The Diabolical Finger Dance

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it, but over winter break, I took up the guitar. Again. For those of you who are unfamiliar with my sordid musical past, I am a bit of a tramp where instruments are concerned. When I was little, I played piano, which I gave up in exchange for clarinet because the school band didn’t need piano players and a clarinet was what we had available. I loved the clarinet dearly and practiced myself blue in the face all through high school (aside from short trysts with the recorder and the French horn), until I came to the depressing realization that I had poured my heart and soul into a skill that would quite probably leave me starving and homeless if I tried to pursue it as a profession.

I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving music behind me, so I bought a cheap student classical guitar at Al Corey’s and determined to teach myself to play. I chose the guitar because, let’s face it, playing the clarinet is not the most campfire or party friendly instrument. It’s just not. And to boost the case for the guitar, you can sing while you play it—again, not a possible reality for most normal humans when playing the clarinet.

My reasoning further went something like this: “Approximately fifty percent of the high school population plays some sort of guitar with some level of skill. Of those, approximately one tenth have anything I (as a stuck-up teenager) recognize as intelligence. Ergo, how hard could it possibly be?”

It was 2001 when I bought the guitar and learned a few simple chords, some basic techniques, and a song of two. When 2010 began, I had never really learned anything more than what could be taught with little difficulty to a trained monkey. Every time I looked at my guitar case, I would shake my head and wonder why it is that such a presumably simple-to-learn instrument had defeated me. It was just a matter of time, I liked to reassure myself. But to be honest, I was never quite sure that was the truth.

As I’m studying for my Master’s in education, I keep hearing two critical components students need to learn: explicit instruction and relevantly problematic content. Considering my fingers today, callused for the first time in my nine years of “learning to play the guitar,” I realized that of those components, the relevantly problematic content has to come first. I don’t have access to any more explicit instruction than I did years ago, but my motivation changed.

Having a month off with no employment to speak of, I told myself I had no excuse not to start practicing. I’ve done that before and failed. This time, however, I kept thinking that if I go into teaching, guitar could be a fun way to connect with kids. Maybe I’ll end up volunteering with a Girl Scout troop or a camp on my summers, and what kind of a camp counselor can’t play the guitar? (A lame one—I learned that the hard way.) So I had in mind a potential audience, establishing relevance for my efforts.

The problematic nature of the guitar presented it fairly quickly as I started to learn scales, which I had started with out of some long-atrophied instinct for music theory. While there are certain things that, as I said, even a trained monkey could play on the guitar, the guitar is by far the most confusingly complex instrument I have ever picked up. The piano has exactly one finger placement for each note. The clarinet has a few possible variations on finger placement, but the notes are by and large played on a one-fingering: one note ratio. The guitar, however, is a nightmare. For almost every possible note there are three or more fingers, which means multiple places to play chords and scales as well. And if that weren’t enough, you can throw a capo on the neck and change the tuning so all those scales and chords are played with yet another set of fingerings.

You could compare the ease of learning an instrument’s notes to the ease of learning an orthography, to think about it in a different way. If the piano has the easy one sound to one spelling correlation of Hangul, and perhaps the clarinet with its mostly transparent pattern is Spanish, then the guitar would be English. There is a method to the madness, but the madness is definitely in charge.

I’m having a blast trying to master it.

2 thoughts on “The Diabolical Finger Dance

  1. Yay!!!! We want to hear you play. Bring your guitar when you come to Maine. Or, are you like your husband….don’t want to do anything until you can do it perfectly? Love you both


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