ODY: Week 9. Weak, Overwhelm, Werner.

In the landscape of a week’s weak learning, it was flatlands all the way to a horizon that seemed impossibly far for an Old Dog. (All filled up with dreams of competence, not a tree or a fire hydrant of achievement in sight.) There wouldn’t have been much to say, except that two conversations stood out like lonesome grain elevators on Saskatchewan prairie, outposts of interest in a flat but faithful week of practice.

First, let me tell you about the plain. I’m more comfortable admitting that I’m learning to play guitar and letting Gordie take my fingers for a walk where someone might actually hear us. Chord changes still freeze me, though at least once this week I hit the C chord without looking or hesitating. Or thinking. (Not thinking comes nearly as hard for me as thinking clearly. That grey gunk inside my skull is always quivering madly off in all directions.) Nearly halfway through the week, lesson night with KW the Guitar Guy brought four new finger-picking patterns for songs that also added 5 or 6 more chords with complicated names. More chords?!?

We have one of the GG’s own pieces, “Study in E”. It suggests a pleasant little finger sequence – thumb on the low E, then fingers 1, 2 and 3 tickling down to the G string. T 1 2 3, T 1 2 3. Nice! I can do that! But the chords? They start easily enough with an E, but then we jump to an A 6-9 over E (a what?), then an E major 7th, then an E 7th, back to A 6-9/E, then to an A minor 6-9/E (are you kidding me?), back to a simple E and finish with something called an “E suspended 4th” (E sus 4). What the -? I scribbled down the chord diagrams that Kurt had chalked out for us, despairing that soon he’d be chalking my body outline on the floor. Then I breathed. Then I looked at the diagrams, and a dim bulb began to glow over my head. The dreaded A 6-9/E is the same basic shape as E, just spread out and a fret higher. The E major 7th that follows is precisely the same, except two more frets up. E7 and the doubly dreaded Am 6-9/E also have the same shape. And the last transition, from E to Esus4, is a one-fret finger-one adjustment. Hosanna! Weird and complex as they seem, they fit together more easily than I can go from G to C or A to D or, especially, B7 to or from friggin’ anything. (But I love the sound of B7, and can always tell when I’ve hit it right without checking my fingers. And when I get there, I don’t want to leave.) Not only that, but “Study in E” is written such that any picking pattern will sound good. You’ll be hearing it on your radio any day now.

So much for the lone prairie. The first silo, landmark number one, was a conversation with Pejman, who had just moved in to our part of the city. At a community meeting, he volunteered to put together a program for a holy day commemoration. (The birth of the Báb, if you’re keeping score at home.) Right away, he had a rough question for me. “So, who are the musicians in the room? I want some music for Thursday.” I thought, maybejustmaybe I could do some Travis picking as background to a reading, but those changes are so clumsy and it’s only three days away… Yikes. My answer? “Um, ah, well, you know about Daniel’s singing, and you heard Amir on the piano tonight, but other than that, well, can’t really think of anybody. Nope.” Well, I missed a perfect blushing opportunity there. Pej’s probing pulled Farzad and his guitar out of the bushes, though, and so Pachelbel’s “Canon” sweetened our celebration. (Can’t believe my Iranian brother beat me to the punch, but he is quite a way ahead of me. For now...) I was also abashed by young Sarah’s courage, wading through a difficult piece on an unfamiliar keyboard. Must. Embrace. Next. Chance.

Second conversational signpost? The Itinerant Artist, my number one son, phoned about mid-week, and the talk turned inevitably to the Old Dog Year of musical education. Change. Transformation. Transition. My struggles to get from one chord to another – and to resist making that change until I have the chord perfect – are obvious analogues to the bigger adjustments that you or I or anybody might be making. And so the IA had a suggestion. “Let me tell you about the triangle. Have I told you about the learning triangle? No? Well, it comes from Werner, and it goes like this. There are three aspects to mastering a song: being able to play it PERFECTLY, AT TEMPO and from BEGINNING TO END. The thing is, when you’re learning the thing, the best you can do is two out of three, and at first you probably can’t do any of them. So pick a section, and play it slowly ‘til it’s right. SLOWLY. This was a hard one for me to learn at McGill, but it’s so useful.” The IA was a jazz performance student at Montreal’s McGill University. Trombone. (He’s also a fine guitar and bass player, and a decent drummer.) He was referring to musical concepts in a book called Effortless Mastery by the great jazz pianist Kenny Werner. When the need is clear, the book will appear. Gotta get it.

Do a section as slowly as I need to do it well. Do it with a steady rhythm, even if it’s a laughably slow one. Do it until it’s right. Do it perfectly until it’s at a good tempo. Then do it together with the other chunks until I can complete the triangle: Perfectly. At tempo. Beginning to end. My whole life has been about learning, and now I’m learning more about how to learn. It’s all so new and all so familiar. 63 days and counting.

Of Groundhogs and Heroes

We have such mixed feelings about rodents. Hate rats, revere bunnies. Kill mice, make them movie stars. Laugh at lemmings, make beavers a national symbol. But will someone explain to me why the news leads with groundhog sightings? Wiarton Willie says early spring, I’m told, but the American pet hog-caster (Piskaquatty Phil, or some such) says six more weeks of winter. More continental discord. Oh, my. February 2 makes me curmudgeonly. Hey, let’s celebrate ignorance! Let’s pretend that furry critters are news! Sigh. Lighten up, buddy. There go your “Man of the People” credentials. You’ll lose your drive-through status. “Man refused Canadian Maple doughnut – called unpatriotic snob.”

“It is what it is,” I say with Jock Zen wisdom, and turn to the real news. Benjamin James is heading North, groundhogs be darned, for twelve more weeks of winter. He’s my hero today. A teaching job 200 light-years north of Churchill, Manitoba, and he has jumped on it instantly. He’ll teach ESL, some life-skills maths and sciences to the largely Inuit residents of Arviat, Nunavut. He’ll be able to keep working on his novel and other writing. He’ll cut into student debts. He’ll be a service pioneer in the tiny Bahá’í community there. He’ll play trombone to the caribou. How exciting is that? My kid is going to beat me to the Arctic. Lay on, McBen!