ODY: Weeks 18/19. 133/365. Home and Hearth.

Well, I just keep hacking away. It’s all about hideously retro concepts like faith and, ugh, duty. I can do dutiful, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some beautiful. I could sure use some inspiration. Just after the funeral dirge that was the last progress (?) report, I actually put together two really fine days of practice in a row. Whining is virtue! Venting can be fun and productive. Catharsis lives!

There was no aha, no shining moment of clarity. But as has happened before, coming back to work on smooth and semi-automatic chord changes did the trick, for a couple of days anyway. The Big Picture was awfully cloudy, but the microscopic viewpoint helped me see some new things. I realized that my index finger is always en retard when I’m shaping a D chord, so I’ve been focussing on getting that reluctant follower to lead for a change. He’s still not trustworthy, but Finger One can surprise me by doing what he ought to without me having to remind him every time.

Because we were either on the road or doing home improvements for much of the last two weeks, it was as if my 100-Day guitar habit had never been. More than once, I staggered gratefully to bed after a too-long day, pooped and dim-witted, only to realize that I hadn’t visited the Six String Chapel that day. Argh! Much groaning and rationalization ensued. Don’t be so anal. It’s after midnight anyway, so what does it matter? Besides, maybe One Missed Day – oh, the horror! the horror! — will give you something more interesting to write about, you know, the tragic death of a perfect attendance record (what is this, Sunday school?), and the inspirational story of overcoming that awful setback and building anew. No? Well, how ‘bout this? Just between you and me and the dishes in the sink, nobody cares whether you miss a friggin’ day! You’re not that important! This is about as meaningful as a dog taking a dump in the woods. Rover has a consecutive days streak going, too.

One of those days was the Princess’s birthday, so to that snarling voice was added her sweet one. It had been a quiet and lovely evening, and sleep was calling when the realization hit. “Oh, stay with me, it’s so warm. And it’s my birthday…” Now that was pretty convincing. I came close to falling from musical/dutiful grace, such as it is, so I had to summon my best argument. (Not so much to convince her, but myself. And it worked. It might even be true.) “If I miss one day, a second one won’t matter. Next thing you know, a week’ll go by and I won’t mind much. I’m not in lessons, so who’s gonna notice? The thing is, I feel like I could mail the whole thing in. It’s bloody fragile.” Okay, so maybe I’m a drama prince. (We all gotta get some drama somewhere.) But this Guitar Player persona IS fragile, and I could lose my tenuous toe-hold on the sheer face of music very easily. So I stumbled down to my mom-in-law’s laundry room, leaned against the washer and played some cement-floor blues. It actually felt good, like a small sacrifice that might someday have value. And the Princess was sleeping, and the bed was just as warm, when I gratefully crawled into it half an hour later.

A few days after that tiny crisis, I had a more comfortable perch in my big sister’s living room, and somebody to play with. It was the Return of the Itinerant Artist, into my personal space at least. While I didn’t get as much time as I’d hoped for guitar renewal with my music guru and son the IA, it was marvy good. He answered some questions, and made helpful observations on my technique and on my earnestly clumsy approach to this whole business. He showed me how to play the acoustic guitar line to “Wheat Kings” by The Tragically Hip. (It’s just G to C and back, with a D thrown into the chorus. Pretty much the same ingredients as CCR’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain”, but an entirely different rhythm. I’m going to have to hear it some more, because I’ve lost the feel of it.) We looked at my attempts at playing the Twelve-Bar Blues sequence – still having some trouble getting smoothly into the B7 chord, but I know da blues – and then the IA gave me a great and much-needed experience. “Okay, Dad, you play that line, over and over, don’t stop, and I’ll solo over the top of it.”

And away we went, two acoustic guitars in a quiet small-town living room, and I was playing MUSIC! I need to find way more of that. Holy Fun! ‘Course, when ever now and again I tried to get a little creative with my strumming rhythm, I instantly lost track of the chord changes. And it didn’t matter. The IA would just nod, smile and keep picking, and I’d gradually find my way back into the groove. Sweetness!

And on another road trip night, in another living room, brother-in-law Silent Paul and I followed our epic country walk with some guitar sharing. (He’s not so silent when it’s just two guys and some ideas that he cares about.) Actually, most of the sharing was his, as he’s a lot farther down this road than I am and actually performs in his church sometimes. He showed me a fine little sequence that starts with a different fingering of the basic E chord, leaving the first finger free. Sliding that same shape up the fretboard, and barring the 5th, 7th and 9th frets behind it with the free index finger, produces respectively a higher A, a B and (dropping finger three) a C minor chord. Nifty. SP got excited about showing me this guitar lick, and worked hard to figure out how to write the sequence of chords for me, since he plays it beautifully and brainlessly. I’ll need at least one more visit down home before I grasp this sequence – Paul gives me way too much credit – but it’ll be, at least, a fresh reason and a new way to work on barre chords.

Even better, it was a chance to share this way-too-solitary cruise with others. For those two nights, playing guitar was less lonely and more interesting. (This playing alone in my cave is what the IA mainly means when he shakes his head at my weird way of learning guitar.) I still don’t play well with others, or very much, anyway, but there’s hope. Two living rooms’ worth.

ODY: Weeks 14/15. Frantic Talk, Classic Rock.

My account of a mid-life guitar obsession continues. 105 straight days of terrorizing an innocent instrument, and counting. It started on August 21…

I rarely listen to Classic Rock radio stations anymore. It just gets old, quite apart from having to listen to the ads. (In the car, I always have at least two pre-set stations for any form of commercial radio so I can minimize the sell. Easier, of course, to keep locked on CBC/RadioCanada – always something I can listen to one of those four channels – or, occasionally, campus radio where there are wonderful little enclaves of ethnic music.) The classic rock that I want to hear generally doesn’t get played, but the occasional historic blast is fun to hear. Mostly, though, I’m with Watterson.

I still get Bill Watterson’s late lamented Calvin and Hobbes cartoons on-line, and here’s one of the latest. In the first three panels, Calvin is sitting on the floor listening to a portable radio. It bellows, “You’re listening to ‘Boomer 102’, Classic Rock – where we promise not to expose you to anything you haven’t heard a million times before! We’ll get right back to more hits from those high school days when your world stopped… But first, here’s our critic to review the latest movie based on a ‘60s or ‘70s TV show!” In the fourth panel, Calvin walks away from his father’s easy chair with an expression of, what, smouldering rage? Or maybe it’s terminal disappointment etched on his face. Dad: “What’s that look supposed to mean?

I will admit to dipping back into musical nostalgia and “comfort tunes” occasionally. Heck, I was playing my vinyl Chicago VII this morning. (Remember “Wishin’ You Were Here”? Embarrassingly sweet, but this was one of their last albums that still had some meaty rock and roaring, untamed horns.) I’d rather hand-pick my sentimentality than have it served up to me in a pre-digested, sell-the-ad-space format. (I also lecture on Mondays and Thursdays.)

All that is a prologue to this Old Dog’s Guitar Lesson the Last with Kurt, which took me to old Ottawa south in the middle of Week 14. For some reason, I flipped to “The Bear” and found myself listening to John Fogarty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band I’ve been thinking I should revisit. Some simple and good guitar lickin’ for ODY embellishment, and Fogarty is one of the great voices of rock ‘n’ roll. (I can’t play the song yet, but I patrolled Centre Field for major parts of my memory; I’m grateful for Put me in, coach! I’m ready to play…) It had been a pretty soggy month in my part of the world – It’s beginning to look a lot like Climate Change / Everywhere you go… – so no surprise that “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” should be playing. It was just slightly spooky that this was one of the songs that Kurt the Guitar Guru skated through on our last evening. All I need to do is get the hang of the regular right-hand muting of every second or third strum, and from there it’s a breeze: it’s a two-chord alternation (G and C), with a turn to D at the end and a ringing E minor as the sonic cherry on the top. I can do that.

We also, in the midst of a quick glance at another muting technique, raced through little ditties that may raise my respect quotient with my own six-year-old Calvin: one of them is that little intro bass plunking of the TV Batman theme, and the other was “Shaken Not Stirred”, the brainless and archetypal Bond-on-the-run theme. What else? Daily Scale Studies, page 35 of the manual. (Do ‘em as much as you can stand!) More Scale Studies, 36. (Do more than you can stand!) Daily Non-Tonal Studies, 37. (These are even less musical than the previous ones, but they are a MUST for getting those fret fingers strong and independent. Go hard!) Blues, 38. (Don’t forget these guys. Memorize the 12-bar and 8-bar blues progressions. You’ll be glad you did!) Basic Chord Progressions, 39. (I know, you’ve had chord pages to work on before, but these are longer and more challenging ones. And look out, kids! Some of them are Actual Songs! See if you can identify ‘em.)

(At this point, I asked the GG how to do that “cheating F” chord, since the regular F is “such a bastard!” So he scribbled the diagram, noted that it was a moveable one – aha! – as is B-flat, by the way, oh, and B-flat minor which becomes C minor just by running up two frets, and take a look at the root note in an F minor and you’ll see that up one fret it’s an F-sharp…So remember, the basic movement through the chords is that changing from one letter to another, like A to B, is usually a two-fret movement, except between E and F and B and C, now, howya going to remember that? Okay, ‘Ernie farts’, ‘Bert collapses’! Okay? It was a bit fast for me, and of course there was way more than I could take in, but the encouraging thing was that it didn’t seem like Ancient Greek anymore. I can’t speak the language yet, but I can understand some of it, at least enough to go back later and teach myself what he said. Which is the GG’s modus guitarandi, anyhow, that and bubbling with enthusiasm for music and unrestrained goofiness.)

Campfire Songs #1, 40. (You’ll be able to figure these out. And I think I can!) Campfire Songs #2, 41. (Ditto.) Rhythmic Studies 1. (Okay, these exercises have every rhythmic figure you can strum, in 2/4 time, anyway. ‘Member the left-hand muting? Well, this is it. Spend a few hundred hours!) “And as for the rest of the pages we didn’t get to,” the GG grinned, “don’t bother with ‘em. They’re too hard!”

All this semi-frantic run-through was just to get us to keep practising like fiends when there is no longer any urgent reason to do so: no more lessons for awhile, and Lord knows there is no outcry for me to play my chaotic rhythms and stumbling chord-changes in public. In another month or so, the GG will be doing Beginner’s Guitar for Adults II, which he promises will be more song-based, but until then we’re on our own again. “Okay,” he said, “thanks for trying, keep on trying, bye!” And off he ran to his next group lesson. I still don’t know any names – no, wait, there was Glenn – but some will be back for BG 2. It might be fun, next time, to actually try to get to know some of these strangers I’m sharing my insecure stabs at learning with…

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.

Old-Dog Year: Day 2

Put in an excruciating 35 minutes. The Teen Vegan Punk-Rock Intellectual commanded me to hold the pick a certain way, and it seemed to help my strumming a bit. Just having a pick probably helped make it sound a little more authoritative, if utterly muddy and tuneless. The pain wasn’t only emotional. My fret fingers feel chubby and arthritic, though they are neither. (And the tips hurt. Waah!) Picking slowly down the strings, each note of the A and G chords could be made to sound somewhat clear, but the strumming was horrible. Then I realized I’d been reading the TVPI’s handwritten chord diagram upside down.

After that, there were a few moments when I might’ve been actually playing the G major and minor chords, albeit badly. The A still sounds like I’m strumming on a leaf rake. Patience, Old Dog.