Fridays before my guitar lessons, I park my car a block away from the music store just so I can strut down the sidewalk toting my Washburn acoustic by my side. The street before me is my private runway. I appear apathetic to the pedestrians glancing at my bulky, six-string sidekick. I hope they are wondering about my talent, my aspirations, my rock ‘n’ roll career. My guitar ceases to be a musical instrument and becomes a prop, an accessory completing my carefully calculated image.
[sally1] The passers-by need not know my guitar was a Hanukkah present from my parents during my freshman year of college and that the only things I can play are a few measures from “Free Falling” by Tom Petty and a mean rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Just when their suspicions are aroused that I might be a fraud, I duck into Quinn’s Music and continue the charade before a new group of people. I recognize the employee at the counter.
“Hey Brian, what’s up?”
“Just holdin’ down the fort ‘til my dad gets back from lunch,” Brian says. We went to high school together; he was a people-person, the class clown everybody liked, now taking over the family business. He never really spoke to me during our math class together years before, but my guitar now makes me someone worth knowing.
“Are you here for your lesson? I think Nathan is just finishing up with someone downstairs,” he says.
“Yeah, but actually, since I’m up here, I was thinking about buying a capo,” I say.
“We’ve got a few here in the display case.” He reaches under the glass counter and hands me a shiny metallic device. “So were you looking for an elastic one, or a quick-change standard steel string capo? This one’s about $20, but it’s very high quality. ”
I’m caught. I don’t know if $20 is an appropriate price to pay for a tool I barely know how to use. Then I wonder if my strings are, in fact, steel. All I know is that a capo clamps onto the neck of the guitar and changes the sounds of the strings, but I can hardly play anything on them the way they are now. I stare at Brian, perplexed, and at a loss for words. Maybe this search is too hard. I need to think of a way to escape. My palms sweat.
“Well, I think I want the quick-change one,” I say as I finger through the gum wrappers and grocery store receipts cluttering my purse, and think of a lie instead. “Damnit…I left my wallet at home. I think I’m going to have to buy it next week.”
[sally2] I chat with Brian for a few moments longer, if only to prolong my presence in the store, trying to look like a regular customer to the other shoppers, which, in reality, I am not. As I descend the stairs to meet my guitar tutor, I hope Brian will forget our capo conversation by next Friday, just like he forgot that I sat behind him in eleventh grade trigonometry.
My weekly lessons are held in a tiny office in Quinn’s unfinished basement. Advertisements for Fender and Yamaha decorate the walls and bare lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling illuminate the underground studio. I sit in a folding chair outside the office and listen through the wall as Nathan Myers offers advice to a student.
“You should be practicing at least every other day, otherwise we won’t see any improvement,” he advises. He has a droning voice like the man in the Visine commercials. “I want you to be playing ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ by the next lesson.”
A smirk spreads across my face as I realize I mastered ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ two weeks ago. I must be fairly skilled, after all. Just then, the door to the office creaks open and a nine-year-old girl walks out. I am more than 10 years this kid’s senior, but I am only two weeks ahead of her in my musicianship. She has a better chance of becoming a rock star than I do. It’s not fair.
“You’re up next, Sally,” Nathan calls. He looks at me through thick glasses behind shaggy salt-and-pepper hair. He is a seasoned veteran of music education, with 15 years experience as a guitar teacher. I imagine him as a hippie back in the ‘60s, but years of fatherhood and day-jobs have turned him into a straight-laced family man.
“I brought in some tabs,” I announce as I remove my guitar from its black nylon case. “They’re by The Starting Line. I downloaded them this afternoon.” I hand the stack of paper to Nathan.
“So you just got this off the Internet?” he says, staring at the series of hyphens, numbers and symbols dotting the pages before him.
[sally3] “I was hoping you could help me learn how to play a couple of their songs. They sound pretty easy,” I say, sensing Nathan is not satisfied.
“Well, I can’t teach tabs unless I am familiar with the actual song. There are no rhythms, no time signatures, nothing, on any of this.”
“That’s why I brought in their CD.”
“No, no I don’t want to listen to that,” he hastily responds. I am confused. He can’t teach me the song without audio assistance, but he refuses the CD when it is offered. Odd. “It’s all just power chords. That’s all they play in pop music. It’s not original, it’s just a formula to get famous.”
Nathan likes to complain about modern music. Granted, The Starting Line is a classic example of the whiny, diluted punk music dominating the airways, but that doesn’t mean I should boycott them.
“The only respectable guitarist of today is Dave Matthews,” Nathan concludes.
“I love Dave Matthews,” I quickly chime in. “But I thought his music would be too difficult for me at this point.”
“It is.” Nathan picks up his own guitar, an ancient acoustic Fender, and starts playing a complicated but catchy jazz tune. It is not by the Dave Matthews Band, but I smile, pretending to recognize it. Nathan closes his eyes, and his head sways back and forth while he runs his pick over the strings. His foot taps a steady beat on the ground.
“That was a piece written by Henry Mancini,” he informs me as he finishes playing. “One of the greatest composers of all time. He wrote the theme to ‘The Pink Panther.’”
[sally4] I check the clock, and realize that 10 minutes have passed since my lesson began. It was about time for the weekly ode to Henry Mancini. Nathan’s dream is to see all his pupils strive to master the works of Mancini, not The Starting Line.
“I’ll show you how to play the power chords of this ‘finish line’ song but don’t bring in tabs like this again,” he warns. I think I have insulted him by wasting his expertise on such mediocre music. Next time, bring a Led Zeppelin guitar solo, I tell myself.
The remaining 20 minutes of our lesson are spent drilling exercises in Progressive Guitar Methods, a workbook for beginners like myself. I hate it. It is filled with songs with bland titles like “8 Bar Blues” and “Three-String Blues.” Nathan loves the blues. Since graduating from “Hall of the Mountain King,” he has been drilling the G-scale into my mind, because apparently, it is the root of the most basic blues rifts.
“I started writing a song,” I admit. “I’m using A, D, E and a variation of D-minor for the main chords.”
“Good, good.” Nathan’s monotone does not convey any enthusiasm. “Many musicians have made up songs based on the progressive blues scale, you know.” He plays an impromptu solo, and then continues talking about the importance of blues. He never asks to hear my song.
“I have a very promising student that you should listen to before you go home,” Nathan suggests. “He’s coming in right after you and I are finished. He only has a lesson once a month just to touch base with me. He’s been playing guitar for about five years.”
“He’s got nothing on me,” I joke. Nathan manages a smile. I am curious to meet this guitar prodigy. I envision a handsome 20-something with unruly brown curls and deep, brooding eyes.
A 14-year-old boy walks into the office, interrupting my daydream.
“Hey Nathan, you ready yet?” he asks.
“Come on in, Kevin. I wanted Sally to sit and listen to you play for a little while. She’s just starting out; it’d be good for her to see what you can do,” Nathan answers. I stare at the kid in disbelief. This can’t be the ‘promising student’ that Nathan was referring to. He is the same age as my little sister, and his hair is styled in blue spikes, not cascading waves. Bring it on, I say to myself. He can’t be any better than I am.
[sally5] “So I’ve been working on this Van Halen solo, and it’s coming along pretty well,” Kevin says to Nathan as he tunes his red, glittering electric guitar. They make small talk and exchange inside jokes and hearty laughter. I have never heard Nathan even chuckle. Apparently, working with me is not the least bit entertaining. I am offended.
The young prodigy begins to play an intricate song, his hands skipping across the frets with ease. He unconsciously puckers his lips as he emphasizes the high notes screaming through the amplifier. He’s like a small, white Santana.
“Slow down, you’re rushing through it,” Nathan laughs. “There’s no hurry, just enjoy the music.” At this point I have had enough. I can’t even switch chords quickly enough to eliminate pauses, but this kid can switch so efficiently that he is actually playing too fast. I decide I hate him and will not allow him to crush my ego with another note.
“It was nice meeting you, Kevin, but I have to get going. See you next week, Nathan,” I say, zipping up my coat.
“If you have time, be sure to take a look at that sheet music I gave you, in addition to the blues exercises,” Nathan reminds me. “Particularly the one with the theme song to ‘The Flintstones.’” Thanks a lot, Nathan. I shrink inside my jacket as Kevin snickers at me under his breath.
I trudge up the creaking wooden stairs back to the main floor of Quinn’s, the sounds of Kevin’s pretentious guitar symphony ringing in my ears. Muttering a hurried goodbye to Brian, I step out into the crisp October air, leaving Nathan’s deadpan voice and the Progressive Guitar exercises behind me. Then I smile. My favorite part of the lesson is not yet over. My car is a full city block away, the streets are crowded and my Washburn acoustic is by my side.
Front page artwork by D. Shalom Pennington