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Vienna waits for you

May 27, 2015

It’s a totally different thing learning an instrument as an adult than it was as a kid. This does not come as a total surprise. I’ve taught violin to adults. I’ve always loved working with adult beginners. They’re interesting because they’re incredibly passionate about it and they also tend to box themselves in with their expectations or their habits or those walls that all of our knowledge and experience can build.

As a kid I came to the violin because I loved the sound, but my experience of learning the violin was one of learning to do things right. Violin pedagogy is very focused on technique, on getting things just so. It’s necessary, because getting a good sound out of a fiddle can take years. It’s a complex process. But all the focus on technique can make it easy to lose sight of the music. I had many wonderful teachers over the years, all of whom focused on the minutia of technique. The ones that stuck with me, though were the ones let me know how and why they loved it while they did so. The generous souls. I may have learned more from the ones that made me cry, but they are not the reason I still do it. Practice was a chore for them and playing well didn’t always feel like much of a victory.

Guitar is a different thing entirely. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked this hard at something for no reason. I have no real expectations. Sure, I’ve been known to entertain a fantasy that Neko Case might walk by me playing in Prospect Park and invite me to slip in the side entrance to the bandshell and sit in with the New Pornographers. And sure, I’d love to play with a band, any band. But I’m also pretty happy doing what I’m doing, chipping away at the things that until a few weeks ago I didn’t know how to do. I didn’t learn them because someone told me I had to know how to do these things in this way. I learned them because there was a song that spoke to me and I wanted to play it. And the things were what I needed to do. I’m enjoying the process.

As I tune up my guitar every night when I get home from work, I think about the struggles I had with math growing up. I would regularly get high scores on aptitude tests but do poorly on my homework. It puzzled more than one of my teachers. But I was never interested in memorizing formulas. I wanted to look at the problem and figure out how to answer it myself. I wanted to think it through. And there’s not a lot of room for that in the early years of public school math.

I hit the same wall in grad school. As an undergrad, I’d had music theory teachers who let me dive into analysis of pieces with a limited number of tools. To me, music theory was looking at the questions I had about a piece and devising ways to get at the answers. The process of the inquiry was what turned me on. In one of my papers, one I ended up submitting with my grad school applications, I attempted to analyze a highly complex string quartet by Elliott Carter. In order to explain what I heard and what I could see on the page of the score, I gave each pitch a number, so that I could show how the pitches were ordered and reordered, broken into parts and put back together again. When I got to grad school, I discovered this was a tried and true theoretical method for music like Carter’s –it’s called set theory. But I’d never heard of it or learned it. The process of figuring it out, though, turned out to be much more interesting than learning the ins and outs of the technique. In fact, I became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of the theoretical toolbox. I didn’t want to practice anymore. I switched fields.

It never occurred to me that these are all the same problem. I’m a person who needs to take things apart and learn how they tick. There can be no shortcuts. In my dissertation work, I got sucked into the endless vortex of archival research because I didn’t trust the shortcut of secondary literature.

In all of these areas, what I like is to find my own tools.

With guitar, I’ve had only myself to guide me, so the tools are all mine. I’ve taught myself every thing I know. But now I’ve had to admit I’ve hit a wall. So I emailed AJ’s guitar teacher and asked if he’d give me a lesson or two. I can’t remember the last time I had a lesson. Probably a conducting class in grad school. And even though I haven’t scheduled it, I’m already getting nervous. I’ve been playing until the tip of my left pinkie goes numb. I record what I do, so I can hear my progress. It’s humbling most of the time, but every now and then I get a glimmer of something, a moment where I relax just enough, where I land a barre chord squarely so the strings ring instead of clunk, where I managed to sing a different rhythm than I’m strumming – still a challenge after so many years on a melody instrument. And suddenly, it’s not about counting each and every mistake – my hesitating entrance, an overlong transition between chords – but about the moments where I get it, where I’m not just playing what’s on the page but saying something. It’s a good feeling. And right now, I can’t get enough.

Harriet sings Sam Phillips’ “Reflecting Light”

Practice track, recorded on my iPhone with Voice Memos – doesn’t do the Gibson justice

2 Comments leave one →
  1. eleanorio permalink
    May 28, 2015 10:11 am

    I started playing guitar in my early teens and I never progressed past the strumming/finger-picking stage. I cannot play a guitar like a solo instrument, just as an accompaniment. As a result, I have never really considered myself a “guitar player”. This has been compounded by the fact that my husband really is a guitarist and I feel somewhat inadequate in his shadow. But your entry has prompted me to reassess my abilities and reconsider my talents. If I play the guitar, however rudimentarily, I am a guitarist, and I’m okay with that!

  2. May 28, 2015 10:26 am

    Do it! I think it would be almost certainly be harder to be doing this around someone who defines himself as a guitarist — I’d be much more inclined to judge myself harshly — but I’m finding the payoff is in the incremental steps, not in the final accomplishment as it was when I was younger. I’m enjoying the gradual progress. I mostly do finger-picking, more solo style, actually, and I like it for entirely different reasons than I like playing things like this. I’ve never been able to sing and play at the same time before, and I really like doing that. I’m going into my very first lesson with a really clear idea of what it is I want to learn how to do. I am hoping that this will serve me well rather than make me a difficult student.

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