Monday, October 19, 2009

Bound by Strings of Steel

The Struggles and Triumphs of Two Fledgling Guitarists

I’ve written before that my son chose as his first instrument the guitar. He made this choice several years ago after seriously rocking out on a toy electric guitar he’d received for his birthday. And it just seemed like a good fit. My older boy has always had an air of “cool” about him. He’s laid-back, easygoing, and cute as a lolcat with a clever caption. He was born to be a balladeer, a trail of swooning teen girls lying in his wake or throwing rose petals at his feet as he strides along, innocently unaware of the tidal sea of estrogen lapping at his ankles.

I’ve always had a great relationship with my daughter, and being home last Spring improved my relationship with my younger boy, but I’ve made a conscious effort to ensure that my older son, the middle child, never felt slighted by his dad in even the vaguest way. Prior to 2009, I’d spent a couple years playing World of Warcraft online, and my older son had really gotten into it. So much so that I set him up with his own account and we spent a fair amount of time playing together, complete with headsets and Skype for real-time voice interaction while our characters adventured together in the game. He needed quite a bit of hand-holding and guidance, but he did okay for the “under 10” age bracket. Eventually, though, I decided that it was time to put the game (and the ongoing monthly cost of operating two accounts) aside. My boy wasn’t heartbroken over it, but he wasn’t thrilled as he’d really enjoyed the game and, I can hope, the time we spent playing it together. I was determined not to lose a smidgen of the rapport we’d built adventuring together online just because the game was, for us, over.

Then I had a pretty good idea – he was nearly old enough to start the guitar lessons that he’d been asking for for nearly three years. At the same time, I was looking for an activity that he and I could do together on a regular basis. The result: I signed us both up for lessons.

Learning to make music, in and of itself, can be a daunting prospect these days. We are inundated with professional-quality performances in a way unlike any previous age in human history. Masterpieces of classical, traditional folk, and modern music are all available at the click of a mouse, on the radio, on TV, in the mall and the elevator and the office and the restaurant. Most of us are surrounded by music for hours every day in a way that our ancestors near and distant couldn’t have imagined and probably wouldn’t have wanted. And even if you don’t care for a given genre, the music itself is professionally performed and highly polished to a degree that any novice performer would find impossible to replicate. We all know what it’s supposed to sound like because we hear it all the time, but it’s beyond the means of mere mortals to replicate.

So with mediocrity a foregone conclusion, I headed over to Carousel Mall’s Guitar Outlet (which I was going to hyperlink, but they don’t seem to have a website. Hrumph.), to pick up some student guitars. I’d gotten some guidance from various coworkers in the past, but merely enough to appreciate the dark depths of my guitar ignorance.

Walking into the store was, I confess, intimidating. This was a store for professional musicians. It’s not that they were in the least bit unwelcoming or elitist or did anything that should have in the smallest way made me feel uncomfortable. But people can be odd when they feel like they’re outside their familiar and comfortable realm of experience. And there’s nothing familiar or comfortable for me about being in a store full of equipment I haven’t the vaguest notion how to properly use (and am afraid I might break).

I sidled into the store with a casual air of “I’m not really here,” hoping and fearing that the staff would ask if I needed help. In my head, I raced to compose a description of what I wanted to purchase that didn’t make me sound as timid and fearful as I was. It’s funny how that works – an otherwise confident person, which I usually am, when bereft of enough information to really understand what he’s trying to accomplish in detail, is so easily reduced to a hesitant, skittish little child, afraid of sounding a fool, afraid of spending precious money and finding himself left with nothing but a handful of “magic beans,” afraid of… afraid of that very feeling of helplessness. It’s not a comfortable sensation, and it’s self-perpetuating. The more helpless you feel, the more you tend to dwell on the feeling, which tends to make it worse. The only escape most of us have from spiraling into a quantum singularity of despair in these situations is that usually it ends by being not as bad as we’d anticipated, by confronting it through force of will, or by running away.

So there I was, trying to buy a guitar. Oh, an acoustic guitar. I knew that much. One that looks nice and is not too expensive (much like a shrubbery). One normal-sized acoustic guitar for me and one “smaller” one for my son. How much smaller I did not know. Are there sizes? Or does it go straight from ukulele to student-sized to grown-up sized? And what makes a good guitar good, anyway? Why are some of them $60 and some $600 (and up and up) and what’s the difference?

Fortunately, the guy who came over to help was friendly, knowledgeable, and very patient with all my questions. Evidently (and this is what the sales guy told me – I still don’t profess any deep knowledge about the quality of different guitars), the difference between inexpensive and expensive guitars boils down to how carefully they’re put together (handcrafting vs. assembly-line) and the quality of the wood. Which seems fairly common-sense, so I inquired further what impact the wood actually has on the guitar. I wondered whether it would wear out or break sooner or sound different and if so, how? He explained that better-quality woods actually improve in tonal quality with age, whereas the cheap woods used in inexpensive instruments don’t. They sound as good as they’re ever going to sound on the day they’re made. “Well, I’ll be darned,” said I.

They had a nice deal on a couple of no-name acoustic guitars for around $100 each. I think the ¾-size student one was a bit less than that. The whole process took at least an hour, but I came away with the instruments, straps, bags, and a handful of picks so we could get started on our musical journey. I’ve been back to the store several times since, each time feeling a bit less like an outsider, and the staff there has been unfailingly helpful. It’s a great store and I recommend it highly. A few weeks later, I embarked on my first serious interaction with a musical instrument, well, ever.

Our first lesson was May 31st, which means we’ve been “playing” for all of four and a half months. We are, thankfully, well past the initial stage where the strings bite into your uncalloused fingertips and you need to go running to mommy to get them kissed. My son hated waiting for me while I did that. The first few weeks were an agony that went beyond physical pain. We were learning a handful of progressive chords – A, D, and E – and it was deadly boring. Necessary, to be sure, but awfully dull. My son, to his credit, didn’t rebel or refuse or even seriously consider giving up, but he did complain often and then again often. We went on to study Am, Em, Dm, and around the end of the first month, C and G. We spent a solid month or more just strumming between those basic chords. And the worst part? More than four months later, I still routinely suck at them. It’s worth noting how frustratingly long it takes to teach your fingers to do as they’re told.

Our reward after that first month, though, was that we knew enough chords to attempt our first song. As with many other budding axe-slingers, I suspect, we began with the Eagles. And you’ve never heard Take it Easy sound so awful in your life. Everything was hard, from figuring out how and when to strum to making our fingers remember a G from a C from a D from an Am. Luckily, the arrangement we were playing was just those four chords, but boy did we struggle with it. Everything’s hard when it’s new (and isn’t much easier for a while afterwards). I still have a hard time not strumming the unplayed strings for chords like D. Actually, with D I’ve gotten to where I can comfortably use my thumb to mute strings 5 and 6 and just strum like crazy, but there are others where I inadvertently play the 6th string. Plus, my fat fingers seem to be incapable of only touching a single string at a time, so I’m always muting other strings when I shouldn’t be. I don’t know what I’ll ever do about that – these fingers aren’t getting any skinnier. Though I suspect at some point I may get better at coming straight down on them rather than hitting them at an angle (which I do now because I’m a weak, weak man), which could help.

The weeks went on and we played Take it Easy to death. We didn’t necessarily get much better at it, but we could play it badly by heart. Soon we added Peaceful Easy Feeling, also by the Eagles, and that gave us a second song to strangle. I picked up a booklet of Pubsongs from the Sterling Renaissance Faire and my son enjoyed adding Drunken Sailor and Wild Rover to our mangled repertoire. We’ve since learned the B7 chord and a bunch of power chords so we could play the blues. The which consists of playing the 12-Bar Blues in the key of E a bazillion times while we try to impress upon our mutinous and unruly fingers the dire importance of learning a basic solo pattern. I recently calculated that we’ve each practiced that solo pattern some 450 times over the last few weeks, and we’re only just barely starting to get the hang of it.

I remember folks at work telling me about how their kids loved to practice their instruments and would go up in their rooms all by themselves, without being told, and just play and play and play. This is not my experience. I think my son genuinely likes playing the guitar, but he is not a fan of practicing any more than my daughter practices her instruments without coercion or, at times, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” No, not waterboarding, usually just a lot of yelling. From both of us. My son also takes any offhand remark by our guitar teacher as an indictment against whatever new technique he doesn’t feel like practicing. For instance, our instructor characterized power chords as “cheating” at one point. So my son has taken the position that power chords are bad and he shouldn’t need to practice them. He considers double-muting to be optional and therefore not worthy of practicing. Planting your pinky on the pick guard is “helpful” in trying to hit the correct strings. But “helpful” isn’t the same as mandatory, so he doesn’t need to do that, either. There are, I admit, times when I think it might be a relief to bash myself in the face with my guitar.

On the other hand, my son recently brought out his guitar to perform for our extended family at a birthday party. When his mom asks him to play for her, he’ll gladly sit and strum out tune after tune, even singing (which he normally regards as optional and therefore unnecessary). Beyond that, his sharp mind retains an amazing level of detail about our lessons, and he explains the techniques he’s learned to my wife.

For my part, I’m enjoying both our time together and my instrument, even if they both threaten at times to turn me into a gibbering mental patient. I especially love it when I find the music for a tune that I enjoy and I am able to sit down and create a reasonable approximation of how it’s supposed to sound. I enjoy challenging myself with pieces that are clearly beyond my skill, but use chords I know. For example, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” has you changing chords in half-measures, much more quickly than my rebellious, slovenly fingers are normally willing to move, yet I find that when I play it the tune is recognizable if far from perfect. My son will even sit with me and attempt to play these new tunes (excepting Paint it Black, which he hasn’t been around to hear me try).

And that’s the point, right? I get to combine spending true quality time with my boy, plus the learning of a new skill that we can both use for years and years to come, plus the resultant ability to actually make music. Our instructor keeps telling us that we’re doing great for four months of practice and I’m sure he’s right, but the learning process is slow and tedious and just plain hard at times. The insidious way that music has infiltrated every aspect of modern life means that we all have this picture in our heads of Eddie Van Halen on stage cranking out mad riffs at blazing speed, with each note ringing out true and perfect, except that it’s not Eddie up there, it’s each of us. We can picture it, we know what it would sound like, and we can even take a pass at imagining what it would feel like (see the endless Air Guitar videos on Youtube as evidence), but a gaping chasm lies between imagining it and actually doing it. My son and I are only just starting to work our way across that chasm. On the plus side, we don’t have to actually worry about falling to our deaths, but it will be a while before we produce anything that’s not cringe-worthy. We’ll just have to keep pushing forward while my guitar gently weeps.

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