So, I wrote about why listening to live music is so important to me. But, asks the astute reader, what about playing music yourself? You have a guitar, right? Doesn’t that give you some of the same stuff?
It does, when it goes well. But of course my own history with playing music is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. Of course it is.
I first started playing guitar in high school, back when I was first discovering my own taste in music and finding that everything from Jackson Browne to Patti Smith, from Segovia to Springsteen, all kinds of music floated my boat. In fact, it was at a classical guitar recital my parents took me to (it might have been Christopher Parkening, although to this day I don’t remember for sure) that I decided I wanted to play guitar. I remember vividly that there was a piece which involved a lot of harmonics, these gorgeous pure chiming notes, and all I wanted to do in the world was to make a sound like that.
Eventually my parents got me a little Yamaha classical guitar (which, yes, I still have and treasure) and set me up with lessons. Before long I’m angling my way through Bach etudes, arpeggios, the occasional soft-rock song. I’m hardly ever more content than when I’m playing. This is around 1976, 1977.
Fast forward a year or two. I’m checking out folk and rock songbooks from the public library, figuring out chords to songs I like. (I’m also using the library to read Billboard and Variety and Rolling Stone, when other kids my age are reading Tiger Beat. I am nothing if not Serious About Myself.) I’m using my savings to buy a steel-string guitar because the little classical just doesn’t really sound like rock & roll. (It’s an Ovation Balladeer, the round-back guitar like what Nancy Wilson of Heart played on stage at the time – I still have it, with its bright brassy tone and its propensity for volume.) I’m hanging out with my friend Sally, who also had a guitar; we both want to be Jimi Hendrix and we daydream about white Stratocasters.
A bit later, I bought an electric guitar: not a Strat, but a red Gibson Melody Maker. I kept that for about a year, never quite figuring out how to make it sound like anything, then sold it when I was getting ready to go to college and needed the money. If only I could go back in time and not do that… that was a sweet little guitar. But the electric guitar is a very different animal from the classical. It was a language I could hear and understand, but couldn’t speak it myself yet.
Anyway, college meant the end of classical guitar lessons, though I did manage a semester of beginning piano which taught me a lot about music theory. I kept playing, though I wasn’t practicing as seriously as I had in high school (arpeggios and finger exercises and so forth); I enjoyed strumming Fleetwood Mac and Heart songs in the courtyard of my dorm, singing with friends. After college, I even performed onstage a few times; I belonged to a writers’ group that gave readings a couple times a year locally, and every now and then along with my poems I put an original song into our “setlist.”
That? That was terrifying. Not the part where I was performing something I’d created myself – reading poems onstage never bothered me much. But singing in public felt more vulnerable and scary than pretty much anything I’d ever done. And I didn’t do it much before I stopped.
I’ve often said that if I could have one superpower, I would choose singing. Not playing guitar, funny enough; that has always seemed like something I could get good at if I just worked my ass off for years. I could understand how to get from here to there, whether or not I actually put in the practice time to do it. Singing? That was something other people were somehow good at.
The funny thing is: I have always LOVED singing. When nobody’s listening – in an empty house, in the shower, driving on the highway – I sing. I add harmonies to my favorite albums. At concerts, when they’re the singing-along kind of concerts like Springsteen or the Indigo Girls, I’m right there because nobody (I imagine) can hear me in the crowd.
But not where people can hear me. Which sort of always did put a crimp in my youthful fantasies of being a rock star. That, and the fact that I was too socially awkward to start a band so that I could just be the guitarist and let somebody else sing.
Anyway. Adulthood being what it is, what with full-time jobs and bills to pay and everything, I stopped playing guitar very much. I’ve had brief flings with resuming it – most notably in 2008 when, after an epic road trip (well, it FELT epic anyway) for three Springsteen shows, I felt thoroughly inspired and went out & bought myself an electric guitar. (“So you wanna be a rock & roll star…“) It wasn’t the white Strat I’d daydreamed of at seventeen, but it was a Strat, by golly. And it felt good to play it. I still didn’t quite understand its grammar and its syntax, but I wasn’t trying to play it like a classical guitar anymore, so I was able to get as far as making noises that were pleasing to my ear, if not my neighbors’ ears.
But that didn’t last. Because here’s the thing. When you don’t play, you forget how to play. You lose your chops, as musicians say. Your fingers feel fat and uncontrollable. Your hands cramp. You can figure out that you should play a B chord right there, but you can’t get your left hand gracefully from one chord to the next. And if you’re still fluent in listening to music, if you have a pretty good ear, you know exactly how crappy you sound. It is really hard to accept “well, I sound a little better than I did last week” when you know you also sound a whole lot worse than you did twenty years ago. When you can hear your own mistakes so very clearly.
This is how guitars end up getting dusty under the bed.
You’re in my mind all the time – I know that’s not enough…
Fast-forward to two or three years ago. I got an iPad, and I promptly downloaded the GarageBand app. Boy, is that a fun little toy. You don’t have to have any talent or musical skill, really. You can set it so that everything comes out in the right key. You don’t have to tune anything. I started noodling around and found myself composing little snippets. Nothing serious, but maybe the sort of thing you’d hear over the local forecast on the Weather Channel. It was stuff that sounded like music, and I was creating it, and holy moly, it was fun. I popped a few of my tracks up on Soundcloud, just for grins.
But it’s the paint-by-numbers version of making music. It’s fun, and maybe it takes a small amount of skill, but it completely lacks the physical aspect of playing an instrument. There’s more than just being able to choose the right notes at the right time – you also have to coordinate your muscles and your breath. Which is why it takes so much practice and also why it’s so absorbing, so immersive, and ultimately so healing.
All my GarageBand noodling was starting to remind me of how much I used to love sitting in my bedroom, working out chords and fingerings, trying to transpose songs into a key I could come anywhere close to singing. But my body resisted the act of going to the guitar case, taking out the instrument, tuning it up. I knew I would sound like crap. Playing badly makes me feel like I am disrespecting the guitar. (I know that is not logical.)
I’m in my fifties now, and I have a full-time job I like a great deal, which does not involve being a musician. It’s no longer even remotely realistic (as it is for every 17-year-old in the world) to daydream about being in a band, traveling around the world, making people swoon with my music. Anything I do now, musically, is going to be just for me. It feels different now than it did back then … but it still feels necessary.
So how to get from disrespecting a perfectly good guitar to doing something that would at least feel like fun and not an exercise in pure frustration?
I think I can blame Eddie Vedder for the ukulele. Or maybe Amanda Shires, who also plays one occasionally. I had a little string of realizations:
- Buying a new instrument usually motivates me to play, at least for a while.
- Ukuleles are a whole hell of a lot cheaper than guitars. You can get a decent one, not a professional-quality one but something that is a real instrument and not just a jangly toy, for maybe a little over 100 bucks on eBay.
- You can’t take a uke too seriously. You just can’t. And maybe, just maybe, if I picked up something that wasn’t a guitar, that I didn’t have to worry about disrespecting, I wouldn’t have the undercurrent of expectation that I would somehow magically sound like I did thirty years ago when I was seriously practicing and playing every day.
And you know what … it worked. This past June I got a little Lanikai uke on eBay, a pretty thing made of curly koa. I had to look up how it was supposed to be tuned. (Then I ordered a tuner online, which helps tremendously.) I looked up some chord charts, and I started noodling. Pretty soon I was making noises that sounded sort of like music.
And then I figured out a few actual songs. First, “Angel From Montgomery” – a song I have always loved singing. Then U2’s “Every Breaking Wave.” I even recorded that one onto GarageBand and put some reverb and some strings on it. I was up till 4 am a couple of nights figuring out string arrangements. IT WAS SO MUCH FUN! (And weirdly, once everything was pulled together, I could even sort of stand the sound of my own singing voice. Crazy. A little reverb helps, of course.)
And then, just a couple weeks ago, I got out my nearly-forty-year-old Yamaha classical guitar. I tuned it up and I started to play. My fingers hurt like hell after about fifteen minutes, but thanks to the uke-playing I at least had a bit of a start on regaining the calluses on my left fingertips. Then, the other night, I got out my little blue Strat and made some noise. It sounded like crap, I’m quite certain. But it felt so, so good just to strap it on and stand there.
If the sky can crack, there must be some way back…
For the past few days I’ve been working on an acoustic version of U2’s song “Electrical Storm.” It’s a gorgeous song about a couple at an impasse in their relationship, mired in stasis, desperately looking for a way to get back to the love they feel sure must still be there somewhere. It’s not a crazy difficult song to play, really, but it does have some rhythmic quirks and a bunch of barre chords that make my left hand cramp after three or four times through. It is juuuuuust beyond the boundary of what I can currently manage comfortably, and so it’s a perfect song for me to work on.
And the song itself is a good metaphor for the struggle of regaining your chops. You remember how good it feels when you can just sit for hours with the guitar, your fingers in conversation with the strings, fluent. You remember coaxing notes out of it, each note pure and ringing or staccato as the song requires, the notes and measures a language you speak well enough to write poetry in it. You remember not even having to think about where your hands should go, the guitar practically an extension of your body.
And now your hands feel like you’re wearing heavy gloves, the guitar slips out of position at odd moments, the strings muffle when they should ring and blare out sound when they should be quiet. The notes are like tired, angry children who refuse to get in line. You make yourself work through the song just one more time, you practice that tricky chord change over and over and over. You’re glad you live alone because only the saintliest of neighbors would put up with the endless repetition. Your fingertips burn. You soldier through because you remember what it used to feel like, and you want that. You don’t know if you’ll ever have it. But you want it.
coffee’s cold, but it’ll get you through
compromise, that’s nothing new to you
It’s harder, in a lot of ways, than learning the instrument the first time around. You know that musical fluency is water, not stone: unreplenished, it drains away. Every song you learn, or relearn, is a conversation you’re in danger of forgetting – not a jewel tucked away in a box for safekeeping. You realize that you can’t take anything for granted: memory, muscle, breath. You have less of a margin: when you’re fluent, you can go a few days without playing and you’re still good. But when you’re trying to get your chops back, there’s no room for laziness. If I don’t play for a week, I’ll have lost everything I’ve gotten back in the past month. My muscle memory is still shallow – the playing hasn’t sunk in to become a part of me yet.
“Electrical Storm” ends without emotional resolution. The chorus, “Electrical storm, electrical storm…” suggests that the singer wants some external force to come along and crack open the impasse like lightning cracks through the sky – but it’s unclear whether the invocation of the image is wishful thinking, or whether the storm is actually brewing. The coda goes to a couple of chords that haven’t appeared earlier in the song, which suggests some sort of movement out of the lovers’ stasis, but neither the lyrics nor the chords tell you what resolution they might be moving towards. The song ends with the repeated plea, “Baby, don’t cry,” which tells you that both partners feel the pain of whatever’s going on but doesn’t tell you whether the storm (wished for or actual) is breaking them apart or healing them. And yet, by the time you get to the end of the song, you do feel like you have moved through something.
On rainy days we go swimming out
On rainy days, swimming in the sound
It’s kind of like that with getting your chops back. It’s a struggle to regain fluency, to swim comfortably in the sound. Every night you put away your guitar and you don’t know, really, if you’re ever going to get back to where you were – or if getting back to where you were is really, anymore, the goal.
You’re in my mind all the time – I know it’s not enough
If the sky can crack, there must be some way back
To love and only love…
Baby, don’t cry…
“Electrical Storm” lyrics ©U2