On taking up guitar as an adult

Missed notes

I wasn’t afraid of forgetting the tune.

I wasn’t worried I’d botch the words.

“Annabritt Playing Guitar I” by David Wright. (Photo via Creative Commons/Flickr)

No, I was sufficiently panicked about my recital that I thought I might forget the guitar altogether — just leave it sitting in the driveway, then back up to a sickening crunch and twang as my Honda rolled over the case.

The “R” word          

When my teacher first mentioned the “R” word, my heart ticked up to quarter-time, remembering: a Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Fraser’s living room soldiered with metal chairs. I wiped slick palms on my dress as I waited my turn at the baby grand. I would have preferred to curl up inside its maw and pull the lid over my head than to sit before its gleaming, ivory teeth.

At 12, I told my parents that I wanted to quit piano and take up guitar. A series of tutors, long-haired, earnest, and (I realize now) benevolently stoned, managed to teach me enough chords to play “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Then I got busy: sewing costumes for South Pacific, studying for the SATs. When I left for college, the guitar did not go with me.

But when I was about to turn 45, something in me wanted to make music. I returned to my childhood room, pulled the dusty guitar case from under the bed, and signed up for lessons. Slowly, I mastered a small, folky repertoire: Dar Williams and Bonnie Raitt, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan.

Only among friends

At home, I sit on the front porch, Victory ale by my side, and happily accompany my unstable alto voice. I break out the guitar in the company of close friends during camping trips; I play for my cousins, who sometimes sing along, cheerfully off-key.

But in eight years, I had never sung, not even once, during a lesson in my teacher’s grubby basement studio. I’d either bury the lyrics in a nearly inaudible hum, or we’d cue up YouTube and let Patty Larkin or James Taylor do the heavy vocal lifting as I strummed away.

Yet, here I was, wet-palmed and desert-mouthed, driving to Lansdale on a Sunday afternoon, where I would — along with a handful of other adult guitar students — play music for a bunch of strangers.

A phalanx of phobias        

Just that week, at my regular dinner klatch with friends, we’d been talking about phobias. The kids called them out, like cheers: “Acrophobia! Fear of heights! Arachnophobia! Fear of spiders — like what Mommy has! Claustrophobia! Fear of small spaces — I hate those!”

“Aren’t all phobias really about fear of dying?” Hannah had asked. For a moment, that made sense: Surely evolution wired us to steer clear of cliffs, brown recluse spiders, and small, suffocating places.

But what about glossophobia (fear of public speaking), emetophobia (fear of vomiting), or atychiphobia (fear of failure), all of which place in a top 100 list of common fears? What about the terror of forgetting how to chord G-major while finger-picking Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”?

Who’s afraid . . . ?

If you parse that list of frequent phobias, they fall into two broad categories, flip sides of the human conundrum: Fear of obliteration. Fear of being seen. We’re afraid to disappear without a trace. We’re petrified to leave our mark.

Back in my late 20s and early 30s, I suffered panic attacks in which both those terrors twisted in one hairy Gordian knot. Every time I entered a restaurant, heart banging, palms muggy with sweat, two thoughts nattered in my head: This time, I won’t make it out alive. This time, I’ll faint and everyone will see.

Back then, therapists counseled distraction to tame my anxieties. On the way to Lansdale, I fiddled with the radio until I heard the words “creativity” and “fear.” It was novelist Elizabeth Gilbert on the TED Radio Hour: “But then, fear is the oldest, deepest and least subtle part of our emotional life, and so therefore it’s boring. . . . So have a little conversation with your fear when it starts to get riled up when you’re trying to do something creative. Let it know, ‘I’m just trying to write a poem, no one’s going to die.’”

The benefits of fear           

From an evolutionary perspective, fear is life-preserving. I owe a bow of thanks to the ancestors who shunned possibly rabid dogs (cynophobia), deep water (aquaphobia), and snakes (ophidiophobia). People who act fearless, all shout and bludgeon, are the ones who scare me. In these times — maybe any times, really — it seems arrogant not to be at least a little bit afraid.

And yet I don’t want fear to drive me, as it did during those panic-attack years, when I avoided restaurant dinners and middle seats at the movies and the left lane of the Fremont Bridge.

The novelist Dorothy Allison said, “Write to your fear,” and Eleanor Roosevelt counseled, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Like Gilbert, they weren’t advising that we eradicate fear. They were saying: Walk toward terror. Lace your fingers in its clammy palms. Then get to work.

What are we waiting for?

I trundled my guitar into the Lansdale backyard, set with a hodgepodge of borrowed chairs. The other students were just like me: gray-haired amateurs toting our battered instruments and worrying we’d forget the second verse.

And if we did, what terrible thing would happen? We weren’t neurosurgeons or air traffic controllers. We were old enough to have gained both equanimity and courage. I’m not talking about the “screw you, death” bravado of teens who drive 80 miles an hour after an evening of Jello shots. Playing music in middle age isn’t an impulse to risk your life. It’s a chance to show your soul.

Anthropophobia. Fear of people. Gamophobia. Fear of commitment. Philophobia. Fear of love. Gilbert’s right. Fear’s a bore, the audience is assembled and the sun is setting, too fast. So what are we waiting for? Write the damn novel already, wear your heart on your fraying sleeve, pick up the guitar, and open your mouth to sing.

There was one more music teacher in my life, from a brief period when I’d attempted to redeem the miserable piano lessons of my youth.

“Why do you play so tentatively?” she asked once.

“Because I’m afraid of missing a note.”

“Oh, Anndee. The room is full of missed notes.”

That afternoon in Lansdale, we plucked dead strings. We sang off-key. We rushed the chorus. Our missed notes floated out and mixed with birdsong, with helicopter buzz, with the soft glub-glub of our hearts and the applause — alive, forgiving, grateful, sincere — that followed each imperfect song.

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