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On SIght Reading, Tablature, and Differently Abled Musicians August 14, 2014

Filed under: Guitar,Music — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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My introduction to music came at an early age. In fact, I remember the day we purchased that old piano. It was an upright, a converted player piano which, to this day (thanks much to my little sister’s continual financial endowments) has a distinctly superior sound. (I would, in fact, argue that it sounds much better than many of the grand pianos I’ve heard… and my sister’s piano tuner would agree.)

I took lessons through most of my childhood and youth, beginning at the age of six. I was full of dynamic expression and had just the right touch on the keys. What I didn’t have, however, was an ability to convert those little dots they call notes into music.

I could (and still can) read music. But it never came easily to me. I’d rather listen to a piece played by someone else, then try to bash it out on my own. In fact, I do this reasonably well. But notes… something about them simply seems in-congruent to me. Place a series of them on a staff and, for some reason, my fingers struggle to pick them out.

Even flashcards weren’t a great deal of help. I could quickly name the notes when showed to me singly, but seeing them displayed in succession gave me heart palpitations. It was as if I were sitting on that hard, wooden bench, staring at a jumbled mess that desperately required reorganization. So, eventually, I just quit. My sister could sight read just about anything and her playing had long since surpassed mine. I didn’t love the instrument the way she did and it no longer seemed worth the effort.

It was time to find something new… and I did. I admit that I selected the guitar based more upon the instrument’s sound than upon any particular style of notation. But as soon as I lay eyes upon that tablature, I was in love. Numbers on lines made sense. A 3 on the third string meant I should depress the third fret on the third string. A 5 on the second string mean that I sound ease my finger over to that fifth fret on the second string. Easy peasy.

It wasn’t long, however, before I found that the validity of this notation style was being called into question. After all, can you really be said to be playing an instrument if you can’t (or in my case, chose not to) read music? In a way, I felt like I was being forced into some type of remedial learning… music for the less adept. My difficulty sight reading was a musical disability. Tablature was for those who had been “held back”. And yes, I felt a little sorry for myself.

I confess that I spent far too much time struggling with this question. (I’ve always been skilled when it comes to having a good mope.) No two minds work the same way. And some minds function in ways distinctly different from the majority. Math, reading, and music come easily to some, but not to others. A person may excel at one skill, but find themselves struggling with another. There is no shame in that. So I quit whining, read the tablature, and made some really awesome music. After all, music is music, regardless of what it takes to get the tune off the paper, into your head, and through your fingers. The song is the same, even if I read it a bit differently.

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On Muscle Memory and those Callouses that Never Go Away August 7, 2014

Filed under: Guitar,Music — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

I’m not really sure what happened yesterday. I was sitting on the couch, enjoying a day off, when all of a sudden a force beyond my control took hold of me. Before I knew it, I was hurrying downstairs to pull my Dad’s old Gibson guitar out of its case.

I haven’t played in over a year. Life got in the way. And I was never a great guitarist anyway. I’m better acquainted with the art in theory than in actuality. I understand the chord shapes and a little bit about harmonics, but not enough to impress anyone other than a neophyte. Still, that’s enough to be getting on with… or at least enough to cover the fact that my singing is worse than my strumming.

To my surprise, the instrument was still relatively well tuned and, to my even greater surprise, I remembered how to get it back into tune! I strummed a few chords, then a few more. I played with some picking patterns and struggled to remember the B flat chord that was missing from my progression. After tuning my voice to the guitar (an art far more complex than tuning the guitar, itself), I began to belt out a few of my favorite songs.

The disconnect between my voice and my hands was immediately evident. My hands appeared to know exactly what they were doing. My voice didn’t. I sang my off-pitch rendition of a song which shall remain nameless (I couldn’t remember the lyrics, so I was making up my own as I went) and my fingers picked out the baseline as though they’d known it forever.

Curious as to the extent of this muscle memory, I abandoned the song and shifted the guitar to a position appropriate for the classical version of the instrument. It had been my attraction to Celtic music which had originally drawn me to the strings and I wondered if I could reproduce one of the complicated tunes. Sure enough. There it was. Complete with the expressive dynamics with which I had originally endued it. My hands remembered the song even though my head didn’t.

They say that music is the last thing to leave a person as their mind begins to fade. I don’t know whether there’s research to back the idea or whether it’s yet another anecdotal “fact”. What I do know is that I hope it’s true. I hope that somehow, some way, I never forget the soundtrack that has accompanied my life… even if I forget my life, itself. I hope that my fingers will always find the right notes, that the lyrics will always make sense (even if they aren’t the proper ones), and that those callouses on my fingers will never go away.

I trimmed the nails on my left hand and filed the nails on my right. Then I played until I could see the pads of my fingers beginning to bruise and blister. I didn’t want to stop. I never should have stopped in the first place.

 

 

 
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