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Starting Over

Hello Troubadourians! I have been approached many times following Folding Mr. Lincoln shows by folks who say, “I wish I hadn’t stopped playing” or “I’d like to start playing again but I don’t know how.” Well, the answer to that, in simple terms, is just to pick up your instrument and start playing. If you haven’t played for a long time you will be rusty and your music probably won’t sound like you remember or how you hear it in your head. That’s okay. At this point we’re only trying to get you motivated enough to take your instrument out if its case and play it. Try to avoid comparing yourself to others — or even your former self — for a while. This isn’t about how good you were, it’s about how you are right now and learning, or relearning, how to be musical. Being musical means that you are open to the stimulus of music, especially the music that is inside you. We are constantly bombarded by music in our daily lives; from commercials on TV to the Muzak in stores and restaurants. Usually we become somewhat immune to this aural assault and often with good reason, but every once in a while some familiar melody or lyric will slip through and touch our consciousness and we are reminded that we used to play that song. Of course, when you make a conscious effort to go and listen to live music you are immersing yourself in the probability that you’ll want to experience the music more deeply than just listening. Excellent! Let’s get started.

The first thing you need to do is to become intimate with your instrument again. Start with tuning it. You won’t enjoy your music if it’s out of tune. Whether you use an electronic tuner or a manual method of tuning, get used to hearing your instrument in tune and learn to recognize when it is out of tune. At some point you’ll need to learn how to hear and tune your instrument from some external reference tone. Not all instruments can be tuned on demand and if you want to play with someone playing that instrument you’ll need to tune your instrument relative to the non-tunable one. A good example of this is a piano at a church that may or may not have been tuned recently but is likely somewhat in tune with itself. Continuing with your re-familiarizing with your instrument, you’ll probably want to change the strings. Old strings don’t sound or play very well and are often on the verge of breaking. If you don’t know how to restring your instrument, most music stores will do it for you for a nominal fee. Sometimes they’ll do it for free if you buy several sets of strings. Again, changing strings, like tuning by ear, is a skill that you need to learn to do for yourself. Have a knowledgeable friend show you how or offer to pay a luthier to teach you how to do it. Luthier is the proper title for guitar repairman. While you’re there, if your instrument has been stored and un-played for any length of time, it is a really good idea to have your instrument checked out and properly adjusted to play as comfortably as possible. Of course, there are “How to” videos on YouTube but I think that hands-on learning is a better approach.

Once you’re restrung and your instrument is in good working order, it’s time to learn — or re-learn — how to practice. Don’t worry about how formal your practice is or how many minutes per day you practice. That stress is probably why you put down your instrument in the first place. Just play some familiar songs or simple chord progressions to get your ear and fingers re-accustomed to the aural and physical parts of playing music. Take your time and enjoy the process. Music is supposed to be fun so don’t make it a chore. As David Lee Roth once said, “You play a guitar, you don’t work a guitar.” Good advice, Dave. Enjoy the feel of the instrument in your hands and against your body. Some folks hold their instrument like it was a snake that was trying to bite them. Instead, you should hold it like a lover. Once you’ve become comfortable with the basics, you can allow yourself to be more purposeful with your practicing. Warm up with easy things you know well. Give yourself some time to clear your mind and get into a musical frame of mind. Once you’re there, you can start practicing the things you don’t know well or want to learn. Some things you will learn faster than others. That’s normal. When you encounter songs, chords, or melodies that give you trouble, slow down and break them into smaller pieces that are easier to grasp. As you get better with the little pieces, you can start putting them back together and play them at the normal tempo. When you have a song or part reasonably figured out, play it through without stopping. If you really fumble over something, you may not have it down as well as you thought. That’s okay; just break it down again and work slowly until you can put it back together with the rest of the music. You’re really only competing with yourself so avoid the temptation to compare your progress or playing with more advanced players — especially professionals. I’ve heard so many musicians lamenting that So-and-So Professional Musician makes them want to burn their instrument. There is nothing more discouraging than indulging in this type of comparison. Those players are professional for a reason — usually because they’ve spent thousands of hours practicing their craft — and even they have to go through the same slow breakdown of a piece of music that you do in order to play it as well as they do. Most really good musicians will tell you that their “gift” isn’t some innate talent that others lack; rather, it’s the ability to practice well that has allowed them to develop into the musician that they are.

Notice that in this piece I referred to “instruments” rather than guitars. The principals I expressed apply to whichever instrument you play, not just guitars. You can use this method no matter what you play. Next time we’ll talk more about what to do with your re-emerging skills and how to share them with others whether you want to play in public, in church, or just sound better for your own satisfaction.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (