Music Story: A Guitar Worth Playing…

a guitar worth playing

…is worth playing badly. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. And anyway, the pandemic does not care.

In prep school I met and become fast friends with one Stephanie (Pipkin) Jackson, who was something of a musical savant, already accomplished at classical guitar at the tender age of 13; Stephanie ultimately inspired me to pick up a guitar and learn to play. (She remains as serious about guitar today as I was about classical ballet then, as you can see if you followed the link.) My parents encouraged me along the way, and I’ve always maintained that studying music in parallel with classical ballet improves any young dancer’s musicality.

Anyway. I studied guitar for several years in Memphis with Howard Vance before allowing my music once again to take a back seat to ballet, as it had earlier when I learned to play piano in elementary school. Then a few years later when I was living in Denver, I met Sam Guarnaccia, an exquisite musician and guitar teacher then on the faculty at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, and studied a couple more years with him; Sam pushed me far beyond my comfort zone, but the payoff was an exponentially higher level of playing than I’d achieved as a kid. Eventually I walked away from guitar again and moved on to finish my undergraduate degree back home in Tennessee, followed by grad school. I sold my old Yamaha classical guitar for some much-needed pocket change along the way, and never really looked back.

Years later, after I married and found myself completely immersed in full-time parenting, I acquired a Sigma, from the ‘affordable’ line of guitars Martin made starting in the late 1970s, until 2006. Ironically, they’re something of a collector’s item now. Mine isn’t anything extraordinary, but still has a lovely sound to it. When my kiddo studied Suzuki violin in elementary school I accompanied him on my guitar to help keep him motivated to practice, and other times I fooled around on it for fun, and that’s about all. But for all the years I’ve owned it, I had only an outsized softshell case for it, not the best way to store an instrument, especially one that’s been schlepped around as many times as this one has.

Lately as I’ve listened to stories of what folks are doing (including my colleagues) to stay occupied during this hellish pandemic, I decided now would be as good a time as any to start playing again. So last week I used some credit card points to buy a proper hardshell case and a new set of strings, and gingerly, haltingly, picked up my guitar.

Presbyopia Makes Reading Sheet Music a Pain

A few changes since I last played have made this episode more challenging, including the need for readers. Add to this the change in focal length between the neck of the guitar, and back to the sheet music several inches away, and back once more to the neck of the guitar—you catch my drift. There is also the small matter of a tiny bit of arthritis coming in my wrists and fingers, a I thing that never bothered me before. It’s not horrible, but I can definitely feel it.

There are other issues to do with fine motor coordination. The fingers, my fingers anyway, appear to have a mind of their own and will occasionally, for no good reason, go all bockety and move according to somebody’s instructions, not mine. This results in sort of convulsive, uneven playing, and that is putting things mildly. There is exactly nothing I can do about this, and I suppose time will tell whether regular practice overrides the evil finger persona who appears to be calling the shots right now. Also, coffee doesn’t help.

Other variables, though, seem to have improved with age. For example, I can sit still and practice attentively for longer stretches, and my head seems able to think about more than just a single bit of technique to work on at once. Also, I can cuss out loud and I won’t get in trouble with anybody. I appear able to tune my guitar as well as ever I could. And thus far, Scout-the-Goldapeake-Retriever appears to…enjoy…my playing. Or maybe he’s just being polite, entirely possible.

gentle dawg critic

Before I started practicing in earnest I went down into the basement and fished all my old books and sheet music out of a musty box. But I decided to start with what I learned from Howard, since it’s appreciably more elementary than what Sam had me playing. Howard had notoriously awful handwriting, and some of his scrawl makes exactly no sense at all to me, especially after all these years.

Some other scrawl is abundantly clear.

I’ve noticed the more I play, the more I remember—proof positive of the complexity of the brain; I may have lost some knowledge entirely, but suspect I’ve retained a measure of it in the muscle memory, because I can feel it. The beauty of all this, though, is no matter how terribly I play, taking up the guitar again can be only a good thing—for rerouting neural pathways in my noggin, for giving me another creative outlet, and for sound mental health in general. A guitar worth playing is indeed worth playing badly.

I leave you with a brief recording of what I’ve accomplished in my first week of practice, which amounts to roughly an hour each day; this is Christopher Parkening’s Étude 28—it’s the kind of study you can play a gamillion ways, depending on what you’re trying to improve. Here I’m working mainly on finger placement and reach in my left hand. I know it’s rough, but please be kind; I’ll try to post more of these as I gain confidence in the coming weeks.

How about you—has COVID inspired you to dance like nobody’s watching, so to speak?

One thought on “Music Story: A Guitar Worth Playing…

  1. I’ve never been able to figure out the guitar – I’m a lefty with no rhythm! It is wonderful that you’ve picked it up and are playing again. That guitar must have missed you as it sounds good!!

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