Wednesday, June 20, 2012

While My Guitar (and I) Gently Weeps

I got my first guitar for my 12th birthday. It was a gift from my grandmother who, as I found out, "played" the instrument and would teach me all she knew. What she "knew" was the "D" chord and a modified "G" chord played with the thumb. With these two chords she could accompany my uncle's violin in an Italian song I don't know the name of, but you would recognize if it were played.

For the first few weeks as a guitarist, I made those two chords work for just about every song I wanted to sing; because, you see, my real talent -- if I have musical talent at all -- is singing. On a level, even then, I knew the guitar would only ever accompany my voice and never perform on its own.

After awhile, I acquired a chord chart and began with the standard folk repertoire -- Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Blowin' in the Wind, 500 Miles...all with vaguely similar chord progressions. It was an important musical breakthrough for me when I discovered minor and diminished chords.

I eventually convinced my mother to let me take real guitar lessons, which I did on and off through high school, never very intensely. I even took a year of classical guitar when I began making my own money. Even these went by the wayside when, upon seeing me struggle to cover with my stubby Hobbit hands some of the fret spreads required to play classical guitar, my teacher said sadly, "You're going to have to accept there are going to be some pieces you'll never be able to play properly."

Well, I never aspired to be a Segovia anyway.

I focused on my voice and, if I do say so myself, I was pretty good in my day. But it was always just a hobby (and justifiably so, truth be told) and eventually one I in which I only indulged to sing my babies to sleep or sooth them on long car rides. I did a brief stint as a children's choir director (where I met Joe's girlfriend Caisee and her mom Carole, who was my accompanist).

One day, though, my guitar (the second one since my grandmother's gift) literally fell apart and it just didn't make financial sense to replace it. Shortly after that I was put on some serious asthma medication that, while improving my ability to breathe, took away a lot of vocal control.

Not quite as big a loss as Julie Andrews losing her voice, but I was a little disappointed. And besides, when The Heirs later took up the guitar and I attempted to play even the simplest chord, I couldn't; two broken wrists, carpal tunnel surgery and arthritis has all taken their toll by this time.

It really didn't bother me until we started Open Mic nights at the cafe. Dark Garden decided that, by next Open Mic Night (July 6), I was going to learn Peace Train by Cat Stevens, I could use Heir 1's acoustic, he decided, and he would provide the percussion. The last time DG heard me sing and play, this had been feasible. I even went so far as to Google the chord progression for the song and steal away to where no one could hear me to make a stab at it.

There was no way my fingers were going to obey me as they used to, let alone one hand paying attention to what the other one was doing. I looked down at them and they appeared to be trying to get along, but my brain just wasn't letting anything resembling music manifest itself from anything my hands were doing; and I hadn't even attempted to add my voice yet.

I told Dark Garden there was no way -- I was used to a classical guitar, I said. Steel-string guitar necks are much narrower1 and I'd have to totally relearn the guitar to make the transition...blah, blah, blah.

Whew! Off the hook!

And then came my birthday.

I recognize it's very difficult to find an appropriate gift for a 55-year-old woman. We, as a group, tend toward martyrdom ("Oh, don't bother. I don't need a thing... ") or extravagance no one can fulfill (I recall ten years ago declaring I was going to spend my 55th birthday in Tuscany. Well...yesterday I watched Under the Tuscan Sun -- does that count?).

But, ya know...most people can come up with a totally non-threatening, benign gift. Heir 1 got me a gift certificate to Wild Bird Unlimited -- I mean, how perfect is that? Happy little birds...mentally handicapped little birds...harmless, right? Dirtman got me a candle I'd admired at our local nifty gift store ...and gin. The Divine Mrs. D2 (our Employee of the Month for the fourth straight month!) got me candles and lotion and cologne from Crabtree and Evelyn (I know. Right?). My sister- and brother-in-law -- their usual just-in-the-nick-of-time money.

See? Nothing scary there, right?

And then Dark Garden presented his gift -- a classical guitar -- the exact one I described.

Ride on the Peace Train (dit, dit, dit DAH)!

So there I found myself, on the evening of my 55th birthday sitting on my bed like I used to back when I was 13, trying to make my hands contort into new chord configurations; only these weren't new -- they were the simplest chords ever.

I reintroduced my hands to each other (though they hadn't been working together to knit all these years. You'd think they'd negotiated a working arrangement by now). My left had accused my right of lacking rhythm and my right hand accused my left of being slow and lazy.

None of us was ready for Cat Stevens.

So I went back to square one: 60s folk songs. I had dropped them from my repertoire in the mid-70s because I'd outgrown them musically (oh! Hubris!) and the lyrics were rather overly didactic for the age of disco and punk rock. Now here I was, unable to strum smoothly (I know, I know. The purists out there are screaming, "YOU DON'T STRUM A CLASSICAL GUITAR!!!" Well, that's what I always had and I couldn't afford two separate guitars -- one for classical pieces and one for modern stuff -- so I did what I had to do.) or switch from one chord to another without trying to see where my fingers were going.

So how did that first session end up?  Well, let's just say that on an advanced birthday, you should never try to do something you know you stink at that you used to do well. I drowned my sorrows in a martini, Chinese dumplings and a viewing of You Can't Take It With You.

Second session: the progressions begin to come back, all but the C chord -- don't ask me why. Fmaj7, Ddim, weird bar chords all begin to come back; but my C chord sounds like I've got cotton stuffed in the sound hole. Frustrated, I drape over the guitar and sulk.

...and my fingers start to move -- on both hands. Just a snippet of a Christopher Parkening piece from my classical days, but they remembered! Of course, as soon as I got involved my hands claimed I'd been dreaming; they couldn't possibly string together a classical phrase, no more than they could manifest a C chord.

Third Session: I'm able to change keys to where I don't need that damn C chord. My voice gets involved.

It stinks.

Fourth session: is later today. I'll let you know...

...after a martini...

1This is actually true. Classical guitar necks are very wide and, like feet in wide shoes, your hands get real comfy having all that room. When you try to make them fit into a narrower area, they get very testy.

2Someday I will devote an entire post to the Divine Mrs. D. For now, suffice to say we lucked up in the employee area.

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