Thursday, May 03, 2012

Plucking Strings

My left forefinger is numb at the tip. I find myself scratching it with the opposite forefinger to see if it will come back to "life." It's a strange feeling that's directly related to my early 40's quest to learn an instrument: the acoustic guitar.

My instructor is an early 30's Canadian who wears all black, all the time. His hair is spikey and he's a big fan of cage-fighting. He has a swagger and a way about him that's comforting in the "classroom." It's not pretentious or cocky, but confident. It's clear to me that he's a master of his craft with 20-plus years under his belt, in his fingers with the guitar.

I, on the other hand, am a beginner, a newbie. I am a lover of music and sound—always have been. Music is in my head constantly. It's on the stereo in the morning at breakfast, at work all day, and it whispers crisply in the evening. It's no wonder, at least to me, that I would desire to take on such a monumental task of learning a seemingly simple, but supremely complicated instrument.

I've had an acoustic guitar for years. I plucked it here and there. Bought beginners books. Attempted to play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." I watched how-to videos. Ultimately I got bored with the lack of progress and frustrated with my five thumbs. The guitar went back into the padded bag and up into the storage attic in the garage.

Then came the coupon, or Groupon. A deal was to be had at the Modern Music School. I said "sure" as did my 7-year-old son. We were both in and committed. For him, the piano. For me, I would resurrect the sleeping guitar.

Six-strings down a neck doesn't seem complicated. Watch Eric Clapton or Jack White strum and pick and adjust and adapt fingers quickly. Slow it down, speed it up. It looks easy, but it's insanely complicated. The combinations are infinite.

The Lesson
My first few lessons were about familiarizing. This is this. That is that. Put this finger here, that one there. Strumming and finger picking. Here's a sample of chords. Check out the Blues. What tunes do you like? Here's what it would sound like if McCartney played it. It was overwhelming and rewarding.

The Song
Then came "Blackbird." The school is different. It's modern in approach. They ask your musical tastes. What you listen to. Who you like. My instructor started showing me "Blackbird" by the Beatles. Beautiful and clean, it's catchy and timeless. When you hear it, it sounds complicated to a virgin player. When I study and pick the strings over and over, week after week It becomes clear that it's not complicated at all. It's brilliantly clear. It's in my head, always. The structure and combinations seem to be embedded in my nerves that control my finger tips. I can play the first few bits in my head.

While I understand the combinations, I fumble more than I prevail. I have trouble with the transitions. Monday class comes too quick it seems. Practice time is scarce. I attempt to cram 30 minutes before. It's high school all over again. I make it clear I have not practiced to my cool teacher. He understands. Onward.

Eventually and most recently I realized that I must ramp up the effort. I view it as my last chance to "get it." I want to master "Blackbird." This progress or progression will push me toward other songs. I push a bit harder. I take the song in chunks. I'm slow but I understand it more and more as time goes by. I can play it albeit choppy.

This rewire of the brain to try and understand the guitar at its most basic of levels has been hard. Just six simple strings has pushed my patience, and tested my dexterity, and at the same time the complexity of the instrument has made me appreciate those who have learned it.

The one sure thing that I know is that I have a hell of a long way to go, just to tame this bird.