Thursday, March 1, 2012

I Know It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Think About Every Seven Seconds)

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for March is called, "Ratmen Are Sort of a Person, Too." If you do not listen to the song, everyone will know that it's because you are racist, and you are not open to my message of tolerance and reaching-out-ness.

QuitFit as a Fiddle

Last week, we gave in and let our three-year-old son drop out of violin lessons. When Lauren sent the email to his wonderful violin teacher telling her that we were "taking a break" from class, I felt genuinely sad. Our dream of raising the next Itzhak Perlman crumbled. (Although technically, we had already jeopardized that dream several years ago by giving our son his first polio vaccine.)

But let's back up here. Is anyone surprised that a three-year-old boy has no interest in practicing Lightly Row on the violin? A perfectly valid perspective might be: what the freaking hell were we thinking? On a good day, the poor little guy has the attention span of a house fly after a Red Bull bender. He's not even old enough to pronounce the word "Suzuki" right, and after three months of lessons, we should be happy that he learned how to hold the correct end of the bow in the correct fist while hacking at my leg with it.

My own childhood experiences with music instruction were equally disastrous. After two unpleasant years of piano and four downright miserable years of trumpet lessons, the sound of those instruments gives me something my doctor calls psychogenic gastroenterosis.

But then there was the guitar.

It is no coincidence that barre chord and whammy bar have the same root word as bar mitzvah. Around the age of thirteen, boys develop a powerful urge to touch and experiment with electric guitars. It has something to do with glands.

In pretty much all ways, I was a late bloomer, so I didn't have my first electric guitar experience until my fourteenth birthday. My parents bought me an unfinished Peavey Rockmaster, the bequeathing of which was contingent upon my consenting to take lessons at the local guitar shop. I agreed, contingent upon my secret plan to take two lessons and then intentionally injure myself to get out of taking any more. It had worked for wrestling class and skiing lessons, so why shouldn't it work with guitar?

In the two weeks between the arrival of the guitar and my first lesson, I taught myself how to play Salt 'n' Pepa's Push It on the top two strings. And oh yeah, it just so happens that I mastered the first five notes of Wish You Were Here. Clearly, lessons would be superfluous, but there was no arguing my way out of my obligation.

The cloud of skepticism grew when I met the man who would be my teacher. Doug was in his mid-20's, but his qualifications as an electric guitarist were dubious. His hair was short and he had no visible tattoos or jewelry. I could have named a whole slew of letters near the end of the alphabet, and Doug's guitar didn't look like any of them.

"So what would you like to learn how to play?" he asked. His voice was friendly, and he didn't reek of cigarette smoke even a little bit. This reminded me an awful lot of my trumpet teacher, and I didn't like it.

"Whatever, I don't know."

"Well, what kind of music do you listen to?"

"Pretty much everything. Rush, Pink Floyd, some local bands. That kind of thing."

I pretty much only listened to Pink Floyd, actually, but I thought that including Rush and some unnamed local bands would peg me as a serious musician. The kind who didn't need lessons from a well-groomed guitar shop loser who probably enjoys showering and getting haircuts. To drive home the point that I wasn't the usual kind of no-talent wannabe he was used to seeing, I nonchalantly played the first five notes of Wish You Were Here a few times.

"Well, I see this isn't the first time you've picked up the guitar! Okay, Zach, what do you say we start working our way through your lesson book?"

Time out, what? Guitarists used lesson books? Even electric guitarists? It had taken me years to purge the stain on my soul that was called, "Hal Leonard's Play Trumpet Today Beginner Pack," and I was not going back to that life again. If Doug showed me so much as one black and white picture of Mel Bay demonstrating an A minor chord, that was it... I was running directly into the storeroom to trip over an amplifier and break my arm.

Instead, he produced a lavender Trapper Keeper labeled, "The Rock and Roll Fake Book." Inside were photocopies of chord charts and lyrics to the following:
  • Rock and Roll (J. Page)
  • Rock and Roll Band (T. Scholz)
  • Rock and Roll Music (C. Berry)
  • Rock and Roll All Night (G. Simmons)
  • Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo (R. Derringer)
  • The Heart of Rock and Roll (H. Lewis and the N.)
  • Old Time Rock and Roll (B. Seger)
  • Still Rock and Roll to Me (B. Joel)
  • I Love Rock and Roll (J. Jett)
  • Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die (J. Tull)
I actually thought this was pretty cool, and I decided that Doug might be all right, but his method of instruction was simply not conducive to my learning style. I was really looking for a more modern system that didn't require me to practice the instrument at all. After two weeks, when I still couldn't play the Rick Derringer riff, a routine hike in the ravine suddenly turned tragic. Just minutes before my third lesson, I slipped off a log and fell into the stream, scraping my shin and completely soaking my jeans. There was no time to change, so we had to cancel the lesson.

And all future lessons, too. (My jeans were REALLY wet.)

So let's be honest with ourselves. Does the guy who pulled that stunt really have the right to feel disillusioned by a preschooler who won't practice Mississippi Hot Dog on the violin? I suppose not. Maybe if I give him space, he'll follow his old man's footsteps, go back to the instrument in his own time, and work just hard enough to be really mediocre at it...

With warmest regards,