It was a wonderful week of music in my home.
My children fell in love with a new song (“On My Way” by Jennifer Lopez), that went into heavy rotation and led to many sing alongs.
I interviewed Darryl McDaniels from Run DMC for my podcast, who reminded me that “music can do what politics and religion can’t – unite us.”
Finally, I had my first guitar lesson in three years.
I’ve had a guitar for almost thirty years. You certainly wouldn’t know that if you heard me play. Trying to master this instrument has eluded me all my life. The excuses over that time have piled up. I’m left handed but first tried to learn to play a right handed guitar at the advice of a friend. That ended poorly. I have a bad ear for music. I’ve always felt that I’m not especially musically inclined. I don’t practice enough. My guitar itself was fairly cheap and was hard to keep in tune. And so on and so on.
I had a bit of a breakthrough five years ago when I began taking guitar lessons with my oldest daughter, who at the time was around nine years old. Our teacher was kind and incredibly patient. We learned primarily by playing songs together. My daughter, who is incredibly musical, served as both my inspiration and metronome. After a while, we could play dozens of songs passably. Although none by memory. I loved playing with her.
After a year or so, other commitments and interests relegated our guitar lessons to the back of the activity line, first going on hiatus, then stopping altogether. My daughter seldom plays now.
My wife bought me a beautiful new Taylor guitar that seemed as if it could never go out of tune. I began to dive into apps like Ultimate Guitar Tab to “learn” the latest songs from Billie Eilish or Ed Sheeran. My attention span for any new song was limited. The guitar would sit dormant for weeks at a time, discouraged by my lack of progress and missing my playing partner.
Eventually, the primary purpose of the guitar became a cathartic release from daily stress. I would pick it up to get away, usually not playing any song in particular. Just strumming, seeing what sounds I might make that would reflect my mood.
I reached out to my friend, Jeff Pucillo, to see if he could give me a one-off lesson to help get me back on track.
My hunch was that I was adrift in my playing because my means of learning was backwards.
My initial logic was that if I learned to play songs, I would learn to play the guitar which would teach me how to understand music. When in fact, I had it in reverse. If you first understand the foundation of music, you can learn how it works on a specific instrument, which will then make it easier to learn how to play songs… and even write them.
In this lesson, we didn’t play a single song. Although we did listen to one. I asked questions, he responded with pearls of wisdom that deepened my understanding.
“Your strumming hand is the driver. Focus on this before the chords.”
“You always tune up, not down.”
“When you form a chord, you’re essentially shortening the strings.”
“Listen for the progressions in the songs you like.”
“Music is mathematical. It’s about patterns.”
“See if you can find the key.”
“Learn the 1,4,5 chord progression.”
“Don’t forget the minor sixth.”
If you play the guitar, these phrases will presumably ring true to you. If you don’t, then consider this as a metaphor for learning in general.
It is natural to be attracted to surface learning. We get an immediate sense of accomplishment and gratification if we can play a song, recite a fact, or learn a new skill. But without the proper foundation and scaffolding each individual piece of learning goes unconnected and only partially understood, eventually deteriorating with our memory.
When this is flipped and we build the proper foundation on which future learning can rest, it all begins to make sense in a more complete, accessible and memorable way. Or so I hope. Check back with me in a few months.