The Yes Woman | My first guitar lesson: what the hell am I doing here?
The lesson makes me disdainful of early Radiohead, even though my fingers won’t do what my brain tells them to
‘It turns out that I’m really very bad.’ Photograph: Thinkstock
Learning to play a musical instrument is a rite of passage. In childhood and adolescence, we try and then reject lots of different hobbies and activities. If it goes well, we find something we like and are relatively good at, and we grow up to make either a living or a devoted hobby out of it.
As adults, however, we don’t respond well to being terrible at things, or starting from the beginning. We rarely take up something totally new and unrelated to our current skill set.
I’ve never met a person who claims to dislike music. If I did, I’d be suspicious. I don’t know much about the mechanics of music but I know it evokes an emotional response and a sense of connection to something primal. In my ignorance I am like a medieval peasant gawking at a stained-glass window: I like marvelling at the mysticism of music, and enjoying the magic that fills the space where knowledge would go if I possessed any. This week, I finally decided to squash the mysticism, and said yes to learning guitar.
At university, I lived with a guy named Daniel Crawford. While his housemates were studying, Daniel was working full time and incessantly practising guitar.
For quite a while, I wasn’t sure if he could actually play anything. He would spend every waking moment in our house working at it, making a series of weird, disjointed hand movements and assuming a knitted-brow expression of total focus while bizarre and confusing noises came out of the instrument. It was only years later that I realised that Daniel can – when he feels like it – produce extremely complex pieces of music.
I asked him to teach me to play guitar in the hope that some of his skill would rub off on me.
And so I find myself walking into the Dublin School of Music in Terenure, where Daniel is a teacher. I arrive with the softened fingers of a habitual reader, and without a guitar. Immediately, I can see that I don’t fit into the standard student demographic. There are school uniforms everywhere. Some of the children are embarrassingly small, lugging disproportionately large instruments around on their tiny backs. I’m not deceived by their youth and stature, though. Occasionally, the door to a classroom will open, and I’ll hear the sounds these children are capable of creating. Something inside me shrinks.
I am lent a guitar for my lesson and we head upstairs to a little room. Although I like the laid-back pace of the lesson, I enjoy seeing a new side of a good friend more. Daniel, it turns out, is the same polite, kind person when he teaches as he is at any other time. He shows me the basics. The guitar is heavy and the clanking, plinking sounds that come out of it don’t mimic the ones he is creating in the chair across from me. But he’s nice about it and allays the embarrassment I feel at my own inadequacy.
We all have secret daydreams, I think, of astonishing a roomful of people with our musical skill. In my daydreams, I have always been a gifted musician. In reality, it turns out that I’m really very bad, and a few lessons in, guitar is proving a challenge.
My medieval peasant awe is lifting as I learn that much of the music I’ve enjoyed for years is technically simple.
My grasp of the basics of playing isn’t improving at the same rate, however. So although I know how easy a lot of popular music is, I can’t feel smug in the knowledge that I can play it. I understand what needs to be done, but my fingers won’t always do what my brain tells them to. It must be like learning to walk for the first time: uncharted territory, strengthening previously unused muscles, forging new pathways in the brain.
The level of challenge in learning this new skill is frustrating, but there’s a wonder in being able to produce something that sounds even vaguely like music from a piece of wood and some strings. My fingers hurt, and I understand how unimpressive the oeuvre of early Radiohead is, but I have a new respect for musicians. dublinschoolofmusic.com
- The Yes Woman says yes to . . . music, and no to . . . blisters