May 8, 2016
The image you see above is that of a man with an electric guitar….a man with an electric guitar who looks like his left hand is missing, but nonetheless, a man with an electric guitar. It is not often that this man goes out with an electric guitar, but just the other day, such an occasion occurred.
The shadow is me the other day, Mr. Bard, after what was one of the most entertaining music lessons I have ever been engaged with. I was asked to fill in as a substitute electric guitar teacher at a music school, and I was honoured to do so. I thoroughly enjoy teaching guitar and helping others develop a positive relationship with music, and was looking forward to the opportunity to work with new people.
For the record, and important relevance to this tale – I never learned to read sheet music or notation. I developed my abilities from others showing/mentoring me, and eventually by ear. It has served me very well over 21 years, and I have always enjoyed the act of playing and writing music. I think this is of the greatest importance.
I have met many who believe that if you can’t read music, you can’t play music. This simply isn’t true. Some people speak languages fluently, but can’t read the words. Django Reinhardt, a man known for his revolutionary style of guitar playing, was virtually illiterate!! There is a great documentary about him on youtube by the way. If you’ve got the time, it’s a fascinating story:
Anyhow, I am by no means discouraging the art of learning to read music (and am humbled by those who can), just setting up what was to be a hilarious encounter.
The first student I was appointed to work with was a wise young man with 7 years under his belt of age. I had been prompted that he was an entry level picker, and had been working through a beginner guitar book. He arrived with his father, who stood in the room and looked on as we got our axes plugged in.
I asked the boy, “So what have you been working on?” He cracked open his book, and began playing a short tune. As I glanced at the page, I realized….it was in notation…I couldn’t read the notes!…………………..I have come to know a lot about music, theory, and the inter workings of it all, but reading? Not a so gooda!!
I was trying to recount the “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge,” and “FACE,” triggers for where notes are on a staff that I learned when I was 10, but I couldn’t work it out very well….Enter the thought…”Oh crap. This is going to be this child’s worst lesson experience, and how wonderful….his dad is here to experience it too!! YAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaay!” Even though what he was playing looked freakishly simple, I really struggled to actually know if what he was plucking was accurate.
I asked him to try it again to see if I could listen and quickly figure it, but he preferred to move on and play the next tune. The following melody at least had chords listed to play along, but when I tried to back him up, he stopped……..looked up at me, and said with a very concerned tone “You’re disrupting MY FOCUS! Can you…..NOT play?” I glanced at his father, who just looked at me and smirked.
Those that know me are aware I am a big fan of jamming, and helping people learn how to jam is one of my favourite things to do. As I attempted to explain the benefits of playing together, I was quickly shot down with a deep sigh (as deep a sigh as a small 7 year old can make) followed by the statement “Can we just get back to what we’re SUPPOSED to be doing?” “SURE,” I said, trying to figure out how to navigate the sharp rocky edges of the remainder of this lesson.
As he continued playing the next song in his book, he made a little flub on one of the last notes. I could tell that he had perfectionist tendencies, and he made it very clear he was unhappy with his perceived mistake. I showed him a little technique that I learned from Victor Wooten that has to do with sliding out of a “wrong,” note.
He seemed, for the first time in the lesson, to be tolerant of what I was saying. Ha HA! Small victory!! I went on to say, “This kind of thing happens a lot in Blues.” His eyes opened wide, and he said “Did you say…BLUES?” His dad stepped out for a minute at this point.
He madly flipped to another page in his book to a blues tune in the key of G. I was thanking the stars, as blues is generally really straight forward to follow along with. However, I jumped the gun thinking I could play along with him.
We got roughly through one round, and he stopped…looked at me with the same disgust as previously, and said “Your playing is DISTRACTING ME!”
Side note – this is a natural part of jamming for the first time. Trying to focus on what you’re doing while listening to someone else is very challenging in the beginning. It happens to everyone, and you just gotta plug away and learn it like you learn any language…trial, error, and adjustment. It was at this moment I saw a brief crack in the wall, and like Leonard Cohen sings…”That’s how the light gets in!!”
I forged a deal. I said “How about you play that one time through on your own, and I’ll join you with a really light strum the second time.” He gave me the eye of a skeptic, assumed his plucking position, and reluctantly complied. He nailed the first round on his own, and I was anxious to see how he would handle the simplified jam strum.
I joined in, expecting to be potentially beat over the head by a 7 year old’s electric guitar, but to my surprise, he played, as best I could tell, the piece perfectly! Totally unaffected. Before we stopped, I told him to go one more time. Conveniently, this was the precise moment his father came back in the room, and at this point, I brought back a more active, true blues rhythm strum.
Well….he flipping knocked it out of the park!! He looked up me for a third time and said “You played different than what you were supposed to at the end.” I replied, “You’re right, but did it bother you this time?” He looked at the floor and in a subdued tone said “No….”
His father then went on to say to his son “Looks like you’re ready for duets!”
The young boy gave me a high 5, packed up his things, and went on his very focused way. I sat in the moment of deep internal relief, in celebration that this lesson was able to be salvaged. How humbling to be shown up by a 7 year old.
A good friend of mine just got back from Jamaica, and he shared a phrase with me they say there:
“There’s no problem, mon….just a situation.”
Well, I can say this “situation,” inspired me, after 21 years of playing, to want to learn to read music. I will start next week!
You never know who you’re going to be inspired by.