Monday was my third guitar lesson and the JazzMan, my teacher, introduced me to the third string and the notes G and A.
The first week I had three notes: E, F and G. My assignment was an exercise that familiarized me with those notes, up and down and changing back and forth. I had two fingers to pick with, the index and middle fingers. Altogether that’s four fingers and three notes. The second week added the B string and notes B, C and D. D was hard. I had to stretch that left ring-finger to find it and frequently missed. There were additional exercises. The JazzMan showed me the drone, the movement of the same finger, either index or middle, from the E-string to the B-string. It’s a movement both smooth and efficient, not that it sounds smooth or efficient yet for me.
By the end of two weeks though, I found that I could play chords more easily, changing from one to the other without deliberate thought and the counting of strings and frets. I strummed through Irene Goodnight and it sounded…almost okay.
Practice time is becoming a pleasure. This practice is less like piano homework from Mrs. Stevenson when I was ten and more like choir rehearsal with Mr. Locke at Emma Willard. The former was drudgery; the latter was exhilarating, concentrated effort. Mrs. Stevenson, a motherly brunette who lived on Scarborough Road, a couple of blocks up and over from my home at 2854 Corydon. Once or twice she took the glasses off my nose and washed them clean in the kitchen so at least I could see the music. She inspired me with her exquisite playing—once she even performed on television on the Mike Douglas Show. The Mike Douglas Show had not yet moved up to the larger market of Philadelphia let alone into the national airwaves. She taught students with real talent; I was not one of them.
Practice was a burden because it led inexorably to recitals. I was terrified of recitals and nerves produced ghastly and discordant performances. The last time I played in public was for my schoolmates at Princess Helena College in 1970. I fled from the assembly hall as soon as I could and bawled out my anxiety and humiliation in the woods that sheltered the edge of the campus from the Preston village green.
I remember one practice session. It was my tenth or eleventh birthday and I was keeping conscientiously busy while my mother iced and decorated my birthday cake. Cookie Scheid—our teenaged-neighbor, frequent babysitter and my brother Tim’s godmother—came over, I’m not sure why, but then no one every needed a reason to stop by. I heard her chatting with Ma, I heard a cupboard door open and I heard a crash. I barreled into the pantry and caught a glimpse of a heap of devil’s-food cake, gooey white frosting, and scarlet and green decorative blobs on the floor. Apparently the cake was still a little warm when it was iced and then sat at a slight angle in the cupboard where Ma had placed it pending the after-dinner presentation. After dinner I was given the bottom layer ornamented with a few rosettes and flaming candles. Salvaged chunks of the upper layer were served on a separate platter.
Now, however, practice is my time and the music I make is for me. This is all the more true as I have begun the Year of Living Life.
Last March I arranged with my department chairperson and administrator to take a year off from teaching—and still have a job to come back to in September 2012. I informed my students and the personnel at Osher at Johns Hopkins University that I would not be available to teach in either the fall or spring semesters of the upcoming academic year. When old clients called with new work, I said, “no can do.”
This is the year that my Dear One and I will spend with each other. I will write—and maybe even meet my personal goal of no fewer than one blog entry per week. I will work on my novel. We will travel. We will go to the places of World War I where my grandfathers played their parts in that terrible conflict, as it is their experiences that I am plumbing for my book. We will visit Lithuania and meet the cousins my Dear One has been writing for years. I will even, perhaps, labor in the garden until it achieves a modicum of order and a certain freedom from weeds. I will read many books, catch a few movies, and keep my mind full and happily in the present.
The JazzMan’s gift of the G-string was perfectly timed. That morning I had attended the Maryland Institute College of Art Pre-College 2011 wrapup meeting, meeting my final obligation of employment. I handed in grades. I filled out an evaluation form. I contributed to the conversation about what we had done well and what could stand improvement. I was home by about one o’clock; I practiced on the guitar; I went to my lesson. The JazzMan gave me Skip to My Lou, which made me laugh as a picked out the notes. Then he gave me Beethoven.
Ode to Joy.