Something weird and wonderful happens when you master a musical instrument. It’s like listening to others speak a different language for a long time and not understanding a word they’re saying. Then suddenly it makes sense.
I’ve always appreciated music, but I was gifted with zero musical talent. As a child, I struggled through six years of violin lesson at my parent’s insistence, completing only one book of the Suzuki method when I should have finished six.
I rebelled. I’ve never liked being told what to do.
Our parents also made all 12 of their kids study piano. I never practiced. I wanted to go outside and play, not practice some dumb instrument.
But, at the age of 15, I wanted to learn guitar. I bought one for $50 at a garage sale, borrowed instructional books from the library and took lessons for a while from a private tutor.
I learned enough of the basics to play easy rock ‘n’ roll songs like “Gloria” in a band with friends. I learned “by ear,” picking up enough from listening to recorded music to play popular songs. I played electric bass for many years because I found it easier than figuring out complicated chords and scales on guitar.
My one skill was the ability to memorize lyrics. I was never a very good singer or musician, but I could sing and play songs with a lot of words, like Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider.”
Playing music was fun, but if a piece was too difficult I’d get frustrated and abandon the effort. This went on for about three decades.
A few years ago, I was playing bass one night at a weekly blues jam in a bar. Twist Ferguson, a fixture on the Will County blues scene, was playing guitar and kept giving me bad looks. He called me out.
“You don’t know your scales,” he said.
That moment changed my life. I realized he was right.
At age 49, I sought out a guitar teacher.
I found a good fit in Kev Wright, 61, of New Lenox. Kev makes a living as a musician and teacher, giving up to nine lessons a day. After several months, he taught me everything I wanted to know about scales and chords.
But he also unexpectedly showed me so much more I had no idea I didn’t know. Like the importance of clear tone, which makes the difference between a note that sounds forced and hesitant and one that reverberates cleanly and stirs emotion.
He showed me how to bend strings, which allowed me to learn songs I never imagined I could play. He trained my ear to the point where I could instantly tell if a note was slightly off, or a string out of tune. That translated into tremendous improvement in my vocal abilities.
The voice is an instrument, too. Keeping your body loose and relaxed is the difference between notes sounding open and clear instead of strained and tight.
Most music lessons culminate in the occasional recital. The process of learning an instrument also involves being able to perform in front of an audience. A lot of people struggle with that part. They put pressure on themselves and worry about making mistakes.
My guitar teacher helped me learn to manage stress and mentally cope with anxiety of performing in public. It’s one thing to appear on stage with a group of other musicians; it’s much more difficult to perform alone. Managing stress was important. I’d had a near-fatal heart attack, after all.
In short, the last couple years of music lessons have been transformative. Unlike in my youth, I wanted to learn and would practice two or more hours a day, every day. The improvement was incremental but noticeable.
As my skills improved, so did my confidence and my outlook. Learning music taps into the notion of personal best. You don’t compare yourself to other musicians. But if you play every day, you’ll be better today than you were yesterday, and you’ll be better tomorrow than you were today.
“Music is a great building block of learning in general,” said Steve Haberichter, owner of Down Home Guitars in Frankfort. He taught lessons for about 20 years, and his 20 instructors give weekly private lessons to about 300 students. Instructors teach everything from guitar and piano to voice, drums, violin, banjo and other instruments.
“Studying music is fascinating,” he said. “It helps with math, problem-solving skills, cognitive skills, social skills. It helps the left brain and the right brain.”
Anyone can benefit from the experience of learning music at any age.
“You’re never too old to learn,” Haberichter said. “Our students include retired people who have never tried to learn a musical instrument before. This is about having fun.”
Haberichter has witnessed the benefits of music education in students with Alzheimer’s disease, and people who have had strokes and heart attacks.
“Music is a great way to manage symptoms,” he said. “It provides physical and mental therapy and stress relief.”
Down Home Guitars is located in the historic Trolley Barn in Downtown Frankfort, and Haberichter invited me to talk to parents of students having lessons that day. I met Katie Jankist, 12, of Mokena, who was just beginning guitar lessons.
“I want to learn how to play ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by The Beatles,” she told me.
Her father, Kevin Jankist, said he hoped the investment in music lessons “would hone her skills and make for a lifelong interest” in learning.
I spoke with Cassie Ramirez of Tinley Park while her son, Joshua, 8, took a piano lesson.
“I think music helps kids develop at all different levels,” she told me.
We talked about how learning music builds self-esteem and teaches discipline.
“He really enjoys it,” she said. “My son is very shy. For him to get up and play recitals is amazing.”
I figured music lessons would improve my skills. What I didn’t know was how much understanding music would unlock some of the mysteries of life.
By Ted Slowik, www.chicagotribune.com, www.msidallas.com