Next to the desk where I write sits an Ibanez guitar and music stand. Between writing sessions and assignments I jump over to play a few songs and sing along. I am not a guitarist, mind you. I can’t make it cry or sing. I’m strictly rhythm and chords.
And my voice. It will never inspire an invitation to the Senior American Idol, if there ever was such a thing. But I can hold a tune and have learned to capo the guitar to fit my range. That’s what folks like James Taylor do. Play to your strengths.
There are many similarities between playing music and doing endurance sports. It takes practice, for one thing, to get better. Lots of it. I took some quick guitar lessons from my godson a few years ago. He’s trained in classical guitar. By the time he’d mapped out the notes and explained how that all works my mind was a pile of mush.
I don’t know why that should be. As a kid, I played clarinet and could read music really well. But I greatly preferred playing sports to playing music, and did not practice the way I should with my woodwind instrument. And rather than get chastised for missing music practice, I started forging my mother’s signature on the practice sheets. Only it got worse as the weeks went past. Then one day I got to music class in school and there stood my mother with the band teacher. “If you don’t want to play your instrument, you don’t have to,” my mother said.
And that was that. I hated the clarinet. It was an instrument chosen for me. I would have preferred the trumpet. On clarinet my tongue could not cleanly play the notes. I knew that. I could hear that. Instead of ‘ta ta ta’ my notes when ‘tha tha tha.’ Sloppy playing.
From then on I walked away from music other than an abortive attempt at playing guitar in high school. A group of my cross country buddies and I would gather to play songs on weekends. Somehow a trio of us got the idea to perform for the Key Club dinner that year. It blew up in our faces when we chose not to use sheet music and everyone in the group got lost on Stairway to Heaven. One guy just started whipping through the song like a half-miler hopped up on amphetamines and it all ended in a musical pile as I tried to sing along. I remember one of the beautiful Key Club Calendar Girls in attendance at the event was a really good singer. She said something nice about my attempts. But it hurt more than it helped.
That was enough to make me quit guitar for several decades. But then my children wanted a guitar and we bought the Ibanez. Then we also bought a Taylor for my daughter. That guitar is like a piece of heaven on earth. So beautiful. The difference between the Ibanez and the Taylor is like the difference between riding a steel frame Trek 400 road bike circa 1984 and the sweet new Specialized Venge Expert I own today. And that is the exact arc my cycling has taken over the years.
My guitar playing improved some too. But not substantially. And frankly, I’m not sure my riding has improved all that much either. It feels better, and that’s nice. But the big leap I got from buying the Felt 4C is not likely to be matched now with my Specialized. For one thing, I was 10 years younger then. I’m riding well, but it simply isn’t realistic to think I’m going to keep riding faster, or running faster, the rest of my life. Already the difference between my former racing pace at 10K is two minutes per mile slower than it once was.
That’s a natural product of aging. Yet I still enjoy running and racing because essentially it feels the same. The sensation of going as hard as I can on the track has not changed. You still bump up against the same sense of fatigue. And I can still run quarters at six-minute pace. That’s only 15 seconds slower per lap than my former training pace. Yes, I can sense the difference. But to wish I could run at 5:00 pace these days for sustained periods is delusional.
Perhaps it’s also delusional to keep playing the guitar. I haven’t improved or changed in any discernable way after 15 years of playing. I used to help lead a Praise Band at church though, and the feeling of rhythm and making music with other people was wonderful. I miss that a little. It was fun.
That helps explain why I still enjoy the process of running and riding and swimming with others to this day. There’s a certain music to the process. Recently I rode hills in Arizona with my fiance Sue and we climbed at our own pace. We joined in a pace line that ripped through nine miles at 28 mph going downhill. And we rose at dawn to trot through an hour’s run in the hills of Carefree with phainopeplas singing in the thin morning light.
Running and riding and swimming may seem like the same old song at times. But not if you focus on the fact that you’re making music of your own, and with others. Because that’s glorious.