ODY: Week 13. 91/365. LOTSA Time…

Multi-tasking is spectacularly over-rated. Have you ever talked to someone who was answering e-mail or Black-buried while (allegedly) listening? Can you (should you) multi-task while making love, meditating, reading or doing any of the most important things? Have you noticed how badly people (not you, of course) drive while they eat or plan or do their nails or change their clothes? Heck, I can’t even have an intelligent conversation with any of my passengers without forgetting where I’m taking them. I’m trying to learn to do dishes while I talk on the kitchen phone, but anything much beyond that is just doing several things poorly. 

Still, I’m learning to multi-task my way through the drudgery of practice and half-baked melody-making. (WHY? Because I’m on the road to Mid-Life Guitar Glory, that’s why! The story started back here, if you’re interested.) To avoid leaving practice until the end of a brain-dead day, and to build my endurance of endless repetition, I’m learning (slowly) to combine it with other things. Eldest son, the Itinerant Artist, renewed his nagging this past weekend. “Pick some song you like, and figure out something to play along with it. PLAY! It could be a guitar lead, or any lead. It could be some little bass riff that you can hit an octave higher on the acoustic. Doesn’t matter. Find a backing band!” Well, IA, I do like that “backing band” idea. James Howden and the Chicago Horns.  James Howden and the Radiohead Orchestra. James Howden and Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts Now. (Well, pretty soon, anyway.)

This past week, my backing bands were radio broadcasts: from ethicist Margaret Somerville giving the Massey Lectures, to the Ottawa Senators trying to remember how to win. Hockey play-by-play is a rhythm I’ve heard so many times that it goes down easy, without taking too many brain cells hostage. And I convinced myself not to worry about catching every nuance of Somerville’s The Ethical Imagination because I’m planning to read the book anyway. Still, I felt the stunned silence in her live audience in hearing some of the medical dilemmas that she threw at them. Cyborgs and chimeras and clones, oh my! What is a human being? Is that different than humans doing? But I was serene. Damn the ethical torpedos; I just played, and heard what I could. I couldn’t summarize the talk, and I didn’t learn anything new on the strings, but I did get some routine rehearsal done.

KW, the Guitar Guru, was in good form this week. For part of our lesson, he was out of the left-arm cast he’s been wearing since he severed tendons in his hand doing home renovations. (I’ll bet he was multi-tasking at the time.) He wears a removeable cast, and is beginning the slow business of learning to use his hand again. For a professional player and all-round GG like Kurt, it must be agonizing to be unable to play. (“It’s only, oh, 35 years since I’ve been away from the guitar for this long.”) And it’ll be a long road back to playing like he’s used to; gosh, he’ll have to start from tender-fingered scratch and rebuild his calluses, not to mention those knuckle-busting stretches and changes. Ouch. We’re roughly of an age, though, and I like his chances of getting his guitar chops back FAR more than mine of ever making a decent crossover dribble again! (Be careful with crossover dribbles — the ankles you break may be your own!) Still, those guitars and those dedicated hours are things he has loved and lived by, and it must be driving him nuts to be without them. (Beware of linoleum cutters.)

The GG was sharp this week. Hearing evidence of the one thing I’ve learned to do fairly well – some finger-picking sequences – he went into Radio Voice. “According to a British study, finger-picking guitar players have a 40% lower chance of dying from a heart attack…” Ah. Those famous Studies and what they Show. He didn’t go on too long, though, because there isn’t much time left. (He’s been loading us with content for the last couple of weeks.) I was pissed by my utter inability to make a chord change while pick-strumming a waltz beat (accompanying “On Top of Old Smokey”) or a dreary polka (behind “Skip to My Lou”.) And how many times has the GG had to listen to this lumbering collection of missed notes and half-breed chords? It’s goofiness that gets him (and us) through. While we plucked and strummed, he sang the lead in various voices and accents and alternative lyrics.  Any antidote to boredom (his, after 25 years of teaching) and frustration (ours, after nine weeks of inch-worm progress).

For the last two sessions, the GG has been showing signs of an archetypal teacher sentiment that I know by heart: how the hell am I going to get through everything I planned to cover? This is accompanied, unfailingly, by the ethical question: was the (slightly) slowed progress worth the laughs, the stories and the peeks inside this new world? It was for me; I was fascinated, always, to hear musician stories: the GG’s own, but also those about Ted Reed’s Syncopation for the Modern Drummer (“it’s the BIBLE of percussion”); of Jaco Pastorius’s brilliant bass-playing and coke-addled end; of the Bulgarian Ivo Papasov, “the world’s greatest clarinet player”, and a reminder of the astonishing Bulgarian National Women’s Choir; and, this week, an urgent polemic on “the real inventors of rock ‘n’ roll [Louis Jordan and Mickey Baker], not Chuck Berry, the big goof”. I’m hungry to better know this world, and I don’t mind a story or three, especially when my fingers are all tangled up in blue anyway.

And this knocks me out: in the midst of eight rookies flailing away in a small room at a barely recognizable something-or-other, Kurt the GG reached over and gave a quick twist to the tuning peg for my low E string. He arched an eyebrow, I played the string, he nodded.

     “Holy cats! What an ear, Herr Walther!”
“Well,” he replied, “I only have one hand, so I guess I’d better be able to hear!”
“So, keep the knives away from your ears, then, Vincent!”

We’re all getting to know each other a little better, though I know only Glenn by name. We all laugh more and louder now, and feel more free to commiserate with each other and to admire the quiet woman in the back row who is playing all of us right off the island. A little ease was welcome, because I felt like adding Guitar Throw to the Olympic field event roster. Arggh. I hadn’t gotten ahead far enough to look at the new material, so I felt Dumb AND Dumber. I couldn’t even follow the very minimal (but rather hurried) instruction. I thought for sure that I’d be sent immediately to what was called, in my antiquated grade school days, the Opportunity Class.

I’m daunted by the material we’ve been given in this Beginner’s Guitar class, although the GG constantly reassures us (“Okay, there are relative degrees of success there!” he’ll smile after an utterly bungled sequence. “You are floating in a sea of calm,” he intoned this week when we muttered anxiously after a quick set of instructions. And then, as usual, he’d laugh. “That’s a sea of calm, not a sea of qualms.”) I found out this week that Beginner’s Guitar, Session Two (“Faster and Furiouser!”) will resume at the Ottawa Folklore Centre after we have a month off to digest Kurt the First. I think I’ll continue. “There will be more songs and cool stuff,” KW the GG assures us.

So I mostly feel good about my work on the most boring of exercises. I do, that is, until I do the math: last night, playing to the ebb and flow of another hockey game on the radio (Go, Sens, Go!), was my NINETY-SECOND STRAIGHT DAY of doing things to my guitar. (Stay, Gordon, Stay!) Working hard on chord changes, I am, but also working on the over-numerous but slightly-less-boring songs that use ‘em. Ah. Method to the GG’s madness. One night, though tired, I played for nearly an hour ‘cause I got seriously into “Skip to My Lou” and “Old Smokey”, yes, in four different keys! And I belatedly got to page 39 of the GG’s guitar manual, and realized that it won’t be all that mysterious once I spend an hour or so on it.


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