It’s Been Quiet, but JH Lives

Actually, it’s been a little wild: I’ve been suddenly getting lots of supply teaching dates, and in between that and busy family-ness and travel and keeping up with other writing, I’ve been neglectful of my floating blue CyberPresence. I’m grabbing a quick scribble on a hotel lobby machine in Halifax, where I am taking in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s basketball championship. The pleasure is all mine; I’m travelling with eldest son Ben, the Itinerant Artist, and it has been great so far. You’ll start finding my notes on the trip to the CIS with the IA, where we also take in the NCAA tournament on TV, in the IAAS (It’s All About Sports!) section of this site PDQ. TGIF! (Thank Goodness Initials are Finished.)

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: Week 11. Cryin’ the Blues

Thanks and congrats to those of you who read all the way through last week’s long and sentimental entry. Even Old Dogs miss their Mums. (And their Dads, too, although that is not news for this wrinkled puppy.) It was another week of plugging along in the OD Year, and although some of my practices weren’t as inspired as I would like, I am fairly astonished to report that I’ve played guitar for 77 (and still counting) consecutive days. (May discipline be contagious: today’s Day 3 of my new stretch ‘n’ strength routine.) And PERISH all thoughts of what I can’t yet do…

I have been thinking about my peculiar way of going about learning to play, which is slow and inside-out. I haven’t been as interested in the quick score, the easy song that I can play and say “Whoo-hoo!”, as I have been with trying to really understand what I’m doing and develop a solid base of skill. I’d like to be more hungry to attempt and master new elements of guitaristry, but I want to win Tortoise Style. My old high school football mentor, Coach Woody, had a dismissive term for those who started fast, pedal-to-metal but couldn’t really sustain their interest and commitment. “Sprinters,” he’d snort. With ankles like mine, speed is no longer an option, so I’ll enjoy this ponderous pace and whatever milestones (hmmm, metre-stones?) I can reach. Eagerly. Son Ben, the IA, has some concerns about my GG’s group teaching method, with its emphasis on learning some of everything over our ten weeks together, giving us enough “so that you can teach yourselves the guitar after we’re done”. The IA is not a fan of this approach. He thinks there’s way too much material, and not enough short-term objectives to reach and be inspired by. I can see that point, and I want to get smarter about really mastering a few fun and recognizable tunes. Still, I like the depth of the foundation I’m getting, and I’m in this for 365. We’ll see.

I heard an interview last week with Dunstan Prial, an American journalist, talking about his 2006 book The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music. I was fascinated, especially by Prial’s description of a 73-year-old, nattily dressed Hammond shuffling to a Carnegie Hall microphone in 1984 to introduce Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble. Vaughan, that blazing comet of the blues guitar, was only the most recent discovery and protégé of Hammond, a list that started back in the ‘30s with a black guitarist named Teddy Wilson and a white clarinettist named Benny Goodman. The list went on. Count Basie. Pete Seeger. Aretha Franklin. Bob Dylan. George Benson. Bruce Springsteen… For Prial, Hammond had a brilliant ear, not only for musical genius but for the great social milieu in which it might be heard. And in a business noted for bottom-line, flavour-of-the-month heartlessness, it was intriguing to hear of Springsteen’s gratitude for the warmth and inspiration of Hammond, and his lament that such a culture no longer exists for young artists.

Can’t tell you too much more about the book, but I picked up the Double Trouble recording from Carnegie Hall, and how would you explain this? (How do I?) Hammond introduces the band, bullied to shorten his remarks by an impatient audience. (Even Prial, who was there that night, wondered who IS this old guy?) Then Stevie and the lads launch into “Scuttle Buttin’”, which Prial described as “a lightning storm of circular blues scales played at earsplitting volume”. My throat tightened, my heart raced and my eyes leaked. OH, MY. On the Six Nations Reserve near where I grew up, there is a widespread embrace of the blues. (Aboriginal experience and an identification with the blues! Go figure, eh?) And among a lot of the young men I used to coach and teach, there was a near-worship of Vaughan. Though I’ve always liked the blues guitar, and am a particular fan of the great and tragic Roy Buchanan, I’d never gotten all the way into SRV. I knew about “Pride and Joy”, of course, but hadn’t really heard the licks in a hungry-eared way. But wow. Where’s all that weeping come from? I love the feeling in the blues, the plaintive longing that is so haunting in Roy Buchanan alongside his explosive, note-bending creativity and speed. And perhaps my own learning has helped me understand a little better what these guys are doing, and to know at an intestinal level how much they had to sacrifice, how fiercely they needed to love, in order to be able to Do That Thing. 

And maybe I was choked by the certain knowledge that I will never be able to play like that. I adore skill, dig virtuosity. The democratic note in punk-rock philosophy – hey, anybody can play, and everybody should! – is a fine thing, though it sometimes goes so far as to be perversely snobbish about skill. But I admire excellence and I WANT it, though it chills me blue to be so savagely reminded – but hey, thanks, Stevie Ray, and God bless — how far away I am from it.

ODY: Week 10. 70/365. But I Never Played for my Mother…

Monday. Gordon (the guitar) and I had a nice long bedward session. Michael Enright was interviewing the astonishingly young, beautiful and good Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the radio. (In Half of a Yellow Sun, she writes of the birth of Biafra in the ‘60s. Sounds powerful.) I like my right hand. I can get much more into the BlissyZone with finger picking than with chord changes. Male multi-tasking!

Tuesday. It was game 3 of the World Series, the first of the playoffs that I’d seen. First of the year. (Unbelievable. I still love that strange, timeless, slow game. I raced home from October school days to watch the Series as a kid. I played seriously into my 30s. I can still feel the bat in my hands, awake or asleep, in a way that I doubt a guitar will ever match.) Carpenter pitched brilliantly, and that turned the Series for the Cards. I watched over at my friends’ house, where I found not only a working television but that my buddy Fanfan is learning to play bass. Potential collaborator. I played long and lots. Had the room to myself ‘til the seventh inning, then the bullpen got too loud. These folks, two of them born in Canada, knew far less about baseball than I did about guitar two months ago. I tried to save them.

Wednesday. Lesson Night at the Ol’ Ottawa Folklore Corral, and it was a good night in the Old Dog guitar saddle. (How’s that for a mangled metaphor?) Asked questions. Got answers. Further to my mind-boggled reaction to the chords from last week’s “Study in E”, GG (Kurt the Guitar Guru) was able to quickly teach me the remarkable “E minor 11th” chord, which can also be played as “G 6-9”. It’s the opening chord to “Hard Day’s Night”, for one thing, and I’ve got it. Sounds good, right? Actually, it doesn’t. It’s ridiculously primitive. It’s just a brainless right-hand strum without a finger on the fretboard. (Ohh. I knew that.) The GG had lots to say about more significant things, like finger shapes. Learning to feel the chord shapes is the key. Sliding from one chord to another based on shapes, not notes, means that skilled guitarists are sometimes seen as “idiot savants” by other classically trained musicians. While they have had to learn the individual notes to a chord, good guitarists can intuit new chords quickly by adjusting their finger shapes or moving them up or down the fretboard. (I think that’s what the GG said. Musicians, forgive me when I know not quite what I am talking about.) 

And then came Thursday. “I think you should come right away,” Big Sister said. Our dear Mum has been in steady physical decline for the past several years, and it looked like she was doing her final taxi toward spiritual takeoff. And she was. I took care of what I thought I needed to, including being ready for a funeral, packing for my youngest son and preparing to practise the guitar for however long we would be away from home. I grabbed Gordon, met Calvin Junior (and his own versions of Hobbes) at the school bus stop and hit the road running. We didn’t quite make it, but I had some quiet moments of reflection in her room, where her body still lay.

I didn’t think much about music. Aside from her love for hymns and her comically poor singing of them, music was never a big part of our life together. Baseball? Hockey? Books and books? Absolutely. When I was a kid, though, Mum would make occasional reference to my hands: “Look at those fingers! You’re going to either be a surgeon or a concert pianist.” Well, I did almost get into medical school one year, but musical virtuosity was unlikely since lessons were never even suggested. It occurs to me that my impracticality stems more from my mother than I had thought. She’s always been a woman of grand dreams, and her vision of a generous, funny and welcoming family life was realized in the most vivid way, especially in the generation of her 13 grand-kids. Later, as we shared Enid stories, someone told of a young writer friend who had told Mum of an ambition: to win a (remotely conceivable) literary prize. (It might have been the Pulitzer.) Mum’s response was characteristic and quick. “Why not the Nobel?” Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? (Enid Howden quoting Robert Browning. Time and again. Burden and blessing.)

So, decades after I began to notice my own rabid interest in music, and after years of fascination and envy at the musical progress and accomplishments and satisfactions of my own kids, I embarked on this Old Dog Year. I decided to do something about a hypothesis I’d had for awhile. Maybe I am a bit musical. And with my athletic ability in free-fall, maybe I should work at something I can get better at in mid-life, without a need for youth or functional ankles. ‘Cause they ain’t comin’ back. I now feel that among the many lofty and wonderfully principled ideas my Mum had planted in me, this seed of musicianship was among them. It wasn’t well-nourished, mind you, but it was there. It was the classic “castle in the air”, which another strain of my childhood had derided. Quit your dreaming, boy. Get down to business. What a little absent-minded professor he is! And I hated that stuff, that accusation that I was cloud-bound, impractical, a dreamer.  

But although I function reasonably well in this allegedly Real World, I came to understand as an adult that I clearly was all of those things, and an idealist and a hope-filled romantic, too. So was my Mum. And like me, she would have loved Thoreau’s take on dreamers in Walden: “If you build castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now build foundations under them.”  So I do, in this case by pulling out my guitar every day. I thought later that I should’ve taken Gordon up and played a little in the stillness of her second-to-last room, but that wasn’t really us. (Among those souls I called upon that night to welcome Mum, though, was the old Cleveland Indians star Rocky Colavito. She’d been a great fan, and it seemed fun; the only problem was my discovery that he’s still alive. Ah, well.) Instead, I pulled out the guitar later at Big Brother’s place, where the clan gathered late into the evening, ostensibly to plan but mainly to remember. I softly fingered all the bits I can do without thinking. It felt a little like love.

Maybe all this explains, in part, why I’ve taken the long way ‘round to being a musician. (Wow. I just said I was a musician. It hardly even hurt! I do feel a giggle coming on, though.) It also took me a long while to become a writer. Chez Howden, it was reading, not writing; baseball, not music; and, in a larger sense, principles that regularly overrode pragmatism. I felt a certain joy in Mum’s passing. It was release from a limited and painful life for her. It was a superb family reunion: everybody was there, and the laughs were legion. But there was more than that, a sense of personal relief and of eagerness to live that I attribute to Mum’s example of both. Relief and contentment at the end of a well-lived and loving day, and a current of eagerness to do what I might to realize her hopes for all of us.

Right this moment, odd as it is, messing around with a guitar seems to be part of that. Amid stories and photographs, I picked some more at Little Sister and Silent Paul’s place the next night. I was a late-night guitar vampire for the next few days, using the quiet of Big Sister’s living room to go through my exercises and exercise my memories. At times it was a welcome escape from thinking, yet at others I felt as mindful as I could be. It was a rhythmically stumbling kind of meditation, peaceful moments to linger on the kindness of dear old friends and vaguely familiar faces from the old home town. Sorry for your loss. Condolences to you and your family. Enid was a great lady…

We stood by her grave — right next to my Dad’s — in the sweet sunlight of a warming autumn day, laying roses and praying and singing. (It was just the Howdens, and we actually sang pretty well, thanks.) I walked by my grandfather’s grave, past my old high school, around some of my favourite tree-lined and leaf-scented streets. Back by the fireplace at Big Brother’s, I spent a good part of the afternoon playing, including a welcome bit of stern rehearsal time with the Itinerant Artist. My eldest son, the IA, is a genuine musician, the Real Instrumental Deal, and has taught guitar for several years. He applied the Kenny Werner learning triangle – got to play slowly, and eventually combine the ability to play perfectly, at tempo and all the way through – in very specific ways to my practising. He beat out a very slow tempo, and insisted I match it. He showed me a technique for practising chord changes that avoids frozen frustration and encourages gradual acquisition of speed. It was sweet, personalized guidance and attention. (He also played, after my fingers were numb, many of the pieces I’ve struggled with, giving me some sense for how it sounds.) I’ve never felt so much at home with playing music.

That night, at a wonderful memorial for Enid H., our words of memory and tribute were in the forefront, but so was music. “How Great Thou Art” was sung with chest-busting force and beauty by a large congregation (there was a stealth tenor among the guests, and we rode his thunder. Wow.). And there are real live musicians in the next generation. Representing them, niece Bethany played a sweetly feeling “Fairest Lord Jesus” on the piano, and the IA followed later with a gorgeous solo trombone rendition – a bit jazzier than that small-town Baptish church has likely heard before – of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”. I’m decades behind, and didn’t even think of playing guitar on that bill. But I’m on the job, I’m learning, and “if a job’s worth doing,” as Mum reminded us all ad infinitum, “it’s worth doing well.” I never played for my mother, but that’s okay. I am playing for her now, and hope to do it well.

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.

ODY: 28/365

Same stuff, different day, but I don’t get bored when I’m picking out a tune, getting pick-quicker, rhythm-ready, feeling what I’m feeling, reeling, real-ing and dealing. Four weeks of musical motion, appealing to feeling. Tonight was good, and I found the weights again, too. One for one. 

48 weeks to an OD (New) Year. Email message from the Itinerant Artist. Ben is a natural teacher. “Finally got caught up on the Old Dog entries. Great stuff. Your writing and intensity are fun [but] you’re really going about this in the strangest fashion: it’s fascinating, and impressive. Though you may not be accelerating your ability as fast as another Old Dog might be, you’re going deep and bloody seriously…That said: Get a bloody teacher already! And keep rolling!” Thus spake the IA. Oh yeah? Who is this other dog? I’ll pee on his practice chair!

“If it ain’t rough, it ain’t right,” said the Pistons on their way to playoff implosion last year. (I suspect the rap reference is a horny and misogynistic one, but that may be prejudice. Correct me.) I know one thing: my way is the hard way. The IA’s “strangest fashion” feels like home to me. Yeah, I hear you. I need to get out more.