while often times women have a better immediate understanding of the importance of arching the fingers and using tips only – they just can’t do it. In the beginning, anyway. It may take longer for a woman to build up this unfamiliar strength than a man and it doesn’t get any easier as our years advance. Plus – for all of us – it hurts!
Flexibility has to enter the equation. This is why many older women go to yoga classes (are you listening, guys?!) but unfortunately there aren’t too many yoga classes that focus on our hands, or none that I know about anyway. A few of my students have benefited from exercising their hands with a small, soft ball that can be squeezed and released. Some guitar shops and online retailers sell ones that are specifically designed for guitarists. I can’t testify to their effectiveness but I often recommend the purchase of a “Pinky” ball, which is a small, semi-soft foam ball used in kid’s sports. A tennis ball is sometimes mentioned but those things don’t have the proper amount of “give” and are probably not as effective as the others I mentioned. The beauty of this type of hand exercise for both strength and flexibility is that is inexpensive and can be done almost subconsciously as we watch TV. Try it!
But there is no denying some of the realities of aging. One of them may be arthritis. That is what finally ended my dad’s drumming (although he was able to play the guitar almost until the end of his life) and I am just beginning to notice hints of it in a couple of my fingers. This is scary, for sure. Fortunately, as I understand it, there are ever more effective medications available for arthritis. That is encouraging. For my part, a couple ibuprofens usually do the trick. Time will tell if that is the case in the years to come.
Another that I deal with and many others do too is Renaud’s Disease. The cause is definitive: exposure to cold. Renaud’s is not just simple numbness that disappears in a couple minutes. One or usually more of my fingers get totally numb for up to a half hour if I’m careless about exposure to air or water that is less than 40F degrees. I’ve tried all the well known remedies including shaking out my hands, doing a “windmill” rotation with my arms to increase the blood flow etc. but the only things that work for sure are making certain I avoid exposure and I’ve also begun using the small throw-away chemical hand warmers on a daily basis, keeping them in my pockets for immediate use as needed. But wait – there is another solution. Move to Florida. Or the Caribbean. OK, I’m working on that!
As I said in the beginning, these are things I see on almost daily basis. But I firmly believe that the march of time does NOT have to result in putting the guitar away. Look at jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli – he just turned 90 years of age and can still swing with the best of ‘em. I guess there needs to be some level of acceptance of what we are and where we can go. For my part, and this is no brag, it’s a fact, I’m playing better now than I ever have. Or maybe it’s just more satisfying.
Peace & good music,