Last Friday, I sat out under the stars and watched a friend of mine push himself up the learning curve. He did so with grace, humor, courage, soul, and a great deal of rhythm. Jeff Pagano, a long-time singer, newly-minted guitarist, and absolute beginner as a paid performer, organized his first concert as a soloist in the back yard of his home in Eugene.
As is so often the case, while I sincerely enjoyed his music, I was more entranced by his learning story. Jeff only began learning to play the guitar after he turned 40. Now he is an accomplished musician and eager to continue learning so that he can share his love of music with even more people.
I am eager to share his stories of powerful learning with everyone that I can.
Jeff started learning to play the guitar because of his passion for singing. He’d sung with other musicians who could play instruments, but realized that if he could accompany himself, his opportunities to sing would increase dramatically.
“I decided to start learning guitar at age 40 because that’s a good age to learn something new. And the motivation for doing so, was the fact that I was a singer, and I performed with other musicians—but only as a singer. And it was really hard to show up at an open mike and ask people, ‘Say, hey, do you know to play this song so I can sing it?’ “
Jeff’s confidence that “age 40 was a good age to learn something new” was inspiring to me. I gave up on my own musical aspirations a long time ago (after a spectacular failure at an open mike in Alaska) but my journey into learning how the brain learns has encouraged me to think that it might not be too late for me or anyone else.
Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, is a neuroscientist who undertook a similar journey to learn guitar in his 40s. Here’s what he had to say,
“All my life I wanted to become musical, but I always assumed that I never had a chance. My ears are dodgy, my fingers too clumsy. I have no natural sense of rhythm and a lousy sense of pitch. I have always loved music but could never sing, let alone play an instrument; in school I came to believe that I was destined to be a spectator, rather than a participant, no matter how hard I tried.”
Jeff Pagano, did not start his musical journey with as much emotional baggage as Gary and I, and he had other musical skills that he’d honed through his love of singing that he could use to help himself learn guitar. However, I believe the biggest gift that he had, was that strong belief that he could learn and a strong desire to learn fueled by his love of singing.
As a teacher, I see too often learners that have given up on their own learning journeys. Who have said to themselves that they just don’t have what it takes. As a learner, I too, have given up on my own learning more times than I want to admit. I asked Jeff if he had ever wanted to give up.
“No. No, because the desire to sing was always in the forefront. One of the things that I always say when I talk to musicians, is that I am a singer that plays guitar. And there are a lot of guitar players that sing. So, because I am a singer that plays guitar, I knew that I wanted to sing and that this was my way in. I never wanted to give up the singing and I was missing the opportunity to sing. There is a part of me that just has to sing. I’ll be a singer for the rest of my life. It’s just the best thing I know how to do.”
Jeff Pagano possessed both a growth mindset—the belief that he could learn—and what Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, calls ignition—that “set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.”
That powerful one-two punch—a growth mindset combined with ignition—is what had Jeff continue to engage in the sometimes arduous deliberate practice that leads to learning and mastery.
Jeff’s learning journey is also filled with stories of teachers who made a difference in his progress. Some of those teachers were friends. Some were other musicians. All of them helped him take on new challenges and view himself and what he could do in a different way.
“One of my first and best teachers was a musician here in Eugene named Tony Gilchrest. He was a great teacher for me, because he didn’t study music theory and he wasn’t a professional teacher. He was just a smart guy who was a musician, who played in bands here locally, and he understood how to teach. He taught me how to listen to a song and how to figure out what the chords were in real simple songs. So he set me on the right path right from the start because he showed me how I could play songs that I liked.”
Once Jeff started building some skill at playing guitar, he encountered another problem. The challenge of playing and singing at the same time. He could play songs. He could sing songs. He just couldn’t play and sing at the same time. This all changed one evening with some very powerful coaching from a friend.
“So, once I started playing music, it was basically just me and the dog sitting in my little cabin off of 8th street. And I would very happily pound out two chords and feel like I was a rock star. I think the dog liked it.
And then, at some point, there was another person in the room where I would play guitar and the evening that I spoke of was the night that Michael Glownia came over.
He was sitting across the room from me and I was strumming chords on the guitar. I wasn’t, at that point, singing and playing, I was just playing guitar. I wasn’t able to coordinate the hands and the vocals at the same time.
As I was strumming some chords, he was talking to me and he noticed that every time he asked me a question or it was time for me to contribute to the conversation, I would stop playing the guitar. And at one point, he said, “Why did you stop playing?” when I was answering one of his questions. And I said, “Well, it’s because I can’t play guitar and speak or sing at the same time.”
He said, “Oh, that’s interesting. Why don’t we make a game out of this?”
So he told me, “Just pick three easy chords. A nice easy progression. Just play those chords over and over again and I’m going to ask you questions. And I want you to answer them for me.”
And I distinctly remember the first question that he asked me. I’m strumming guitar and he said, “What color is the sky?”
The strumming stopped and I said, “Blue”.
So he said, “Okay, let’s try that again.”
And then, for the remainder of the evening, he would have me strum these three chords on the guitar and then speak or sing my answers. He started with really simple one-word answers like, “What’s your name?”, and I would sing, “Jeff” while I was playing guitar. We would celebrate that. Like, “Wow. That’s great!”
And then he would say, “What’s your last name?” and I’d say my last name. “Okay. What’s your full name?”
Then he asked me what my address was.
Then he started to ask me questions that required more than three or four words to answer.
It was a wonderful evening.
It was a definitely a breakthrough for me, and the next day I had to get on a plane and fly to Florida to go visit family. And I was sitting on the porch of a friend’s house playing guitar and I was able to sing songs that I had already worked out with Charlie where I already had all the chords and all the words together. And from that evening on, I was able to play and sing at the same time.”
Jeff’s story of this learning session moved me when he shared it during his concert on Friday, and it moved me again when he shared it during our interview, because it is such a powerful example of deliberate practice and giving the brain exactly what it needs to figure something out.
Michael Glownia may not have been a trained music teacher or a trained neuroscientist, but he definitely employed some powerful learning principles during that jam session with his friend Jeff.
First, he decreased the complexity of the guitar playing while adding in the complexity of strumming and vocalizing at the same time—just three chords over and over instead of playing a complex song.
Second, he had Jeff engage in a cycle of Attempt-Fail-Attempt Again over and over, thus allowing the brain to analyze and adjust implicitly when something wasn’t working.
Finally, he gradually increased the complexity of the vocalizations as Jeff’s skill increased. This allowed Jeff to be always working in that “zone of proximal development” or, said another way, always stretching outside of his comfort zone.
Jeff himself thought that evening was powerful because his friend made a game of it and made it fun. But I don’t think Michael Glownia made that evening fun. I think Jeff’s brain did. Jeff came to that session already with a growth mindset and with ignition—that powerful desire to get better. Michael helped him practice really effectively by creating the right conditions. The fun came because there was no fear of failure and Jeff’s brain reliably supplied dopamine every time he struggled and then succeeded.
Lance Lisenby was another musician who helped Jeff move up the learning curve. Jeff speaks of Lance with such love and admiration in his voice. He said that Lance was one of those people who was always encouraging other musicians regardless of how skilled they currently were.
“He always was a very positive person. Especially with musicians. He always wanted to make sure musicians had an opportunity to share their talent at whatever stage they were at in their talent. For example, he’d bring up Carl to play drums. And Carl, at the time when we knew him, was a terrible drummer. He loved to drum, but he couldn’t keep beat or pay attention—it was just awful. But, he loved to drum. He loved to collect the equipment. And to Carl’s credit, he really kept at it. He didn’t quit. And Lance would keep bringing him up. And when we were playing together, he’d call Carl, and we’d say, “Yeah, let’s do it. We know that he is on a path and let’s encourage that.” And with every musician that I know of that Lance was involved with he always said, “You can do this. I can see the desire in you. Have faith in yourself. Have confidence in yourself.”
Lance and Jeff performed as an acoustic duo in Colorado Springs for about five years. Lance would play guitar and both of them would sing.
It was during this time that Lance taught Jeff another really valuable lesson about performing.
“I had just started singing with him. Sometimes I would forget the words. That’s still a problem that I have sometimes because I get nervous. We had played at one of our favorite places, the U-Pass Tavern in Woodland Park, Colorado. And afterwards someone had come up and he was talking to Lance about it and he was complementing me. He said, “Wow. Your voice sounds great. I really love your song selection.” And I interject with, “Yeah, but on the third song, in the second verse, I forgot…” and I started going through my laundry list of mistakes that I had made in my head. And Lance very gently cut me off and thanked the guy for his complement.
And as he walked away, Lance turned to me and said, “I understand. We’ve all got the list of things that we didn’t do right. But, when someone gives you a complement. Smile. Look them in the eye and say ‘Thank you’. Turn off all that other stuff that’s running through your head about what you need to fix and what you did right. Because you’re just bringing that other person down. They’ve got all this enthusiasm and gratitude. Don’t bring them down. Smile. Look them in the eye and say, ‘Thank you’.”
And that was a lesson that Lance taught me that I have never forgotten and I’ve actually shared that with other people as well.”
Another important teacher in Jeff’s life was his friend Alex Ogburn. Jeff and Alex met at the gym in Sedona, Arizona. At first, Jeff didn’t realize that Alex was a musician until one night he invited Jeff to a show. It turned out Alex was a professional musician and a “phenomenal” guitarist. Alex started an open mike night at a martini bar in Sedona. Jeff decided that this was the perfect place to make his debut as a public performer as singer and guitarist.
“He was a professional musician at the time. He would do shows all over Sedona for his living. And since he was a friend of mine, he and I would talk about music a lot. He decided to start doing an open mike at the Martini Bar in Sedona which is a great little venue. And I practiced and practiced and practiced. And I set a goal in my mind that I was going to start doing open mikes because I had been through a progression where it was me and the dog on the sofa at home, and then one other person in the room, then Michael taught me I could sing, and then I could sing for small groups in the living rooms of my home and other homes, and then it was get together for jam sessions with the musicians on the back porch and that was really intimidating. I kind of wished that I had had someone to hold my hand and guide me through that process, but a mentor didn’t appear.
So the next level for me was performing in public and that was doing open mikes. By that time, I believe, I’d been playing for about five years. And Alex was my friend. It was a safe place to go. He was the host of the open mike. It set my mind at ease.
I practiced for three months. I just worked on two or three songs. I was gonna go do an open mike.
At the first open mike, I did a song. I couldn’t remember the words. I couldn’t remember the chords. I was so nervous. I just completely destroyed the song. My first song was just absolutely wretched. And the second song wasn’t too bad and after that I pulled the plug and said, “Thank you.”
I got off stage and I remember the conversation. I was standing at the bar next to Alex while the next guy was performing. I had my guitar in my hand and I was putting it away.
Alex walks up and holds up his hand in that ‘stop’ motion and he says, “I know what you’re going to say. Don’t say it.” and I start to say, “Yeah, but…” and he says, “I know what you’re going to say. Just promise me you’ll come back next week.” and I go, “But, I…” and he says, “I know. I know. Just promise me you’ll come back next week. Promise.”
And I said, “I promise. That’s not a maybe, that’s a promise. I’m going to be here.”
And so I showed up the next week. And I practiced playing the guitar every single day for that whole week. I was horrified by my performance. So I was like, “Okay, that’s not going to happen again.”
So, I showed up the next time. And I can’t actually remember how that second performance went, but I know that I became a regular on the open mike circuit. I got to know a lot of musicians like the people that worked at the Martini Bar because I was always there. I would show up. I would invite friends to come.
And by the end of that summer, when it was time for me to leave Sedona and come back to Eugene, I was at the open mike and Lance got a text and he said, “Oh. I’ve got to go. Jeff, do you mind? Could you just run this? Could you just play a bunch of songs and if anybody comes in that wants to play let them play?”
So I was like, “Sure.”
So, I sat up on stage with my song book and I played four or five songs. And this girl came in that wanted to play. And I’m like, “Oh Hey. Here’s Heather. She’s going to play some songs.” And she played some songs and then I got back up on stage.
And, I got over that hurdle of the open mike and performing in public.”
This story resonated strongly with me.
Years ago, I gathered up my courage and stepped out on to a stage in Alaska and sang my song. And everyone kept drinking their beer and talking and laughing instead of leaning in and listening like my friends did when I sang for them. I wanted to disappear. I was horrified. I never wanted to feel that feeling again.
In that moment, I made up a very unhelpful story about who I was as a singer and what kind of courage I possessed. I did not have an Alex in my corner. I didn’t have anybody telling me that failing didn’t mean you don’t have what it takes—that it just means you need to try again. That it just means you need to show up next week. And I didn’t show up the next week, or the next month, or the next year. I haven’t sung in public since that night.
So, as a teacher, now that I know about how learning works, I am passionate about ensuring that the message that the brain learns from failure goes out loud and clear. I aim to be an Alex. I aim to keep asking others to promise to show up. To come back next week.
The final teacher that Jeff shared about was Marty Chilla. Marty is the acoustic guitar player in a Eugene band called the Sugar Beets. He is also one of the few formal instructors in Jeff’s musical journey.
“He is a fantastic music instructor. I took lessons with Marty—which is kind of a strange way to put it because when you sit down with Marty you’re not really taking a lesson, you’re playing music with a friend. And he and I talked about songwriting.
I haven’t fully explored my songwriting. I’ve only written about a half dozen songs and there aren’t any that I really feel comfortable sharing because some are really sad and are personal or are about something in my life.
But Marty taught me. He said, “Whatever you create is whatever you create. Don’t put any expectations on it.”
He said, “Why don’t we just start with a lullaby—something really simple. Just go home this week and just write a lullaby. It doesn’t have to be good. Who cares if it’s bad. Anything that you do—it’s just yours. So just completely release any thoughts of judgement, because that’s what stops you from creating.”
So, that was a really powerful lesson that Marty engrained in me. Just be free. Be yourself. Do things that are really simple. Turn the judgement off. And have fun!
And I came back the next week with a lullaby.
I haven’t really taken to songwriting. Only because that genii isn’t out of the bottle yet. But there will be a time when I do start writing. And, I’ve already got songs in my head and I’ve already got songs that are half written.
But, it’s okay that I’m not writing my own songs at this point. I think that my next adventure is to be the guy that is the music at the winery that people go visit on a Sunday afternoon and I do James Taylor and really fun sing-along songs for them. No one’s paid me to actually sit on a bar stool in their pub and be the entertainment—as least not as a solo performer.”
So that was what Jeff is taking on next. Learning how to become a paid solo performer. So he organized a concert. He invited his friends and pushed himself to step outside of his comfort zone once again to help prepare himself to take the next step in his quest to become a professional musician.
I asked Jeff if there was any time when he felt stopped or scared of taking the next step.
“I never felt stopped, but I certainly have had many times where I felt stagnated, where I wasn’t moving forward and everything that I did sounded the same. And, as you know, when you go through a learning process with something like this, which is a lifelong learning process, you have plateaus where you have these great increases in learning and knowledge and then it levels off and there is nothing really new or significant happening.
I remember this great, great answer that my buddy Lance gave me onetime. I said to him, “I can’t wait until I get really, really good at playing guitar.”
And Lance said, “Me too.”
And, you know, Lance is really the most phenomenal guitar player on the planet as far as I was concerned.
But, it is a lifelong learning process—something like this.
And I would say, for me, when I got to those plateaus, they’re definitely frustrating. I might go out and look for a new music teacher—someone that might inspire me. Or I might try to sit down and tackle some of the videos that I’ve saved on YouTube. It’s like, okay, here’s something that I want to learn. But, most often, if I’m in a plateau, what will happen is I’ll sit there for just an unbearably long time and then something will pop out at me that will be so inspirational that I’ll go, “Oh my gosh. I have to learn this song.”
And the song that I did towards the end of the set that was really soft and I finger picked some strums, was a song called This Town. And it’s such a beautiful song. As soon as I heard it, I immediately gravitated toward it. And as a musician, I had to listen to it a thousand times before I could pick up the guitar and try to play it.
And I realized I couldn’t really do justice to the song by just strumming the chords. So, what happened out of desire to be able to play the song. I’m like, “I really love this song. I really need to play this song. It doesn’t sound right with me just strumming through these four chords. I’m going to keep toying with this music in different ways.”
And sometimes it just meant hitting the off-switch on trying and sitting on the sofa watching football while I’m absent mindedly strumming the chords.
And for that particular song, I was absolutely at a plateau. I hadn’t done anything new or different with my music in months. I was completely stagnant.
And for some reason, somehow, my fingers found this way to pluck the strings rather than strum the chords. And so, I found a way to finger pick that song. And I even had to change where the chords are in the song.
If you listen to the original, he’s not playing the same chord that I’m playing during certain verses because I had to change the songs chords to make it fit how I sang or what sounded great for my ears. So, I probably worked on that song for three weeks.
That was definitely another breakthrough for me—a next level experience. And I didn’t know it until I played it in my house and Joseph said, “Wow. You’ve just evolved. I’ve just witnessed the evolution of you as a player and a singer.”
So, thank you Jeff Pagano. Thank you for sharing your music with the world. Thank you for being a lifelong learner. Thank you for sharing your learning journey with us and for inspiring people like me, who still feel like we have a song to sing, to keep the dream of becoming musical alive no matter how old we are. Cheers.
(Gary Marcus, by the way, for all that he started with less musical skill than Jeff started with, also succeeded in transforming himself into a musician and a songwriter.)