Monday, February 21, 2011

Waking Up the Guitarist, part one: Stopping and Starting

I learned to play the guitar when I was twelve. Through junior high, high school, and college, I lived with the guitar on my lap. It was an intrinsic part of my identity.

After I graduated from college, I stopped playing.

I didn’t play again for twenty years.

And then, five years ago, I quite suddenly started again. Why did I stop? Why did I start again? I’ve been trying to figure this out. I think there are a couple of reasons.


When I was in school, my playing had a social context. Friends regularly gathered to sing with me, poring through my hand-printed songbooks to find the songs they wanted. Playing and singing were gifts I was able to give to my friends.

I made friends through the guitar. My three short romances happened through the guitar.

After college, the social patterns of my life changed. Music remained important, and I always sang one way or another: Balkan songs, Christmas carols, political rally songs, rounds, lesbian chorus. But I didn’t have a group of friends who wanted to gather around and sing. My guitar wasn’t needed.

So what happened the year I started again?

At the yearly retreats on the coast where the members of my chorus get together to choose our music, we would sing together in the evenings. I hadn’t experienced that kind of informal singing in a long time. And our director, with her guitar and ability to pull out chords for any song we started, made it work.

Subconsciously, I started to feel as if my guitar playing could be useful again. I got out the old yard-sale guitar that had been under the bed for twenty years, and started to mess around on it a little bit. It was hard-I felt as if I'd lost all that I'd known.

Then I made a new friend who played the guitar. A wonderful friend with whom I felt an immediate deep connection. She came over to practice the song she was accompanying for our chorus. She played so marvelously. I told her I was just picking mine up again, and she said, “Well go get it!” And we played. Together. And her joyful encouragement made me feel as if I could actually play again.

I had played for group singalongs. But I hadn’t played with other guitarists since those junior-high campouts. And blending the sounds of two guitars and two voices, working on a song until it sounded good? That was a whole new level of connection.


My guitar stayed out in the living room.

A soundtrack

In high school and college, my friends and I had a whole repertoire of songs in common. We listened to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, John Denver, America… Their songs were the soundtrack to our lives.

Every romantic feeling, every intense adolescent emotion, every important event had a song to go with it. Chelsea Morning by Joni Mitchell for joy on a sunny day. Down by the River by Neil Young for rage. All I Want by Joni Mitchell for the boy I thought I wanted, but couldn’t have.

Note that many of these songs I had never heard sung by the original artists. I learned them from friends. I had fun today finding Youtube links for them!

I remember a college friend, as she processed her grief about her boyfriend’s death, coming to my room every day and asking me to play Sad Lisa by Cat Stevens. She needed that song.

I remember a high school dorm room full of fifteen quiet contemplative friends, anticipating graduation and getting ready to say goodbye. They asked me to play Changes by Phil Ochs. They needed that song.

But after college, the songs that had wallpapered my adolescence didn’t seem so relevant. I loved many songs, but maybe I needed some distance from the adolescent emotion. Or maybe I didn’t need a soundtrack any more. And I didn’t have people who needed me to provide it for them.

So what happened five years ago?

I turned forty-seven.

With my chorus friends at the coast, I found myself digging up those old Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens songs. This many years away, it was wonderful to find those words and tunes coming so smoothly from inside me.

New songs

Back in my early guitar-playing years, lyrics and chords were precious and rare. We borrowed each other’s handwritten songbooks, passing on chords to Beatles songs like coded messages. Without much money, published songbooks, recordings, and concerts were mostly out of reach. I learned songs from other singers.

I remember finding out that a guitar-playing acquaintance at college was about to leave for a year off, running to his dorm room with my guitar and saying, “You have to teach me Angel from Montgomery! Right now, before you leave!” He graciously put down his bags (literally) and showed me the chords.

And some songs I yearned for remained out of my reach.

When I started playing again, I discovered that the internet had been founded! Suddenly, a whole world of songs was there at my fingertips.

I could hear a song on the radio, look up the station to find the artist, watch it on Youtube, and find the lyrics, chords, and tabs! The feeling of abundance was incredible.

I started by looking up the songs I used to play that I couldn’t quite remember. Then I looked for the songs I had loved but never thought I could play. Melissa by the Allmann Brothers. Horse With No Name by America. Pleasant Valley Sunday!

Then I started listening: to CDs, to the radio, to other singers. I started finding songs that spoke to me—and singing them. The Indigo Girls, Dave Carter, Girlyman. No soundtrack will ever be as intense as that adolescent one, but my life is richer now.

So very much richer.

What it was like to learn to play again after twenty years? That will be another post.


  1. Hence the Westtown sweatshirt?

    LUV it.

    Best wishes,

  2. Yes, Westtown was my Quaker boarding school, which I loved. Thanks, Pilar!

  3. My word! I started guitar at 12.

    I had a major crisis that totally wrenched me from my day-to-day...then suddenly "received" the ability to play again, and better than before.

    I love you story and understand it very well

  4. @Wow, how neat that we had similar experiences!

  5. And blending the sounds of two guitars and two voices, working on a song until it sounded good? That was a whole new level of connection.

    I got to experience this for the first time the other night. I looked up the chords to Helplessly Hoping (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), and while I was playing through it, my partner joined in on his guitar - and it sounded amazing, first time through. The fact that I can play through simple songs without immense struggle is novel and incredible on its own, but to have my love join me and exponentially awesomize the sound? I was floored. It was friggin' wonderful.

    And now I've tasted a little bit of the magic you've had and now have again, and damn. Stopping for twenty years? I winced when I read that.

    I'm so glad you took it back up. I'm so glad you're writing about this. And I really look forward to hearing the next piece of the story.

  6. Ty, so glad you got to experience that! It's the most awesome. It's what I get to do all the time with my duo partner Paul.

    More to come...

  7. Wwo, what a beautiful post, and so beautifully written!

  8. @Colourfulcoach--thanks so much!!

  9. What a poignant story expressed so eloquently. I love happy endings :) I think it is amazing how something so important to us can just disappear from our lives without explaination only to surface again quite unexpectedly. I've had the same thing happen to me with several different "passions." Embrace and enjoy!

  10. You have a name that is an interval that you can sing, (a third.) So, obviously to me, you just hafta play music!



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