On Going Back to School

Friday, May 21st, 2010

I’m teaching myself how to play the guitar. I have the Idiot’s Guide and a Fender acoustic, whose neck is too small for my left hand but is nonetheless playable. Too small, because at the size of my fingers, it’s tough to play something like A without the index rubbing up against the third string.

This whole enterprise is 1) a humbling experience. I used to play trumpet in high school. I was pretty good, moving to first chair in the marching band and jazz band at the ripe age of 14. We traveled to Mexico city in 1979 or 80, we won lots of awards in jazz. After high school I played in a band that did a few weddings and parties, playing Chicago-like music. But tennis, computers, and a novel drew me then and I lost interest in gigs, music, and lugging around equipment. So, I must start from scratch. The first order of business was to strengthen both hands, toughen the tips of my left hand fingers to withstand razor sharp acoustic strings, and start training my brain to recognize left and right hand relationships. It’s like I’ve hit the first grade again, struggling to make sound.

After three weeks, I can pluck Clair de Lune, play a nursery rhyme (barely–I think it’s Pop Goes the Weasel), and strum a few cords. Barring’s getting easier and I have lots of interesting warmups. I know how to read notes and patterns but I haven’t yet passed my first set of self-imposed quizzes. I won’t move to brighter things until I have those basics done, though I do read ahead into the book.

2) I have that learning anxiety that everyone feels when facing the unknown: will I be able to master basics and thus move on to things more advanced, like varied accompaniment? The first impasse has been proper plucking technique, which is a brain knotter. When the player goes from first to third string with annulas and index respectfully, the player experiences one of those cognitive surprises, as in “how does one do that without going mad?” But when the movement grew easier, typically on the second day, then easier on the third day, I felt that elation people feel when what seemed impossible one day is now possible. When does a person know they learned something?

In the fiction writing (which is different from verbal storytelling), this feeling of elation may take years to experience as the ability to compress an image (or understand the arc) is one of those sneaky things. It’s important to know what sort of a learner one is. I’m an obsessive, so when I want to learn something, that particular skill will become the sole object. This is true of software, programming, gardening, wine, cooking, and Beowulf the work, which drives my wife crazy, as during the learning of something, such as “the shop saw” or some particular character in a new novel, I have a hard time “listening” to what she had to say five minutes ago. The problem is, there’s always something to learn next. The guitar should keep me going for years, as the “objective” is to learn flamenco and some tunes my wife may be able to sing a long to when we’re sitting about the fire pit (which I need to learn how to build, too).

3) As a dedicated generalist, it’s hard to always keep focused on one thing at a time, as the world is loaded with “too much to learn and too many distractions” which may tends to greed, glossing, over-confidence, and the adulteration of expertise. So, I’m forcing myself to repeat repeat repeat in an effort to fight dilution and the urge to learn a cool progression before I really know what I’m doing.

The person at the head (of course, this metaphor is misleading) of a classroom should always be reminded what challenges feel and sound like and how failing over and over again tests ambition. I feel like I’m back in the first or second grade, plinking my way through a few trivial sounds. But I also feel that sounding out the C chord to a degree better than the day before is really explosive and that moving smoothly from C to G7 is actually possible. Wow, the little things.

We can also do this with a new electrical grid and new energy forms. That’s said, then.


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