You keep promising yourself that you’ll pull your guitar out of its case — the same one it has been trapped in since your last move, or maybe even graduation — and get back in playing shape. Now seems like a good time to start playing again to reduce stress, build more of a life outside the office or just battle a sense of restlessness.
How do you begin?
The longer you wait for an answer, the longer your instrument will slumber in its case — and the more layers of dust and inertia will collect between you and your dreams.
Gayla M. Mills is bringing decades of experience as a writer, writing instructor and acoustic musician to a new book that offers practical ideas and encouragement to people who’d like to start new chapters of their own as performers.
“Making Music for Life: Rediscover Your Musical Passion,” forthcoming with Dover on Aug. 14, will be at the heart of several "Building Community Music" book launch parties, which are planned for Aug. 17 at Rapunzel's Coffee and Books in Lovingston and Sept. 8 at C'Ville Coffee in Charlottesville.
Mills grew up in Charlottesville and frequently performs folk music at C'ville Coffee, Rapunzel's Coffee and Books and other local venues with her husband, Gene Mills. The guitarist and upright bassist knows what it’s like to come back to a first love; she returned to her musical roots 15 years ago to help her husband record his music.
Her new book offers some specific guidance for folks who’d like to pursue music during life’s second act, whether they hope to land paying gigs and launch a long-delayed performance career or to play for sheer pleasure and camaraderie with friends.
“I would say that it’s for people who are returning to music, especially after 40, or people who’ve always been interested,” Mills said.
Her book offers tips for meeting other musicians, forming a band and lining up shows.
“There are a lot of people I have met who are now gigging as weekend warriors, and it’s the highlight of their week,” Mills said. “It satisfies a need to be out there in the world.”
If you’re concerned that aging will make your musical renaissance too difficult, Mills said not to let that notion hold you back.
“There are some shortcuts you can take as an older person that will help,” Mills said.
For example, a rusty guitarist could start a new instrument that he’d find easier to play, such as ukulele, or take a more streamlined approach to technique that can accommodate arthritis or other concerns.
“The guitar can be very challenging, but it can be simple. You don’t have to use all six strings,” she said.
In her book, Mills shares a Bedford community orchestra conductor’s strategies for keeping devoted instrumentalists in his ensemble as they age. Scott Walker’s individualized approach often includes simplifying complex lines of music without compromising quality.
Updated teaching methods bring their own advantages.
“The trend now for older students is to be teaching them in groups,” Mills said. Group instruction also can help people improve listening and ensemble skills.
If you’re still assessing your readiness for jumping back into music, Mills offers a couple of ideas to help make the leap more comfortable. Reconnecting with your heart may be easier than you think.
“One, I would go into an acoustic music store and absorb the feeling of being in the room and hearing other people play,” Mills said. “Pick up other instruments — not the one you usually play — and get a feel for them.”
Her second piece of advice is one you can enjoy on your own or with friends.
“Go out and listen to live music,” she said. “It’s just inspiring.”
Writing the book united Mills’ passions for writing and music and gave her an opportunity to make the journey easier for others.
“I’m a teacher by trade, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book,” Mills said. “It wasn’t a very efficient path over the past 15 years, and if I’d had a book, it would have been easier.”
If you’ve been away from music for a long time, keep in mind that changes in perspective over time actually may make some aspects of performing easier than you remember, Mills said.
She agrees with musician Barry Green’s observation that youthful musical pursuits have a more outward focus — “achievement, and how you appear to others,” she said— but maturity can bring less pressure and more of an emphasis on “how you feel inside. When you get older, you lose any illusions that you’re going to go on and win a Grammy. It’s because what they’re focused on is the joy it gives to them, and not how it looks to other people.”
Although you're striving to do your best, it may be easier now to ditch the perfectionism that may have silenced previous attempts to return to music.
“When you’re older, you’re liberated from that,” Mills said. Instead, the focus shifts to “the huge variety of ways that [music] does help you improve your brain and your heart and your hearing.”
Mills also shares stories about local and regional musicians, such as vocalist Lorie Strother, the Dreaded Blues Lady of Dr. Levine and the Dreaded Blues Lady. Inspiring stories of others’ success and their approaches to conquering obstacles can bring home another benefit of pursuing music — meaningful time spent in community. Just as musicians need to play, listeners need to hear them. If you’re singing only in the shower, you’re missing out on the satisfaction of lifting your voice to lift others' spirits.
“I think sometimes you have to be reminded that there are so many people who are interested in the same thing,” she said.
And Mills was delighted to discover how much her two loves have in common. Both writers and musicians can face challenges when making the leap from solitary practice to collaboration and participation, and both can be enriched and empowered by making the effort.
“A lot of writers are fine when they’re at home alone on the computer, but they don’t know how to get it out in the world,” she said. “Having an interest in two areas can be good for people. The inventor of the stethoscope [physician and flutist Rene Laennec] was both a doctor and a musician.”