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Bach to my Future

August 21st, 2012

Breakthrough has me Butchering Standards

I have a new music teacher.

Longtime readers will remember that I bought a grand piano in 2003 or 2004. The main purpose was to learn about music so I could compose, but I ended up learning to play a few things and focusing too much on becoming a musician. After a few years, I quit. I forgot things as soon as I learned them, so at any given time, I had a repertoire of four songs. And I could not sight-read well or write music competently.

A couple of years back I started working on the electric guitar. I built most of a Telecaster, and I built a few amps. I worked on sight-reading and other skills. I went through two teachers. I got to the point where I could play a few things, but I wasn’t any closer to composing.

I started looking for a real teacher. Someone who really knew what he was doing. I checked out Craigslist, the center of all knowledge and enlightenment (after Wikipedia and Fark). I found a guy who wrote long, opinionated ads. He seemed to be truly disgusted with virtually everyone else who claimed to teach people how to play the guitar. He explained why their methods were a waste of time and money. He provided wordy insights into his personal philosophy of music teaching. Stuff I didn’t really need to read.

I was impressed. He reminded me of me.

As I told him later, I like opinionated people. Some are opinionated because they’re just stupid, and I’m not real fond of that group. But others are opinionated because they have had it up to HERE with BS. I figured anyone passionate enough to write an ad like that was someone I needed to meet.

Eventually, I called for an appointment. He wouldn’t give me one! Instead I had to talk to him for about half an hour, explaining my goals. Then he made me spend a week writing down goals and influences. I had to create two Word documents and send them to him.

Finally, I was cleared to go for a lesson. I drove all the way to Davie, and when I knocked on the appropriate door, an enormous human being answered. At first I thought he had to be standing on a box. But no, that was all him. We shook hands and got started.

The lesson went like this: I showed him what I knew, and he told me it was wrong. Then I showed him something else, which I was really pleased about, and he told me that was wrong, too. By the end of the lesson, I had learned that I was doing the following things wrong:

1. Playing position
2. Guitar position
3. Right hand position
4. Left hand position
5. Holding pick
6. Fretting
7. Picking
8. Foot tapping
9. Breathing

I think there were some other things I was doing wrong, but I can’t remember what they were. As far as I could tell, there was not ONE thing I was doing right.

Here’s something weird: he seems to share the personality of my buddy Aaron. If Aaron were a non-Jewish musician, he’d be this guy. It’s freaky how similar they are.

He gave me an exercise straight from hell, to enable me to stretch my left hand, and he told me to play the same scale a billion times in different positions, at glacial speed. And home I went.

I worked on this crap for two weeks, and the net result was that I was no longer able to play the guitar. I mean, I could not play ANYTHING. My fingers missed the frets. I forgot entire passages. My left hand was in constant pain, because I was using a couple of shriveled muscles I had never used before. It was bad. But I had faith, because he seemed to know absolutely everything there was to know about music. Plus he once spoke on the phone with Billy Gibbons. I was sure I was headed for a wax on, wax off moment.

My third lesson was last week. I could not play a thing, but we spent a very long time talking. This is how the lessons go. I barely touch the guitar. We discussed the correct mindset for making pizza. We covered our mutual disdain for Prince. And after a while, we got onto conservative politics. I told him it was hard to hold the guitar the way he had told me to hold it, because it rested on my pistol. From there, we moved into a discussion of things like labor unions and Chick-Fil-A. He’s way out on the right, which probably explains why he’s not a famous musician. He has played in some worship bands.

Last week, we got off on sight-reading and composition. He told me something I had never heard before. He said it was a mistake to start with sight-reading. He said I should start by transcribing things. I told him I would try, but that the software was a pain to use. He told me the problem was that I was using software in the first place. He said I should transcribe things on paper. That had never occurred to me. In the past, I tried to compose things on the computer so I could play them back immediately and check them out.

A day or two later, I decided to try transcription. But I hate transcribing on the guitar. So I sat down at the piano with some blank paper, and I started working on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in C major. I was amazed at how much I knew about music. I thought I had forgotten it all. I managed to write and play a very coherent version, and then later I made up a left-hand part.

You can’t imagine what a breakthrough this was for me. When I first started studying the piano, it was because I had music in my head, and I could not write music fast enough to capture it. It drove me nuts, especially at night. I’d lie in bed with wonderful original music playing in my head, and it would keep me awake for an hour and a half. When I started transcribing, I saw that there was finally some hope that I could save some of it.

I texted my teacher with a question, and he called me up. I told him I had bad news. He had driven me back to the piano. He didn’t care. He thought it was great. He helped me out with a few clues, and I fired off some files by email, so he would know what I was up to.

I am accomplishing squat on the guitar, but I’m finally getting a grip on music writing. And I learned something else: the software isn’t so bad, if you write the music on paper first. You use a pencil, and then you have a stationary (or stationery) target. The notes are written down, so they don’t vanish while you’re cursing Finale’s horrible interface.

I’ll post a MIDI file, so you can see what I’ve done so far. I’m thrilled with it. I’ll write more variations, but as far as I’m concerned, this is a wonderful start. The left hand part reminds me of Bach, and I’m no Bach fan, but I’ll take it.

Over the Rainbow Transcription

Now I have hope that I’ll succeed at this, so I have new motivation to go forward. And the music in my head is back. I laid awake for quite some time last night while variations of “Sweet and Dandy” roared through my mind. On the one hand, it was annoying, but it was also intoxicating. I know I can do this.

God is a restorer. If you’re on the wrong path, he may put roadblocks in front of you, and when he’s ready for you to succeed, he can remove them so fast, you won’t believe it. You may have a problem you think is insurmountable, but the answer may be a change you can make in five minutes. If someone had given me the right advice about music in 1998, I’d have a pile of original compositions by now. The advice was all I needed.

I’m practically beside myself, thinking about the things I’ll do. I feel like I’ve been turned loose in a toy store.

I know this will go somewhere. Sooner or later I’ll come up with something fit for use in a church. It’s only a matter of time. That will be a huge milestone.

It’s more evidence that prayer in tongues straightens out paths. The more I do it, the better things go. I knew this in 1987, but I didn’t get serious until about five years ago. So much time wasted. Since then, the progress has been continuous.

Try it yourself. You have nothing to lose.

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6 Responses to “Bach to my Future”

  1. Ruth H Says:

    That is wonderful. Back when I taught illiterate adults to read and also taught the volunteer tutors for them, I tried to make them all understand that when you write something with your hands you are writing it in your head. That is why not teaching writing and spelling by rote doesn’t work. This is what you just learned. I should have told you back in the day, ‘D.
    I am happy for you.

  2. Mike James Says:

    Verdict on the teacher–are you finished with him?

  3. Aaron's cc: Says:

    Relentless re-examining of one’s premises is a lifelong endeavor.

    Do you remember that it was nearly a decade ago that I advised you to go church shopping?

    Some of my lessons are on a delayed-release schedule.

    And a few years from now, you may have found you need a different emphasis.

    Jews re-read the Torah each year. It isn’t repetitive after my nearly 30 readings because I’m a different person each year and I always find new things in the text… OK, not so much in the sections about the knobs and curtains and assorted utensils of the Tabernacle. But I once spent a year studying a few lines a day with a friend of just the first weekly Torah portion covering Genesis 1:1–6:8, with just Rashi’s commentary.

    I also said to observe where the single women volunteer at your church. If you admire what they do with their spare time when they don’t know you’re watching, that’s a good sign.

    And don’t rule out the briefly-married-childless divorced women. Anyone married for under 2 years with a not-ugly divorce should hardly be called divorced. A few subsequent years of spiritual self-work should effectively wipe the slate clean. Huge difference in the spiritual/emotional damage between someone who realizes they made some naive choices and got out before things got bad and someone who had a bitter divorce.

    The 30-something woman who got married at 25 and divorced at 26 and is presently spiritually compatible is worthy of a look.

    I wish I could play more than stereo. For a brief while, after I took a Learning Annex course called “Blues Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless”, I wasn’t painful to listen to. With a wife and kids, it was very hard to justify taking time to practice. Youngest is entering 4th grade. I don’t look forward to an empty nest… except for some of the time I hope to use to learn fun stuff to impress the next generation of my brood.

  4. Steve H. Says:

    It’s funny that you posted a comment. I have been intending to email you about my new teacher. This guy is basically a 6′ 7″ Irishman with your head. His personality is so much like yours it’s creepy. The speech patterns are the same. You should meet him some day.

    Not that I’m saying you’re opinionated. We know better than that.

  5. greg zywicki Says:

    I’m so VERY happy to hear this. I’ve long had a sense that there was a part of your personaility that was backed up. I hope this increases your joy.

  6. Aaron's cc: Says:

    If I ever fail to overstate the case… call my doctor.