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It’s Never Too Late… Back To College At Sixty-Something To Learn Jazz Guitar



In this guest editorial, guitarist Bob Tarkington shares his story of going back to school in his sixties to learn jazz guitar.

Bob Tarkington: After many years of enjoying playing folk and light rock-style songs of the 60s and 70s on guitar, I decided to take advantage of the new freedom of retirement to realize a long-held dream of learning music and jazz guitar. Fortunately, one of the best jazz studies programs in the country was nearby in Atlanta, GA at Georgia State University.

Bob Tarkington in the mid-’70s with Robert Ganz

The day had finally arrived for my audition. I was nervously waiting my turn in the hallway outside the audition room when the program director, intending to strike up a friendly conversation, asked me what instrument my child played! Then, halfway through the audition, it was clear I wasn’t well enough prepared…and the faculty readily agreed. But after buckling down to a few more months of private lessons and focused practice, and another audition, I was finally ready to start my undergraduate program in Jazz Studies.

I joined a class of several dozen 18–24-year-olds in basic courses in music theory, aural skills, music history, chorus, piano, and improvisation while playing in a student jazz combo and taking weekly guitar lessons. There were dozens of small performance “opportunities” like standing in front of a class to sight sing a short piece. Later courses included jazz arranging, jazz band, jazz history, jazz theory, music software, and pedagogy. I performed each semester in an ensemble with other jazz guitar students, each one playing a different part of an arrangement. These were all experiences that are unique to a school setting. Because the jazz program was within the broader school of music, we were exposed to many opportunities to participate in a wide range of music styles and ensembles. I attended dozens of different types of concerts and even sang in the school chorus. When my wife asked how she would find me in the group during the holiday concert, I said, “Just look for the head with the grey hair!”

Many of the younger students in the program were strong musicians with a foundation in jazz from their high school music programs and YouTube-perfected instrumental chops. After a long business career, I struggled to keep up with their skills and experience. But they were patient, always willing to help, and made me feel welcome as part of the group. Occasionally another student close to my age would be in a class and those were welcome connections. Every semester ended with a faculty jury to demonstrate your progress. Preparing for it was a big challenge, but it forced some progress that doesn’t always happen in a more casual setting. The faculty was focused more on coaching the students than judging them, so it was always a valuable experience.

Bob Tarkington

The GSU Jazz Studies faculty is an immensely talented group of teaching, composing, and performing musicians. It was inspiring to get to know them and their artistry as well as learn from their knowledge and experience. It was insightful to learn how each of these professionals had carved out unique careers through teaching, live performances, composing, recording, publishing, and other entrepreneurial avenues. Some continue to be friends and mentors even after graduation.

So, did I achieve my goal to become a competent jazz guitarist? I would have to say, “Not quite….yet!” It was a challenge to overcome old habits and resistance to new ways to practice and learn. And, frankly, the amount of skill development needed from where I started was substantial. But it was an experience I loved and feel very fortunate to have had. And it gave me a rock-solid foundation and connections to a community of like-minded musicians to continue my playing and development after graduation. I can see that goal coming to fruition just around the corner.

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