The golden sand of Hahei Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula was my summer haven growing up. My days were spent swimming, fishing, diving and skiing, then after dark, I’d sit around the fire with my mates playing guitar and singing rock anthems until my fingers bled. I first picked up a guitar on my 10th birthday, when I was gifted one by my parents. Unfortunately, after a few one-on-one lessons and great excitement at the opportunity of becoming a rock star, I lost the enthusiasm to practice and my guitar sat around the house gathering dust.
A couple of years later, I tried again and headed down to the local school hall for group classes. It lasted 6 weeks. Before even strumming a chord, I was being told how to sit, where to position my feet, and precisely how to hold my guitar. Boring! And then, once I finally got to play, it was overly structured and ordered. I didn’t think music was supposed to be like that, so I left. When I was 14, things changed. One afternoon, while flicking through a local rag, I came across a small advert in the corner of the classifieds. “Guitar Lessons. Denis Doherty Music, Avondale. Call 8493969”, it read. A week later, I rode the train to Avondale and made the 5-minute stroll to the small music shop. It was just on dusk and business was closed for the day, but the door had been left ajar in anticipation of my arrival. As I walked in, I was met by a wall of cigarette smoke sifting across the darkened room and the sweet sound of Stairway to Heaven being played note perfect on a Fender Stratocaster.
James was tall and skinny. He wore black slim fitting jeans, a black, buttoned down long sleeve shirt, and Doc Martin steel cap boots. He had shoulder length, sleek dark hair and a fringe that he kept swishing out of his eyes with his forefinger. His teeth were stained yellow, the result of a diet of black coffee and a pack a day habit. People smoked everywhere in the mid-90s and my guitar lesson was no exception. But James was not like the other music teachers I’d had. He was alternative, mysterious, and cool. His happy place was there, in the back of Denis Doherty’s music’s, playing guitar. And man, could he play. My dad used to say that a good player could make a guitar sing. He was right. James would teach me anything I wanted to know. There were no rules to my learning. Except, of course, that if I wanted to get better, I had to practice. I spent 3 years with James. Every Tuesday night at five thirty, I’d grab my guitar, jump on the train and head off to that dark, smelly little music shop in Avondale. And I loved every minute of it.
I never did become a rock star, but now, 22 years later, I still play. And one of my favourite songs to play is Mr Jones by the Counting Crows. I particularly like the live version of Mr Jones, off the album Across a Wire: live in New York. Adam (the lead singer) begins with a line he borrowed from a 1967 song So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star by The Byrds:
“If you want to be a rock and roll star, just grab an electric guitar, and take some time, and learn how to play.”
Not only is it a great song with great lyrics, but the lessons we can take from it are immense. If you want something in this world, all you need is the opportunity to begin, and the time to put into getting good at it.
I was gifted the opportunity to play guitar by my parents when I was 10. It was the start of my musical journey, and although momentum took a while to gather, I got there in the end. Sport is about opportunity too. Every gold medal won, every goal scored, and every day spent living a healthy and happy lifestyle that habitual sport and exercise can afford, started with an opportunity. Kids need the opportunity to play. Participating in many different sports when they’re young is important for many reasons, including developing fundamental movement skills, reducing the risk of repetitive strain injuries and decreasing athlete burnout. But more importantly, it gives them the chance to find what they’re truly passionate about. I’ve learnt that the right opportunity isn’t necessarily the first one that comes along. Or that if you don’t find it straight away, to keep looking.
The most precious resource we have is time. Meaningful connections take time. True learning takes time. Indeed, the things that reward us the most are the things that take the most of our time. Once I found James, the right opportunity to teach me guitar, it was time that made the experience special. Not only did I need to dedicate time to practice, to get through the frustrating feeling of sucking at something new and gain a sense of achievement. But I also needed the time to get to know James, to trust him and to develop a relationship. When the results aren’t going well, and it happens to us all, it’s the people who are most important. It’s the people who encourage us, pick us up when we fall and keep us coming back for more.
Be the best you can be,