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For longtime hobbyist musicians, new instruments strike a chord

When stay-at-home orders went into effect last year and people began to get restless, Connie Ehrlich had a new quarantine hobby to pass the time. 

She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Kansas, and her house is full of the work she’s done as an artist, such as a series of Byzantine Russian icon paintings. But last year, something else moved into her studio.

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When her father passed his collection of vintage guitars down to her, she set out to learn to play them. 

She’d already been taking lessons at Richard’s Music for months before the pandemic hit, but practicing the guitar helped in quarantine. Art and music are two of the things she loves, but Ehrlich said playing the guitar doesn’t have the same pressure that her artwork sometimes does.

“The art and the icons that I work on are really hard, and I have a certain expectation as an artist,” Ehrlich said. “But when I play the guitar, it’s just to learn something.”

More discipline, focus

Lucie Krisman / The Lawrence Times A Gibson electric and acoustic from Ehrlich’s collection of vintage guitars.

Ehrlich grew up watching her father play guitar. She isn’t new to playing music, but learning the guitar has been a different process than what she experienced as a kid. The guitar is a complex instrument, but Ehrlich said she has a discipline as an adult that she didn’t before. 

“When you’re little, you have to play your piano an hour or an hour and a half a day and you never want to practice,” Ehrlich said. “With the guitar, I actually want to get better.”

Jan Ford, a former grade school and piano teacher, said she’d noticed more of a sense of focus in her adult piano students. She picked up a new instrument recently, too — the fiddle — and learning to play a stringed instrument took that same focus. 

“It’s just like starting over,” Ford said. “It’s just all these different components. The way you hold it, how much time you have to have to prep and to practice. When you learn at a very young age, you don’t even think about all those things.” 

Everything from the tuning to the addition of a bow can set the fiddle apart from other instruments, Ford said. She had wanted to play the fiddle for years, and when she finally healed from a broken wrist in early 2020 and had time after retiring, she decided to go for it. 

Jan Ford

She started taking lessons with an instructor for the first time in March 2020, and although she was grateful for COVID-safe options like Zoom or phone lessons, she has been happy to return to in-person lessons after being vaccinated. Seeing the instrument up close makes it easier for her instructor to correct the way she’s playing, she said. 

“A lot of times it’s the pressure that’s on the bow or just the way you’re holding things,“ Ford said. “(Being in person) just makes it that much easier to spot.”

“Having to deal with just that small one-second delay almost put this wall between me and my students for the longest time,” Parkhurst said. “One of the things I did with every single one of my students when they came back to my studio was just sight-reading through easy duets and just enjoying playing together.” 

In-person music lessons have returned to Americana Music Academy, too, and violin instructor Avery Parkhurst said it became much easier after that to work on things like timing and rhythm with students. Playing together becomes almost impossible online, Parkhurst said, especially with an instrument as precise as the violin. 

Parkhurst works with a range of ages in students, and he sees more of an anxiety toward learning a new instrument in adults than he does in kids. One silver lining of the past year, he said, is people having the increased time and space to explore that. 

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“I think it’s the biggest thing, in my opinion, that holds back adult students from learning,” Parkhurst said. “It’s not their actual capability as much as it’s them getting in their heads. So I think it’s really cool that we’ve seen a lot of people trying things and just having the time and creative energy to try new hobbies.” 

‘Your computer speakers can only do so much’

Banjo instructor Chris Franzke has had late-blooming musicians contacting him about taking lessons recently, too, as well as one busy parent who finally found the time last year to pick up the banjo as a quarantine hobby and start taking lessons from him. 

“That’s one good thing about the quarantine,” Franzke said. “It’s really allowed people who have had this dormant desire for playing music to start actually taking the steps and reaching out to teachers like me.” 

Having something to practice gave many musicians a sense of consistency throughout the last year, and those who missed live music have been happy to see its return. At the concerts he’s been to, Franzke said he’s been able to see this on the faces of people in the crowd. 

“The audience is just the most appreciative I’ve ever seen at a show,” he said. “Your computer speakers can only do so much to create that live experience. I think it’s made people really appreciate music and the people making it for them.”

Ehrlich has seen an enthusiastic crowd of her own. She began playing concerts this year for a small group of her University Place neighbors on holidays, with one coming up on Labor Day. Playing in front of others has helped her gain confidence, she said, and it’s nice to play an instrument that connects her to her father. 

But playing the guitar connects her to her family in more ways than one. Ehrlich said her mother, who died this year, has been the inspiration behind her learning, as she was never afraid to try something new. She doesn’t have plans to be a big rock star for now, she said; just to play the instrument she enjoys. 

“I just want to play,” Ehrlich said. “If I could be able to play a song without messing up in the middle, that’s a good goal.”

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