I’ve been practicing the guitar now for about 1 1/2 years. When I started, I was playing a left-handed guitar (where I strum with my left, and form chords with the right). I chose this way because I am very dominant in my left-hand and thought that was the way to go. I resisted listening to my guitar instructor Pat’s advice in trying to play the mainstream way. He kept telling me that I would be a better player and that it would be easier for me. But for about 1 year I stuck with my way, and struggled every single week at lessons and on my own when I practiced at home. I had to reverse the written music in my mind and play the chords and notes differently as well. I plunked along and finally one session Pat just said, “Here, play my guitar. Just try it, and if you don’t like it, I will stop hounding you about playing left-handed.”
I caved and picked up his guitar. We started talking and he just said, “G major chord.” Without thinking, my left-hand formed the chord effortlessly on the fret. He just started calling out chords: “D major,” “C major,” “C add 9,” “D sus 4,” “E minor,” and each time my hand found the chord and went right to it. I sheepishly looked up at him and said, “Yeah, I know.” Two weeks later, I had a new Jasmine guitar by Takamine and have progressed quickly in my lessons. Turns out, I’m not too bad of a guitar player. My biggest problem? I think too much while I’m trying to play.
About a month ago, I went to guitar lessons and plopped down on my chair in Pat’s office. It was evident we were both in a funk. He didn’t have any ideas on what song to start me on, and I was waiting for his guidance. He asked me, “What do you want to play?” I replied, “I don’t know, what do you think?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “You have to play what you want, what you feel like playing. It’s that simple.” I rolled my eyes and said, “I don’t know, dude. Let me think.” He rolled his eyes and said, “Naturally. You’re always thinking.” I was annoyed by him, and he by me. We had a stare-down. He finally blinked, sighed and said, “Well, how are you feeling? Just be honest.” I told him I was melancholy. He understood that one. After a little bit of deliberation and calling off song titles, I said, “There’s a song by Pearl Jam and it has the word ‘breathe’ in it. I can’t think of the title right now.” He pulled up YouTube and started typing. He found “Just Breathe” and pushed played. The first chord in I said, “Yes, that’s it! That’s the one I’ve been hearing in my head. Let’s do that one.” Little did I know that I chose a challenging song that required a few chord changes, a slide and finger-style picking on the right hand. Pat listened to it a couple of times and played along and said, “Ok, I got it.” He wrote down the music and taught me the basics. It was hard. I could do it, but it would require a lot of practice to the point where I had to become automatic with the changes so I wouldn’t think about each note.
Every week he changed the song and tweaked my technique. Every week I had to think out the notes and worried about how I sounded and got frustrated when it didn’t sound like Eddie Vedder’s or Pat’s guitar playing. I became determined and started practicing every night for about a half hour. I even worked on older pieces in the hopes of just getting a little better and not making a fool out of myself in front of Pat – the only person I have played in front of. “Who am I to think I can learn to play guitar?” I constantly think this and worry that maybe it’s a foolish hobby to pursue. I have no reasons why I chose guitar. I took piano lessons as a kid and played saxophone in my junior high and high school bands. I have a decent sense of rhythm, and can sing a little bit (only really can harmonize and sing some country/folk songs where beautiful voices aren’t required). But, I’ve not kept up with my musical side: I quite piano in the 3rd grade; I stopped saxophone after I graduated high school; and I even stopped tango and salsa lessons a few years back. All I can explain about the guitar is that for two years I dreamed about playing it and woke up hearing songs in my head. One day, I finally decided to just go with my gut and I bought my first guitar and haven’t looked back.
Mostly I shy away from letting anyone really hear me play because I worry that I will get criticized or worse that I will get asked to play a song for someone and when I’m done they’ll not have recognized a single part of it. So, I sit up in my room and practice my scales and the songs from the week and dig out older songs and see if I can remember what Pat taught me. Then, I walk into the lesson and hope to God that he hears some progress. And during practice I get pissed off because I made so many mistakes and it doesn’t sound like what I had been practicing at home. This is inevitably when I hear Pat say one of the following phrases: “Quit thinking.” “Stop worrying. Just let it go.” “Who cares if you mess up? I mess up, you don’t hear me stopping and saying, ‘Wait, let me start over.’ Big f—ing deal. Just keep playing.” “You’re thinking. Stop thinking, damn’t!” (His comments are always followed up with me saying, “Yeah, I know,” or when I’m really frustrated with myself I laugh at him and say, “Screw you,” before I start playing all over again.)
I finally decided to be brave yesterday and after walking in to Pat’s office with my usual greeting of, “What’s up, dude?” I tuned my guitar and said, “Ok, just listen to this.” I closed my eyes and played the first 8 measures of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe”. Sure, I made a few mistakes, but I didn’t stop. When I opened my eyes, Pat lifted up his hands and said, “Finally!” I shook my head modestly and said, “Yeah, I know,” relieved that it was over and that I actually sounded decent. He didn’t let me quit there. He made me start up again and had me play only 1 specific rhythm with the same 4 notes using the C major chord. After telling me to quit looking at my hands, he started asking me random questions. I knew better than to quit playing, so I did my best to answer him and only once said, “Shit,” and “Damn’t” when I screwed up. I kept playing when he told me to say my ABCs. I know I gave him a weird look, but like a good student, I obeyed.
Then he told me, “Only focus on what you’re playing,” and he picked up his guitar and began improvising a melody line. Next he told me to focus on what he was playing and to really listen to him while I kept playing. All of a sudden, something magical happened: I began to really feel and hear how his melody and my harmonic rhythm line went together. Without even trying, I held some notes longer, let a few ring out and synced my sound with his. There were even places when I created a crescendo and then he ended our song with a decrescendo, smoothly bringing everything to an end. I had a huge smile on my face. He gave me two thumbs up and simply said, “Awesome,” and turned to look at his phone and said time was up. Before I left, he smiled and said, “You’re doing a killer job.” This compliment was hard earned and means a lot coming from a bad ass who has purposefully pissed me off numerous times by calling me a “wuss” and a “baby” when I want to quit playing or when I start whining about wanting the music to sound perfect. He knows full well that it will only make me want to get better and to practice and to learn to let go: his biggest lesson that he has been teaching me for almost 2 years now.
This evening I went out on my deck and sat down in my lawn chair and started playing my guitar just for me. I wanted to turn my brain off for once in my life and just have that moment of freedom where perfection wasn’t the end goal of my days here on earth. The wind was rustling through the leaves and it sounded a little bit like the ocean. The different whistles, twitters and calls of the birds had a natural melody to them. I simply closed my eyes, listened to the wind and the birds and played my guitar following the notes wherever they wanted to take me. I created crescendos and decrescendos in sync with the birds. I felt the warm breeze on my face and I smiled and heard the notes and felt the rhythm instead of trying to be technical and mechanical with my playing. I think I found the key to letting go and that is just to listen to your heart and let it sing.