January 1st, 2009
G . . . F . . . E . . . D . . . C . . . E . . . A . . . G. The notes slide down the scale, clear and sharp, except where I flub it.
I’m learning the guitar. If you had asked me four, or maybe even two years ago if I was going to learn the guitar I would have shook my head in disbelief. It has been something of a turn-about for me. I admit I’m a bit surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t be.
There is some musical talent on both sides of my family. My mom’s sister Marianne plays the guitar, and my dad’s father played the piano, guitar, and mandolin. His father played in a band–a trumpet, I think it was. I have two cousins who can play more than one instrument, and I don’t know how many can play at least some instrument. So there is a definite musical lineage in my family, but up until this year I have been a wasteland of that particular talent.
When I was a child my parents tried to encourage me in musical directions. They sunk hard earned money into an electronic keyboard and music lessons, but I partook of them with tepid interest at best and pretty much leaped at the chance to give it up. Not only did it require diligence to practice but it was boring and I really had no appreciation for the music. It had no relevance to my life–if I was going to do something creative I would draw a picture or tell a story or make something. Music, apparently, wasn’t my natural outlet for self-expression.
My first experience with a guitar was as a little child. Marianne, being a generous aunt, gave us little kids an old practice guitar to play with. I wish I could say that sparked my musical interest, but it didn’t. It didn’t even leave me with a positive impression of guitars, though perhaps through no fault of its own. It was a classical, nylon string, guitar. It may be that I don’t care for the sound of classical guitars, or it may have been terribly out of tune. In any case, it was certainly not a quality guitar (hence, children playing with it) and in short order it was without a doubt utterly out of tune. But as a child I didn’t account for all those facts. To me it simply sounded bad, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would like a guitar. The impression stuck with me, even though I had the chance to see other people properly play steel-stringed guitars. For me, my girst memory whenever someone mentioned a guitar was a dull sounding thing, not pleasing at all.
For many years the guitar remained unfairly stereotyped in my mind, but as I grew older my opinion of music as a whole changed. I began to enjoy listening to music, (certainly the first step one must take if one is going to have any interest in things musical,) and while I haven’t become a rabid fan of every musical genre, I do enjoy a variety of music. Sometime in my teens it occurred to me that it would be enjoyable to know how to play a musical instrument. But at that point time, money, and space, were all constrained. If I was going to attempt learning any musical instrument I would have to consider it as something more than a “nice idea” if I was going to overcome the obstacles. And so my musical ambition languished.
Then sometime in 2007 or 2008 I decided I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Caring for Grandma and Grandpa had changed the situation in my life and learning a musical instrument seemed like a good way to keep myself occupied, engaged, and learning something new. It seemed, at least, like a symbolic way of saying I wasn’t stagnating. And it helped that I discovered that a basic guitar for learning was (as far as musical instruments are concerned) quite cheap. The idea of sinking a large amount of money into something that would turn out to be only a fantasy after six months was possibly more intimidating than the idea of attempting a musical instrument itself.
For a while I played around with the idea of getting a guitar, and finally in 2008 more definitive intentions began to coalesce. In the autumn Grandma heard of my interest in learning the guitar, and immediately suggested my uncle Kevin could give me Grandpa’s old guitar. “It’s just sitting in his attic,” she said. This was news to me. I had been under the impression that Grandpa had sold off his guitar many years ago and its presence in the family was nothing more than a dim memory. So it was with some bemusement, and a bit of excitement, that I received a battered guitar case from my Uncle Kevin in the middle of October. Already Grandma had dug up Grandpa’s old guitar lesson books. Everything was falling into place.
By this time part of my mind knew that the reality of guitars was not represented in the un-tuned and abused object we had played with as little kids. But some part of me still had not shaken those deep-seated memories, because when my fingers brushed across the strings of the guitar they twanged with a clear sweet sharpness that surprised me. “Wow,” I thought. “That sounds nice.” Somehow, learning an instrument didn’t seem like that dull thing of my childhood memories.
So I am learning how to play Grandpa’s guitar. It is a bittersweet experience, in a way. What I have is a piece of history, a piece of Grandpa’s history from a long time ago. I play the instrument of the man I care for.
I know very little about guitars, but I’m sure this one is not a very good one. Grandpa would never spend a lot of money on himself. The guitar lesson books he bought were used, and I’m pretty sure the guitar was also second-hand and second-rate when he bought it. Now it has sat for years in an attic. The guitar case is worn, and stained, and the guitar itself shows many signs of age. The tuning keys are stiff, and grooves are worn in the fretboard where the strings have been pressed against the frets. The body of the guitar itself is cracked in both the front and back (from excessive drying in a very hot, dry attic, I suspect,) and the wood of the body feels slightly punky in places. It is surprising the guitar sounds as good as it does, but it can still tune and play. It’s good enough for me.
The guitar is older than I am. Grandpa’s lesson books now sit on my shelf, the worn covers stating, “The New Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method.” Inside the front cover the names of two previous owners are scribbled out. The completed date scrawled beside the early lessons is from June 1974, seven years before I was born. Flipping through the old lesson books, and pulling out the guitar with its strap, and the spare strings still carefully coiled in their packages at the bottom of the case, is like rummaging through a distant part of Grandpa’s life. When I brush my hands over the strings, touching strings that Grandpa played decades ago, and the notes hum out, it is like I am feeling and hearing Grandpa’s past–a part of his life I have never seen or heard before. A part of his life from long before he became what he is now. A time when he could still learn something that I am struggling to learn. It is somehow quietly sad, and when playing such an instrument it is hard to not think about how time marches on, leaving so many things behind.
At first I was hesitant to practice in front of Grandpa. From my past attempts to share recorded music with him, I already knew he had very particular opinions about what he liked. One song he might enjoy very much, and the next he would proclaim as “terrible” when I might find only a trifling difference in quality. Even more than that, his Alzheimer’s had made him increasingly sensitive to the mood of music. A long, slow piece of cello music would make him feel terribly sad and afraid, and he could not abide listening to it. Further, as someone who had mastered the guitar I suspected Grandpa might be particularly sensitive to someone playing it poorly, and all around I didn’t want to torment him.
I waited until I had mastered something resembling a song before I tried playing in front of Grandpa. It was then I discovered that I was wrong. Grandpa enjoyed listening. Not only did he enjoy listening, but he was highly approving of my learning. I don’t recall having ever discussed learning musical instruments with Grandpa, but for a man typically dour I found him surprisingly positive on learning how to play. It was then I realized that I had touched on something near to his heart.
“That’s a nice guitar,” he said, brightening at what was perhaps my first appearance with it. “Where did you get that?”
“It’s your old guitar, Grandpa,” I said. “Do you remember it?”
“It is?” he said, sounding half uncertain, half confused. “Well, I think it is good.”
I have been playing for a little over two months now. I am learning, slowly, but I have much more to learn. I have no expectation of becoming a great guitar player. I would be happy if I eventually became able to play average songs with average ability. But that is only later, maybe. Right now I have finished learning the first position and I am beginning on learning chords. Right now I hate chords, especially the F chord. The real problem is holding down two strings with my first finger. I can hold down one string with my first finger, one with my second, and one with my third. But holding down two strings with my first finger while holding down one with the other two is presently just about agony to pull off, and we’re not talking about in a musically successful fashion. I’ll never be able to do it, I think. But I am old enough, and mature enough, to recognize the source of that feeling, and how I have felt it every step of the way in this learning process and how each time I have managed to overcome.
I have found it enjoyable to play guitar music. But I have also found the simple learning itself to be enjoyable. It has been a long time since I’ve learned something so completely new. The struggle, the dawning understanding, and the opening of a new world is something in itself. It reminds me of the newness in life, at a time when sometimes it feels like everything is dull and repetitive.
Grandpa listens when I play for him. It would be untrue to say that he listens with constant attentiveness. I sit in the middle of the living room and play. Grandpa sits on the couch. Sometimes he listens while he plays with his magazines, idly folding and tearing sheets of paper. Sometimes he falls asleep as I play. Sometimes he just sits quietly and listens. And sometimes his mind wanders off, perhaps carried by my music to distant memories. There have been days when it seems like my music brings up thoughts. He will interrupt and say, “But what about . . . what about . . .” but then he can’t remember what he was going to say, or ask, and I haven’t a clue. Then there are the times when he forgets what he is doing. One evening he loudly announced, “Where am I and what am I doing?” To which I blandly replied. “You’re sitting on the couch listening to me play the guitar.”
Sometimes he doesn’t know I am playing the guitar, and perhaps he isn’t even aware of the sound. But other times I know he is. He will say, “That sounded good” when I finish a piece. Or if I hit a string badly he might quite seriously (and innocently) say, “Did you hear that? It sounded like there is a goat calling downstairs!” One time when I finished playing “Micheal, Row The Boat Ashore” he spontaneously burst out in the last line of the song (without me having told him what I was playing). Another time when I finished playing “Tom Dooley” he asked me what song that was, and when I told him he said, “Ah. I knew it, and I just kept trying and trying to remember.”
Along with remembering songs, Grandpa still remembers some things about his own time learning the guitar those many years ago. Sometimes when I am muttering or gasping in frustration at some difficulty he will make a comment. One day he gave a little laugh and said, “Got grooves in your fingers, huh?” (Which indeed I did.) Another time when I complained about how difficult it was to learn the chords he gave some garbled statement of agreement. (It sounded like he made some comment about the D chord, but I couldn’t decipher his statement–however, I just now went and looked up the D chord and it does indeed look like a doozy, so it appears that while Grandpa’s mouth didn’t cooperate, he was trying to express a valid statement.)
In the end, in spite of all that is confused for him, guitar music is something he hasn’t entirely lost. It’s something he can still enjoy. One day halfway through my lesson I stopped for a break and he said, “What, are you done already?”
There is something good in the guitar music, whether it is just the music, or the memories of those years ago. But in the end what Grandpa wants most is simply for me to be there with him. Sometimes he expresses it in a way so poignant it is almost painful to see. One day recently I had finished up my playing and began to take my stuff back to the bedroom. Grandpa looked up and saw what I was doing, and his face became sad. “Don’t go. Don’t go,” he said earnestly. “Sit here with me.” He patted the couch beside him, and looked so hopeful and wanting that I couldn’t help feeling a stab of awfulness that he could feel so terribly lonely and in need of company in his own living room. So I left my stuff and just sat there with him for a while.