Playing music in my twilight years — a true ‘ode to joy’

As the holidays approached this year, I wanted to do something special with the guitar, even though I’m only a new player. Due to all the sadness over the covid, I was hoping to spread some cheer for my family and friends by finding something to play and post on social media.

Then one day, in one of my lesson books, I found it: a slimmed-down version of “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven, played only with single notes on the first two strings, with no difficult chord changes to mess up. Even I could handle that.

I practiced the piece over and over. I never got to the point where I just had it “in my fingers” though; I still had to have the sheet music in front of me. But I figured the sight of me playing from reading sheet music would add to the whole “hell must have frozen over” effect of me playing any music in any way, shape, or form.

I’m over 60 and I’ve only just started playing. Making music is still very new and strange to me. When I even attempt it, I often imagine it’s kind of like how those iguanas that fall out of the trees in Florida when the temperature gets close to freezing must feel.

So I practiced, practiced, and practiced, until it was finally Christmas Eve. At that point, I arranged a chair and a music stand besides our brightly decorated Christmas tree. Then I roped my daughter in to assist.

I set my phone to record video, and instructed her to click record after counting down by saying “3 - 2 - 1,” at which point I would begin the piece. And then quickly bomb. This sequence of her counting down and me bombing happened over and over again. Sigh.

What happened was I got so nervous the minute she hit “record” that I could feel butterflies in my stomach, as the saying goes. At that point, I realized that practicing alone by yourself in your jammies at your leisure is not the same as playing “live.” I had been practicing the music, but I had not been practicing the performance.

Watching and hearing this, my professional musician wife chimed in: “Now you know how I felt when we’d have a party and you’d ask me to just go play something on the piano or the organ out of the blue.” Point taken.

She is of course right, but what did I know. It took me playing music myself to finally realize it. Good thing I do a good job taking care of her car and motorcycle, haha.

I’ve been a member of Toastmasters for years. This is the worldwide club for people who want to improve their public speaking and communications skills. I’ve won trophies in public speaking, I’ve won speech contests, and I’ve mentored other public speakers.

All this training and experience has helped me immensely in getting up in front of a crowd at work, at church, or any place where I need to communicate to a group. I still get a little anxious at first, so I tend to speak too fast until my breathing calms down, but I have no problem speaking in front of people.

Yet all this wonderful practice and training didn’t help me get the notes of the guitar straight once the filming started.

They say, as long as you keep learning you’ll never grow old. At this pace, I’m going to be immortal.

At any rate, I did post the video of me playing “Ode to Joy.” In it, you can see me grimace when I make a mistake. After about 20 retakes, I finally just posted one and washed my hands of it.

My friends and family gave me a lot of likes, so that was great, but knowing I’d done it so much better in practice leaves me truly humbled. Next year, I hope to find another piece, practice the hell out of it, and do better. Something to strive for.

I have many musician friends who play in bands and make it look so easy. In fact, one of my guitar books had a chapter on performing for others. It said, when playing live, just ignore any mistakes and move on, because most listeners won’t even notice them. Apparently this is one reason professional musicians find studio recording, where you strive for perfection, much more stressful than playing live.

All I know is I’m in awe of anyone who can play anything well in front of other people. My hat is off to all of you, from the neophyte fifth-grade musicians in the school band, to the top-notch orchestra at The Met that supports world-class tenors and sopranos, to each and every hardworking and dedicated choir member and church musician. You are all, each and every one of you, my heroes.

If you are a musician or have a musician friend or relative, I very highly recommend the book “Practicing: a Musician’s Return to Music,” by Glenn Kurtz, from 2007, This heartfelt little book is about a very promising classical guitarist who returns to his instrument after many years of not playing.

The prose flows like honey, a visceral dive into the pain and passion a true music lover goes though in the dogged pursuit of his or her craft. This is a short book, so buy several copies and give them as gifts to your musician friends and relatives. You’ll be a big hit for sure, trust me.

Playing music in my twilight years after being a devoted listener my whole life is proving to be an exciting and immersive journey, a true “ode to joy.” Amazing.

P.S. If you promise not to make fun of my orange Crocs, or the fact that my shirt is on backwards, you can see my halting performance at