I arrived at my guitar lesson, bright-eyed and caffeinated. I wore my "thinking" shirt, a white-collared long sleeve I ironed the night before. I brought a tiny video recorder, a notepad, and a pencil I twirled into my hair bun, like the traditional Chinese do with their chopsticks. Today, I would learn the secret if I had to pry it out of my teacher with the chopstick!
My instructor motioned me into his studio with a smile. True, half of my lessons are spent attempting to decipher French, the other half deciphering music. I gave him my full attention during the first half hour.
I admit sometimes my mind wanders off to think about what I'm going to have for lunch or if I ought to go next door to the Italian pastry shop and order one of those delectable brownies dusted with powdered sugar. Then I re-focus when I think how if there is any time to be "living in the now", it is right now, with the mind of a brilliant guitarist at my disposal.
He taught me a series of intricate open chords that wove into a pentatonic exercise which starts at the headstock end of the guitar neck and ends near the bridge. He's all about transitioning from one area of the neck to another with gusto. Then he threw in a couple impressive blues licks, because that's what I pay the big bucks for.
After he was satisfied that I had mentally and physically integrated the new material, at least enough to be able to work on it at home, he asked me if I had any questions.
I had been waiting for this moment. I sat up straight in my chair and cleared my throat.
"Everything you taught me was great. I'm wondering, though, if I have a simple melody in my head, how to I play it through the guitar? I can figure it out if I play a few notes around it."
At this point, I stopped, and fumbled around the fretboard, until I found the notes in the sequence I sang to him moments earlier.
"You see, I can find it, but I want the process to be seamless. I want to be able to speak through my guitar, like I'm speaking to you."
I placed my left pointer finger on a fret on the neck, but I didn't pluck the string.
"Can you tell me what this note sounds like?"
He sighed, and started off in French, took one look at the confused expression on my face, and switched back to English.
"You mean perfect pitch. I can't do that, but I have students that can. And they are the life of the party. That's great and wonderful, but it doesn't matter much, unless you want to impress people." (I think he worded it as "the party of the life", but I knew what he meant.)
He went on,
"Meg," (He always emphasizes my name with a hard "g" at the end,) " If I go to China and bring with me a Chinese dictionary, what is that going to do for me in Beijing?"
I thought, "Well, it would definitely make you look like an idiot, and in case you needed toilet paper…."
"It would do nothing," he continued. He started playing scales up and down the neck at dizzying speed.
"Yes, yes, this if fine. Good. Good. But it won't help you, not really. These are just the notes in a scale like letters in the alphabet."
It was in this moment when I realized something that I think I already knew, but I just needed my teacher to illuminate. To learn how to speak, you don't study a dictionary, saying the same word over and over again, and expect to speak eloquently land on your feet in actual conversations with people.
Can you imagine going to a dinner party, entering the room, offering your first handshake, and starting out your conversation with:
"Apple. apple. apple. blue. blue. dog. dog. dog." and then just to mix it up a little
"Apple. blue. dog. Apple. blue. dog" and if you want to get REALLY crazy start saying those words in warp speed. That will really impress the dinner guests!
Yet, this is how we novice musicians go about learning how to play and we think we are really somethin' else.
To learn to speak well, you immerse yourself in a culture where people are talking all the time. Some of the things people say don't make sense to you. Maybe they use unfamiliar words, or string them together in strange and new patterns. They speak loudly, they speak softly, fast, and slow. Some voices are raspy, some are delicate and light as a feather.
Eventually, you start to use these words that you hear. You try them out. You see the reaction you invoke in people. You learn how to communicate sadness, anger, or joy. You make many mistakes. Sometimes you don't make any sense, but you laugh about it, and you keep, talking, talking, talking, and eventually you learn how to say exactly what your mind wants you to say and the best way to say it.
Well, its' the same with music and guitar. My teacher was on the right track in the beginning of my lesson. He was teaching me vocabulary, subtle nuances in phrasing. He was teaching my how to whisper and how to yell when appropriate.
At one point he literally said, "Good, now PUNCH your guitar." Instead of tip-toeing around the strings, I let out all of my inner pent-up fury in a single chord, and the pangs of the vibrations of sound felt good, DAMN good.
He was teaching me how to play the guitar and express myself like a human with licks and real songs, instead of like a robot with scales and arpeggios.
I was looking for a short cut. Come on, give me a scale to learn, a magic pill to take, an incantation to whisper over a cauldron of frog legs and a hair of a goat. But it's really so simple, and I knew it all along.
I just need to keep playing my guitar with other people who play guitar, over and over and over. Eventually, after many, many mistakes, I'll learn how organize riffs and chords, and then string phrases together, and someday, oh someday, I'll be fluent in music, and then, at my guitar lessons I'll only have to decipher the French.