By Christopher Cudworth
In the latter years of high school some friends and I ventured into the world of guitar-playing. We almost, but not quite, formed a band. Our efforts were dissolute by dint of the fact that none of us could actually play our instruments all that well.
Playing in public
But in a fit of determination a couple of us volunteered to play a few songs during our annual Key Club banquet. It started off okay. I sang a Cat Stevens song in a barely audible voice while my partner strummed away beside me. We got polite applause and no harm was done.
Then came our rendition of Stairway to Heaven. My friend was determined to show off his picking and got so absorbed in the process that he rather forgot where he was. Entirely. That meant I did not know when to come in with the basic chord stuff, and the rest, from there, was a train wreck.
I never bothered singing after the first line. It was enough trying to keep up with my friend who suddenly, out of embarrassment, began playing faster and faster. It felt like that section of a race where you now you’ve gone out too fast and you are about to suffer severe oxygen debt.
Then it ended, mercifully, before anyone got hurt and before I threw up from anxiety and the strange feeling that my tongue had escaped into my nose. We hurriedly packed up our instruments and left the room to what passed for applause. But really our classmates were trying to wave us out of the room.
Bess with Golden Hair
Later a beautiful gal named Bess with shiny golden hair and an amazing voice in choir tried to console me. It was very sweet of her, but the shame was so deep I could barely hear her voice. Basically it came down to her saying “Nice try” and that meant a lot.
“Nice try” is not as good as “Great job.” But we all know that not everything in life can turn out great. The important thing is that we learn from the experience. And try again.
If we run a race and miss our PR by 25 seconds, we should tell ourselves, “Nice Try.”
Or if we ride with the group for 68 miles out of 70 and get dropped in the last sprint or surge, we should tell ourselves, “Nice Try.”
If you’re starting out to swim like I am, and the first few times at the pool are a struggle, you can still say, “Nice Try.”
Because it all adds up. It really does. Our cumulative desires to succeed really do matter.
Back in the music
As for my guitar playing, I pretty much put the instrument down and did not pick it up again for three full decades.
But then I attended a party where someone handed me a guitar and asked, “Do you play?” I could only recall the D and G chords. So I said no.
But something clicked in me after that. Then my kids learned cello and violin and wanted a guitar too. So we purchased an Ibanez for $300 and it didn’t get used the touch. So I bought a Beatles and an Eagles songbook and taught myself to play again.
A new calling of sorts
Then the Praise Band at my church needed a stand-in rhythm guitarist. It was scary, and many of the chords were unfamiliar, but the forced reason to play sent me home each week determined to get better.
The parallels between playing music and doing endurance sports are, to me, surprisingly real. You improve by repetition and by trying new things. You add new skills to your repertoire and then come moments of breakthrough when you surprise yourself with a small or large triumph.
As the dude from a local hippy shop told me about his love of guitar, “I’m not a guitarist, I just play songs.” And that’s me too. I’ve been playing for 8 years now and have gotten better in some respects, but I will never, ever be great at guitar. I don’t think in music, so I don’t easily recall the notes. Plus, the ends of my fingers are thick. It’s hard getting in tune with the straight and narrow bars of the fret.
The lesson I took from a trained classical guitarist was full of all the stuff I hate. Numbers, for example. Music and numbers go together you see. Numbers hate me. They really do.
But I hope to persist in playing because it is so enjoyable and stress-relieving to play music even for yourself. When given the opportunity to play in a band, the feeling of harmony and rhythm is so attractive it is like a peak experience in athletics. A Sweet Spot In Time.
There is one additional challenge now in the middle finger on my left hand that needed an operation due to an infection a couple months ago. The rehabilitation is going slow. Finally I can play a couple chords but the process is not easy. I have to think too hard to make it work, and I already had to think too much to play guitar.
Who would think a tiny injury like that could have such impact on your life? I could not effectively run or train for at least four weeks after the surgery. There was no time due to infusions and therapy and keeping up with work. Plus the finger hurt like hell at times, and putting on a glove was impossible.
Getting back in tune
But again, it’s all taught me patience and persistence. That’s what it takes to be good at anything. Holds true whether you run, ride or swim, or all three.
The desire to do these things is all part of living a full life. A few months back a friend from high school that I had not seen in decades passed away from lung cancer. His trade was guitar-making. At one point I tracked him down to call and tell him I wanted to purchase one of his instruments. He never called back. He never called anyone back, as I learned at his funeral.
At the wake there were several of his instruments lined up as we moved toward the back room of the funeral parlor. I recalled how he and I used to ride our bikes all around that little town where we lived. Deep into the night we rode, him on a yellow Schwinn and me on a black Huffy 3-speed. We’d swerve and bank on the little streets like bike racers would do. We shared that love of movement, flickering in and out of the streetlights and howling at the moon.
He went on to become a pole vaulter in high school. I became a distance runner. We grew apart and then he moved away, never to be seen again.
I strummed one of his guitars and it made the interesting sound of an instrument not quite in tune.
All of life is like that. It requires attention to the notes and the tuning to feel right. No matter what we do, we’re all constantly getting in tune with the straight and narrow, and it takes a lot of practice. Sometimes we excel. Sometimes we just hear the words “Nice Try.”
But it’s all worth it. It really is.