Thursday, September 27, 2007

My Life as Rocker Chick

I have never been what you might call "musically gifted."

I can't sing.

I can't dance.

And, for the life of me, I cannot play a musical instrument.

But that's never stopped me from trying, on all counts. My sister, for example, plays the piano beautifully — my parents forced her to take lessons for several years, but when it came to imposing extracurriculars on yours truly, they instead turned to sports (softball, volleyball and basketball).

So I'm a wicked first base(wo-)man, but when it comes to music I struggle with a few pieces I've taught myself.

I first began tickling the ivories (one-handed) when I was eight or so. An uncle had gifted me this toy instrument — a piece of plastic about two feet long that had about 20 buttons you could push to create different keys and chords (each of them numbered). It came with a book of songs, but instead of telling you what "keys" you were playing, it told you only to push a sequence of numbers.

One day I hopped on my sister's piano and figured out which keys on the piano corresponded with each of the numbers in the booklet. And by the end of the week, I could play about 15 songs on the piano.

Nothing too difficult, mind you — every song was one-handed, and the only "touching" piece of the bunch was "Brahm's Lullaby" or maybe "Greensleeves." But, man, did I play them over and over...

Eventually my sister took pity on me and taught me a "real" song — we started easy with "Heart and Soul," and after watching her play Beethoven's 5th a few times, I was able to imitate the first portion of that.

But we were moving around a lot at this time in our lives, and the piano was often in storage. By the time it was back in our "home," my sister was away at college and I was back to playing those same silly little songs on a pathetic loop.

A couple years later, I signed up to participate in my elementary school band. Problem being I had no real training on any instrument, and when you're with a teacher trying to teach 20 kids 10 different instruments simultaneously, you don't exactly learn much.

And because I struggled rather severely to understand how notes translated to the beats I'd kick out on my drum set (yes, I was a drummer for six weeks), I quickly gave up on the endeavor.
Next up was music appreciation class in junior high: we were all required to participate for a semester, and because it was overseen by the choir instructor, most of the time was spent singing and learning how to read notes and the like.

I found the class to be entirely stressful, and was more anxious about making good marks in that course than I was advanced lit or algebra.

And the teacher used this course as a means of recruiting future choir members — secretly I very much so wanted to be recruited, and he did talk to me about it once or twice. But I always got the feeling it was more so because it was a "more the merrier" sort of mentality. Fact remains some people in my class could really sing.

I just wasn't one of them.

I even somehow managed to ace all of our exams (which included music history, being able to tap out rhythms, being able to "draw" a note when you're told its name/count, etc.) and I could sorta imitate people OK when they'd sing.

But I couldn't reconcile the two.

That is to say: when given the time to think, I could comprehend what a note entailed. And for the most part I could repeat a note/pitch when someone else sang it first. But I couldn't read music and play/sing it at the same time.

I could study; memorize; do well on exams; but when it came time for any practical application of what I learned, I was useless.

And not to mention: crestfallen.

[This also holds true for art class, where I was never able to translate my thoughts onto canvas, though I filled pages of my notebooks with silly little sketches.]
But I'd still sing whenever no one was listening. And I'd still step up to the piano whenever I was the only one home. I'd make up songs, forgotten just as quickly as I'd create them: never sure of which notes I was using, what time I was keeping, etc.

Jump ahead a few years later, after academia had run its course. I was inhaling new music by the handful, marveling by how sometimes the sweetest melody was a lone voice accompanied by a single string instrument.

So one day I asked my brother if I could snag his guitar: that was the instrument my parents had forced him to learn so many years ago, and by this point he hadn't touched it in a decade. It seemed somehow accessible to me: acquiring a piano was unrealistic, particularly given my nomadic way of life. And, besides, one of my cousins and several of my friends had taught themselves to play.

So why couldn't I?

Said cousin helped me tune the guitar; gave me a print-out of "easy tabs" that'd he'd found online. And I was off.

Only... I wasn't.

C-Major was the first chord on the list, and I struggled for weeks to "master" it. I couldn't for the life of me get my fingers on all three strings without snuffing out the ones between them. The chord was muffled, and hollow, whenever I'd try to play it.

So I did what any other struggling musician would do: I cursed my short fingers as the cause of all my troubles, wondering if there wasn't some way I could make them a centimeter or two longer...

But then one day my cousin and I both took our guitars to our grandparents' home. And though I'd heard my grandfather play the guitar my whole life — but always from a distance, with him on stage at church — I'd never seem him play up close. And suddenly these massive fingers — each as thick as two or three of mine — were strumming out gospel and bluegrass in the most hypnotic fashion.

Translation: I no longer had my short, fairly stubby fingers to blame.

It was just... me. I couldn't do it. I had this immense desire not just to play music, but to create it. And I was useless on both counts.
But this was all happening shortly after I moved home, after a few years of being away for school. And those friends who were self-taught started creeping out of the woodwork, and before I knew it we were regularly getting together on the weekends, playing Scattergories well into the midnight hour, and sitting around strumming our guitars (yeah, I know... we're a wild bunch).

There were sometimes more than a dozen of us, at least 6 with a musical instrument in tow. And a couple of them convinced me that my problem with C-Major was simply a matter of learning songs that didn't require it.

So they taught me a few other chords. And through the fine power of imitation, I also learned to play a handful of songs.

And knowing these few chords enabled me to go home, look up "new" songs, and learn a couple more tunes.

Until one day I showed up and played the first half of "We Are Going to Be Friends" — my favorite White Stripes song. And for once, I was actually showing other people how to play something.

[Granted, the first half of that song is easy — but it gets difficult, and I've never mastered the whole thing.]

And so it goes for about a year of my life. One of the best years, really, now that I look back on it. But I'm a restless sort, and I was frustrated with how little there was to do when friends weren't handy (which was increasingly the case as they got involved in long-term relationships, started having kids, etc.). Not to mention, job opportunities were few... and though I liked the "gig" I had, the pay was awful.

So I moved.
And I still played the guitar from time to time in my new city, but my two hour daily commute was really cutting into my free time. Besides, since moving here I've had a difficult time finding like-minded individuals who were up for hanging out without getting wasted — or the ones I did find were boys who weren't content with just being friends, though I wasn't interested in anything else. But that's another story.

Suffice it to say that when it comes to music, I need the sort of guidance I don't have here. And so: before I knew it, the instrument was held captive in its case for. Well.

Far too long.

But something happened last week. I don't know if it's because I was sick and not going to the gym (coupled with my home computer being next to useless) — so I had ample amounts of free time — or if it was watching The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Daniel Johnston doesn't have the best voice, and really isn't even all the good on the guitar... but the end result is still raw... and touching). Or maybe it was when I went to clean my apartment before a visit from a friend, and I felt a little sick to my stomach to realize how much dust was on my guitar case.

Whatever it was, I've been thinking a lot of those months where I played the guitar rather consistently — and how rewarding it felt to hear a real tune produced by my hands — and it seemed somehow wrong to continue to allow my guitar to languish in its case.

So I took it out of retirement this past Monday. Cut off my fingernails (which I'd grown to a respectable length).

And then cursed myself to realize how much I'd forgotten. None of those songs came to me. I struggled again with C-Major (the only chord I remembered "how" to do, though I still couldn't do it). And even the one song I'd (mostly) taught myself was somehow this distant creature that existed only in memory.

I couldn't play a single thing.

I suspect this has something to do with the fact that I never really learned to read music or associate sounds with the placement of my fingers of the strings. All I ever did was memorize songs — which is entirely different from truly understanding the mechanics of an instrument.

But all is not lost. I took my "Teach Yourself Guitar" book out of retirement as well; looked up some familiar tabs; and by Wednesday I was playing the White Stripes again.

And now I'm finally learning what the strings mean. I pluck them one by one and play single chords over and over again, repeating the name of each, trying to build up an association between the sound and the thing.
Will I stick with it this time? I'm thinking of signing up for lessons, just to force myself to give it a go for a few months.

But however I look at it, one thing is missing:


Funny how sometimes you catch yourself in the middle of Everything, sick for a time and place that you once didn't hesitate to term Nowhere.


disgruntled world citizen said...

i never got the hang of the guitar, i was kind of forced in high school music class to play it. i got as far as "little brown jug" and called it a day. i played the piano for years, but around high school i stopped. i can still play, but i can only do my righ hand. my left hand is useless. i can make the notes on the treble work via my right hand, but the bass? nada. i played the trumpet for a while, too. i enjoyed it, but i wasn't very good. i am envious of people who can play intstruments well and are able to make those little black notes on a big white page turn into something beautiful. keep plucking away on the git... good luck.

disgruntled world citizen said...

i never got the hang of the guitar, i was kind of forced in high school music class to play it. i got as far as "little brown jug" and called it a day. i played the piano for years, but around high school i stopped. i can still play, but i can only do my righ hand. my left hand is useless. i can make the notes on the treble work via my right hand, but the bass? nada. i played the trumpet for a while, too. i enjoyed it, but i wasn't very good. i am envious of people who can play intstruments well and are able to make those little black notes on a big white page turn into something beautiful. keep plucking away on the git... good luck.

Anonymous said...

great to hear you're back at it. even though it's been about 30 years now since the last time we talked, I think you're the sort of person that can pick up and play and enjoy something of it. don't get discouraged by the whole song thing... I've probably been playing 15 years or so and could maybe pull up 10 - 12 songs I could play the whole way through. but I can comp with most anything. do miss hanging out playing music with some of the others from Rudy's classes. I think you were over a time or two back then when that was going on. I just got a banjo. it's pretty cool.

anyway... hang with it. we'll jam next time you're in town.


Unacademic Advisor said...

I know exactly what you mean about Everything and Nowhere. I often feel that way. I'm still holding out for an In-Between.

Eli Edmundson said...

Wow, you made me feel nostalgic for something I've never had! I'm musically challenged myself but reading this made me want to learn some too.

Mariposa said...

Seriously! What is wrong with us that we are so far sighted? We can see what we HAD and what we WANT but never what we HAVE.

Listen, you have the passion, the desire, the guitar. You've pursued wanting to make music since you were little. You have all you need. Just MAKE IT! It doesn't have to be perfect or crisp or precise. Great music comes from people lamenting the fact that they have no one to play Scattergories with anymore! It doesn't have to appeal to anyone but you!

Gosh. Kinda bossy and presumptuous. Not sure where that came from.

disgruntled world citizen said...

this is totally off topic, but you'll be happy to know that I watched your movie, Harold & Maude, last night, for the fist time.

Stacy said...

Can you believe DWC admits that?
I am learning the violin after more than 30 years since my grade school lessons. I actually used to be able to read the music and know how to put my fingers on the strings to make that note. A strange foreign language, but now I start at the very beginning, and it's fun.

Pamela said...

you should take up the "recorder" again, too. (isn't that what those little instruments are called that you were playing along with your sis on the piano?

I wish I'd learned to play the guitar.

XOXO said...

I rarely go to through an entire day at my morning job without thinking of you. It's impossible, "C-o-ff-ee is no-t fo-r me..." Howard would be proud.

long-term relationships, or kids?? what about me? I miss scattegories too! I think i most miss us not even looking at your score but just finding out who tried to come close.

I just realized my car radio hasn't been on. Better go listen...

radialrelish said...

I don't think I've ever played scattergories.

XOXO said...

Never played Scattergories?!? You've got to try it!