01 January 2005

          Learning the Guitar

          The guy who taught me guitar
          used to live two doors away.
          He didn't wear ripped jeans
          or long hair or a Cobain attitude.
          Didn't smoke or drink or listen
          to rough rowdy people
          like Jimi Hendrix
          or the Rollins Band.
          He was pleasant,
          plump and average-looking.
          When he played, his fingers
          moved confidently
          up and down the frets,
          knowing exactly where they
          were going and why.
          As he played, his fingers
          brought the stiff nylon strings
          to life and coaxed them
          into sweet, subtle
          harmonies together.

          He didn't even like the guitar
          all that much. He preferred the piano
          or the keyboards. Sang too.
          He could play drums quite easily
          because he was born with rhythms
          running in his head. Mostly he
          admired music that was
          "Hear that?" he'd say, delighted,
          if a song surprised him. "Da da dum,
          da da dum, da da dum, da!"
          If he heard it once, he could
          almost always play it
          back on his
          guitar immediately.

          When I started to learn, he taught me
          some chords and things
          for the right-hand fingers
          to do. Plucking, pinching,
          strumming in various patterns.
          Like a series of
          repeated dance steps
          for fingers, instead of feet.
          It was harder than I expected.
          But I kept at it. He liked that.
          I played one or
          two hours every day,
          until my fingertips hurt
          too much.
          He'd spot my mistakes.
          Show me how to do it right.
          Late at night, I'd carry
          my old guitar back to my room,
          wondering about
          the impossible difficulty
          of playing arpeggios
          and grand barre chords.

          One fine day, I thought
          that I was starting to get it right.
          Then he said that fingers had never
          really been my biggest problem.
          My problem was ears.
          "Your ears are not so good," he said.
          "You never listen to music." I blinked.
          I'd been listening to music
          since I discovered my father's
          Presley records at age eight. And what
          could possibly be wrong
          with my ears?
          "What I mean is, you don’t listen to
          music properly. You've never
          really tried," he explained. "The chords,
          the notes. The bass line. When you hear music,
          you must be able to hear
          the guitarist's fingers,
          hear where they're going."
          I was much disheartened.
          Sometimes I couldn't even see what his
          fingers were doing,
          much less hear where they were going
          on the guitar neck.
          But he said: "Well, you can learn.
          It might take years.
          But if you keep trying, you'll
          get there eventually."
          And I knew then that I'd just
          have to keep on trying.

          Eventually he found a job
          and moved away. Working in the
          airline industry. Rented an
          apartment of his own.
          I never saw him again.
          Except once, at a bar,
          where he moonlit on weekends.
          He came to talk to me, but
          only briefly, because he had to
          get back on stage to play.
          It was a small, smoky bar
          somewhere out of town.
          But it was a place to which
          people came to listen to the music.
          They really did.
          They stopped talking to listen
          when he played. They clapped
          loudly and shouted
          when he finished.
          He played like a beautiful
          dream, and they loved
          him for it. He smiled and waved
          and loved them back.
          For me, his music now was as familiar
          as a favourite memory, and just
          as subtle. As evocative as ever.

          And myself? Well, it's been some
          time since I first started to play.
          I've better at it now. Not great,
          but much better.
          My fingers know where to go.
          And I can hear music better than I used to.
          Still, there are times when I sit
          in my room and play guitar,
          singing a bit,
          and feel unsure about
          what to do next.
          Then I try to pretend,
          to imagine
          that I'm the guy who
          used to live two doors away.
          I try to imagine that I, too,
          can hold a guitar
          and make it come alive.
          Sometimes I can feel the difference.
          I can start to feel the music.
          And a little bit of magic starts to flow
          from my fingers.
posted by Gilbert at Saturday, January 01, 2005


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