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Friday, March 1, 2024

Learning to play

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"This pandemic feels too much like a long and indefinite pause."


COVID-19 has caused many people to start learning new things.  Perhaps it is a way of coping given the constant fear of being infected by the virus, the uncertainty of when the crisis would end, or the frustration over our government’s less-than-enlightened response to it.

Those of us fortunate enough to maintain our livelihood while stuck at home also now find ourselves with extra time that we used to spend outside—getting stuck in traffic, or going out with colleagues or friends. 

It’s likely we also need a diversion from the often blurred lines of home and work.

And so I’ve known about friends and acquaintances picking up hobbies like baking, cooking, tending to plants, getting a pet, binge watching shows, sewing, crocheting, knitting and many more. 

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I started learning the guitar. 

I have always intended to do it—who didn’t want to be that cool kid in school?—but over many years, there just always seemed to be a reason for putting it off. This year, I ran out of excuses. The semester ended in June and by early July I had submitted my grades. My son who plays and teaches classical and bass guitar had moved back home. There was an extra guitar in the house—an old friend had returned it. And, there were a few songs I really, really wanted to learn. In fact, I had a Spotify playlist containing the songs I wanted to play.

And so I started with the basics.  My knowledge of music was rudimentary before that first session, and I had to learn the letters corresponding to each string as well as the basic chords.  I learned just five chords in that initial one-hour session: E major, A major, D, G and C.  My son advised me that 10 to 15 minutes a day would be enough for me to build muscle memory for those easy chords. 

I had always been a good student, so I followed his advice.  While practicing going from one chord to another, specifically the A major to D and back, I thought something sounded quite familiar—the intro to U2’s All I Want Is You. Being able to “play” an  actual song, or a part of it, was fun! My teacher guided me into learning two more:  The Eraserheads’ Ang Huling El Bimbo, and The Cranberries’ Linger. 

It was easy to fall into the trap of sticking with what now felt familiar rather than learn the more complicated bar chords. I could not quite make the instrument sound as it should if I applied pressure from the entire length of my index finger on the strings. 

To build my confidence, I learned yet other songs from my playlist—for example, the intro to DMB’s Crash Into Me, which takes me back to college, and, as my friend who now lives in Canada requested, the intro to Extreme’s More Than Words, which was the most requested song for many weeks when we were in high school.  

The problem is that it is so much more fun learning actual songs than practicing chords and building memory. That’s pretty much where I am now, eight weeks since my first session. I can play Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine and Dido’s Thank You in their entirety—not quite flawlessly, though—but when my son tells me he would give me a practical quiz to test my knowledge of the chords and how they relate to each other, I freeze and start mumbling something about an imaginary deadline. Every now and then, too, my trigger finger acts up, and sometimes I feel a disconnect between my brain and my hands. Age, I suppose. 

Oh, but my playlist contains so much more! I have ten months to supposedly master all the songs I put in there. I have asked my teacher if at this point I could start learning songs by Eric Clapton, Sting, John Mayer or Joni Mitchell.  He looks thoughtful and tries to be tactful. “Not just yet,” he says. “Spend more time practicing what you don’t know or what you find difficult, instead of staying with what you already know.”

I could have said that to my journ classes. It’s nice to be a student sometimes. 

I have mustered enough guts to post short videos of the songs—no vocals!—on social media, and I can say my friends have supported, no, indulged, me. Maybe I can share one with me singing “And I/ Want to thank you/ For giving me the best day of my life.” I will do it on my birthday so no one will bash me. 

This pandemic feels too much like a long and indefinite pause. It’s so difficult to plan anything beyond “I won’t get sick” or “I won’t die” or “I won’t lose my job,” or to commit to something in the medium or long term. It feels like we live only from day to day, seeing how much bad news we can take. Anything that helps take the edge off this precarious phase in our lives is welcome.

As for me, I’ll keep practicing and correct the early bad habits I seem to be developing. And then perhaps, eventually, my musically inclined kids will not roll their eyes when I declare over lunch: “We are a family of musicians!

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