Tuesday, January 12, 2010

While D's Guitar Gently Weeps or Guitar Lesson #1

When I was five-years-old my mother overheard me picking out a tune on the piano by ear that my brothers' were learning in their weekly lessons and immediately signed me up for lessons with their teacher who thought I might have a knack for it. Unfortunately, my brothers hated practicing and I mimicked everything my brothers did, so the lessons didn't quite go as planned. I learned to read music, but had a hard time matching my fingers to the notes or even deciphering their names without pausing, removing my hand from the keys and spelling out "F-A-C-E" or saying "Every Good Boy Does Fine." Instead, I relied on my ear; sometimes my finger would hover over a key just a millisecond longer than a good pianist would, knowing it was going to be the wrong note and flinching, internally, at the mistake I was about to make. As I got older and Mom gave up on the lessons, I found solace in banging out songs familiar to my fingers after a bad day at school or a frustrating game on the soccer/softball/field hockey field. Over time, I grew to love the piano again, but never quite grasped the translation of note names and their key correspondents. Nowadays, if I sit at the piano for three or four days straight, the sounds re-introduce themselves to my fingers enough for me to temporarily memorize the pattern which they should play to make the song I hear in my head. I read the music s.l.o.w.l.y. those first two days, picking out the tunes and reminding myself what the notes look like and which finger should reach for them; by the third or fourth day, I'm steady until, finally, it comes easily again. I can tell by running my fingers just once across the keys whether it needs to be tuned or not and which notes are off.

In fourth grade, I started the drums and played until I was fourteen. I listened for percussion in songs and was even given the title of "first drummer" in our school band, a role that came with having no sheet music to accompany the rest of the band's song and required me to play by ear, which, of course, I loved. That stopped when I entered high school and singing came to be the popular instrument of choice by my peers. So I took singing lessons for six months, an instrument, it turned out, I was not as naturally talented at.

Now, though, having just turned thirty-years-old, I am surrounded by guitarists. Dustin has two guitars here at our house: one that hangs from a hook in his office and the other that lives in an old black case. I am naturally attracted to the wooden acoustic guitar, with it's sleek glossy body and strong neck. Whenever Dustin or a friend plucks out a tune on the guitar, I immediately think of my mother in her youth who once told me she played the guitar. I knew it was true since the catalyst for me asking if she played the guitar lived in our small, cold computer room tucked, almost forgotten, away on the second floor of our house. The room was built off the staircase to the attic. It was narrow, like the neck of a guitar, and housed an old Mac computer with two games (Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and a WPM typing test). An ancient printer sat to the right of the computer and at least two long-sleeved shirts and a hoodie needed to be worn if one ventured into that part of the house. The only other object in the room was a wooden guitar with a busted string. I want to imagine that I wanted her to teach me, but that may be a fallacy. Somehow, though, the image of my mother with the wooden guitar nestled into her lap stays with me, though I've never seen it, and some part of me wants so badly to learn how to play it, to share this music with my family and my mother.

Sometime after my comprehensive exams last semester, I decided it was time to learn the guitar and I whipped out Dustin's wooden one while he was out of the house, pulled up some online instructions and tried my hardest to understand what all the lines, dots and numbers meant to no avail. This semester, I called upon my guitar-playing friends for advice, help, lessons...anything...and tonight, after a seitan cutlet parmesan dinner with Rory and Dustin at our home, Rory patiently gave me my first guitar lesson.

Dustin retreated to his study to read and kindly tolerated my picking and inquiries and Rory's careful instruction. So far, I've learned that holding the neck of the guitar and pressing down the frets is an abnormal motion for the human hand/wrist to perform. I can't tell the difference between whether a string is out of tune because it's too high or too low and this is going to be a lot harder than skilled guitarists make it look. But now I can tune a guitar and know what the dots and lines mean, learned some scales and chords and will be practicing like crazy until that guitar nestles into my lap and plays for me the way I imagine it did for my mother, until I have callouses on my fingers where the strings have made them stronger. Rory says my ear and my fingers and my wrist will all adjust...I just hope, after I cut my fingernails, that he's right.

Thanks D for letting me use your guitar and for tolerating my picking and prodding while you study. Thanks, Rory, for being a patient, thorough teacher. We're going to have to come up with a better tradeoff than seitan for what you're teaching me.

I'll let the rest of you know how it goes as we progress.

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