Fumbling and progress

heartbeatsI had a guitar lesson today, and I was excited for it. The previous week, we had started out on a new song, Heartbeats, by Jose Gonzales (for some fun, check out the original version by The Knife. While YouTuber’s debate with fiery passion in the comments section, I much prefer Jose’s interpretation).

It’s fun to see what different folks do with it. Ellie Goulding also performs a cover here. The band Royal Teeth offers their own (I love that someone is finally putting the stress for “divine” on the second syllable. It makes my eye twitch every time I hear it otherwise). Another great take by Daniela Andrade x Dabin (recording-wise, this is probably my favorite) that played on Supergirl a few weeks ago. Don’t ask me why I was watching Supergirl.

Anyways, finger picking! Fun syncopation between the melody and the guitar line! The song is actually in my range!

I practiced quite a bit and felt good about it this week, but when it came time for my lesson, I fumbled all the way through it.

I was nervous and putting too much pressure on myself to get it right.

All of this makes me think about piano lessons as a kid. I don’t remember struggling the way I have with some of these guitar pieces. Call that rose-colored glasses, nostalgia, or just a symptom of getting older (new things don’t come as easily as they used to?) … It’s a funny thing.

Fact is, I’m playing more regularly than ever before, and having fun. I’m learning to be content with a work in progress, even when that work is me. I don’t have to play perfectly, and it’s not going to be — nor should it be — easy. My cramped hand agrees.

I’ll keep practicing, and I’m on the right track. As bad or weird as it can feel, sometimes fumbling is the exact appropriate place to be on the road to progress.

Practice, practice, practice

Roughly 10 years ago I took my first guitar lesson at Oakland University. Since then, I’ve mostly fallen off the bandwagon, relying on the same 6-8 chords and using a capo when I play. It’s comfortable, but not the most innovative.

Well yesterday, I finally started up guitar lessons again, and I’m excited for someone to push me to get better.

When we met for my lesson, my teacher said: “So you’re Greg, the adult beginner!”

Weird, to think of myself in that way. Music has been a big part of my life — from the time I was a little kid, through high school and college. But it’s true, I’ve slacked in the last few years.

Balancing work and life and a multitude of interests isn’t easy.

“Let’s start you on a Dave Matthews Band song,” he said. “You’ll sound like all the college kids learning to play guitar!”

Well, there’s that… but it was funny. I’m not the college kid, I’m not the young kid in piano lessons, or school choirs, or marching band any more. I guess I am the adult beginner.

Learning this song gets me using a chord I’m not familiar with, and incorporating some finger picking along the way,

My teacher was super patient despite my fumbling fingers. I had to remind myself to be patient too.

Practice, practice, practice….

Singing at Tanglewood

At the end of July I spent a week out in the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts in order to perform with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. One of the true highlights was having my parents in the audience for the Sunday concert. They drove the three hours from New Hampshire to be there (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!). My mentor from grad school was also there, and it was so good to reconnect!

The whole thing was a surreal experience; intense and difficult, yet fun.

The Berkshires
View of the Stockbridge Bowl from the Tanglewood grounds.

In learning the music and preparing for rehearsals, I felt as though I was stretching a muscle I hadn’t used in quite some time. It felt both familiar and strange. More than once I wondered if I could still do this.

It had been six years since I last performed with a chorus.

In six years, a lot changed: I finished my undergraduate degree in Tennessee. Moved to Virginia to help open a bookstore. Watched many dear friends lose their job, and soon lost my own with the closing of that same bookstore.

I started fresh by moving to Massachusetts and attending grad school at Simmons College. Started working at MIT in the wide world of higher education. Finished grad school. Started a new job. It was all a blur.

Over a number of life changes, I had become so busy doing other things and chasing other goals — worthy goals! — that I had neglected this other piece that was so important and satisfying. The outlet for music was missing, and I knew I had to do something. I wasn’t ready to give it up. So I dug through my old repertoire from undergrad, picked a song, and signed up for an audition.

In February, I stood in front of John Oliver, founding conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and performed Silent Noon by Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of my favorites.

I was accepted soon after.

“Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
this close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Sonnet 19, Silent Noon

Ahh! Excitement! This was Tanglewood, the choir that performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was no small thing, and I was over the moon. That high of validation carried me for a little while. Then the music came, and with it, doubt.

Verdi’s Nabucco and the Finale from Act II of Aida. Together, it was a good 40 minutes of music. It had to be memorized. It was harder than most of what I remembered ever singing before.

Every time I went to practice the music, I fought the nagging anxiety that said I was in way over my head.

That apprehension didn’t go away. I went to my first rehearsal. I tried to sit up straight and breathe properly as the sweat trickled down my back. I listened to the singers around me. They were good. I was sure they would think me a fraud. When the rehearsal was over I left with a renewed sense of urgency that there was a whole lot more work ahead of me.

So I buckled down. I learned the music. I went out to the Berkshires, sang in rehearsals, I kept up, and I worked hard because it mattered to me. My brain was re-engaging with this kind of pressure, and it was good, terrifying, and wonderful.

I had to get back up on that horse and recognize that (especially after so long away) it wasn’t going to be effortless and easy… and that was okay.

I decided what was important and went for it, despite my own self-doubt. And it was so, so worth it.


On the way back to my car following the performance at Tanglewood, a number of attendees approached me and thanked me for singing. I thanked them for attending. I was one of 160 chorus members for the concert, and I am quite sure the experience was not unique to me, but I still felt so honored. So appreciated and celebrated. It gave me chills that people had been moved by the music.

Then I remembered all over again: that was the whole point. Art will move people. Whether music or theater, writing, dance, or visual arts, good art can wake people up and make them feel.

It felt like after six years, I had finally woken up and remembered what I was missing. It was such a privilege to perform with the TFC, and I’m grateful to have been a part of it!

To hear the WGBH recording of the performance, click here! At 58:13 is Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, followed at 1:05:40 by the Act II Finale from Aida.