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Photo ofCynthia Toum

I picked up the guitar during the summer when I was 12 years old. But by the summer of 2020, despite five years passing, I still felt that I was not past the beginner level. I knew in my heart I loved the guitar because I practiced all the time, but the hours of practice never felt good enough. 

When you're a guitarist, especially when you're a self-taught guitarist, YouTube is an interesting teacher. It's a hard place to navigate. Using YouTube as a guide to teach myself guitar, I came across many different teachers. There’s “four chord Joe” who would teach most of the songs I’d want to learn, but replace complicated chords with the simplest chords. But It was too easy! It felt wrong! There’s the “wannabe Berklee graduate” who taught using only music theory. Everything they said sounded like an alien-language. How did I measure up against all the other guitarists who have been playing for as many years as I had? 

I could not count the amount of “my 1-year guitar progress” videos showing people who have gotten past my guitar level in one year. My confidence began to wane as the six year old guitar prodigies played “through the fire and flames” with what looked like no effort at all. I compared myself constantly, and I never saw myself getting better. The practice never felt good enough because I never became as good as those on YouTube. 

Then, in my sophomore year, my friend told me, “You should audition as the lead guitarist for the school’s show choir!” I was so unsure of my skill, I did not feel good enough to play for anyone, but I told my friend I would audition. Going into the audition I was terrified. Although I learned the material thoroughly, the nerves told me that I was not enough. When I played the piece in front of the show choir director my hands shook with fear. I thought he’d say, “I’m sorry, but you’re not at the level to join the ensemble.” But when I finished the audition, the director stood up to tell me, “You’re in!” 

Being in the show choir’s band was very surprising. Everything in me told me I was not good enough. I worried: what if the choir director made a mistake? What if I mess everything up because I fail to meet the expectations? 

Rehearsal after rehearsal I felt myself getting more comfortable with the material and playing with the show choir. Rehearsal after rehearsal I felt myself get more comfortable moving my hands along the fretboard, speeding my way through the guitar solos. My confidence began to grow. 

I felt that I was able to tackle our first competition head on. It was a home competition, I was in my element, and there was no fear. My playing mattered to others. Competition after competition, I worked hard, and performed with everything in me. All the guitar knowledge from “four-chord Joe’s”, “wannabe Berklee graduates,” and comparison with peers, lead to these moments on stage where I would perform for hundreds of people. 

On a Saturday night, in February, we were at a competition in Ohio. I found myself standing in a filled-to-the-brim hot and humid auditorium waiting for awards -- it was nerve-wracking, but exciting. But then I heard it: “Best lead guitarist goes to…” Heads snapped to stare at me. My friends’ jaws dropped. People screamed my name. I ran up on stage to grab a trophy, _my _trophy. I won best lead guitarist! Giddiness filled my body. Friends high fived me left and right. 

Throughout my guitar journey I always felt not good enough, constantly comparing myself to those on YouTube. Fact of the matter is, I would have gotten nowhere without my YouTube teachers. More importantly, I would have gotten nowhere without the show choir’s pit band. I picked up the guitar when I was 12 years old, five years later, I picked up a trophy on a stage. I felt good enough.

© Cynthia Toum. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person's teacher.