“You know, I don’t really have anything wrong with me but it’s the damn little things that get to me, those little aches and pains that are there all the time. If I wake up in the morning and nothing is hurting, I count that as a win!”
I didn’t really understand that but I do now. And I have to factor that in with many of my guitar students, the majority of whom are in their mid 40s and older. A few, much older. The pain, lack of flexibility and reality of their physical limitations is often very frustrating to them and I have to be very careful with my lesson planning and what I present to them. Everyone wants to see progress but the harsh realities of aging cannot be ignored.
One of the first things I try to get across is that it’s just not realistic to compare their playing to mine. I certainly do NOT claim to be a hot shot guitar player – far from it. But there is no substitute for five decades of experience (even though I really didn’t progress much in a couple of those decades, for various reasons….) and I am blessed with fairly narrow fingers, which many men are not. Combine wide fingers with reduced flexibility and perhaps a guitar with a narrow neck and it is very, very tough to get the clear, clean sound that is required to play even the simplest song well. Women who are older often have a different challenge. They too may deal with flexibility issues but they sometimes have fairly weak fingers compared to men so it takes longer to build up the muscles to the point they can achieve accuracy and clarity of tone. All of these things can be very frustrating and disappointing and it’s my job to be constantly aware of that, and plan lessons accordingly.
A somewhat ironic part of the equation is that these problems seldom have much to do with practice time. I never have problems with adults in terms of putting in a sufficient amount of practice, compared to youngsters. One of my current students was expressing his frustration with his results recently and when I asked him how much he was practicing he explained that he routinely spends a half hour or more on exercises I’ve given him, then goes back and works on older songs for at least an hour, then spends an equal amount of time on his current lesson. Wow. What I suggested was a plan to better budget his practice time and if he follows it I’m pretty sure he’ll see better results. I admire his dedication and frankly wish mine were as good!
Finally, what I always try to do with older students is remind them to look at the big picture. It’s almost a dead certainty that you are playing better (or in a more advanced fashion) than you were a few months ago – take comfort in that. Also know that all of us fall into the trap of only hearing what we’re doing wrong, rather than what we’re doing right! Do you sometimes feel you play better in the first few minutes of a practice session than you do after an hour of concentrated work? Yeah, me too. What that means is that we’re just hearing the bad stuff and taking for granted or ignoring the good. This is a trap.
My late father who was a superb musician (drummer) took up the guitar later in his life and although he was never prone to colorful language I remember him calling me one day and saying, “Gene, I had no idea how many ways there were to f**k up playing the guitar!” I laughed but tried to assure him he was doing just fine, and as I mentioned above, to look at the big picture. I think he took that to heart, and did, but that didn’t eliminate moments of frustration.
The key is to temper your expectations, take pride in what you CAN play, and deal with the minutia as best you can with the confidence that it may never be perfect but it will most assuredly be better, sooner or later.
Peace & good music,