Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Trying to Nail It

Perhaps I know human nature too well.

I hadn't heard from my star student all summer. At the end of last semester, he informed me that he wanted to learn classical guitar. Our brief lesson about how to pluck a string with the index finger over, I told him to call me when he really he needed help.

Silence all summer until the fall.

"I cut off all my nails." was his opening salvo. Uh-oh. In an instant, I knew the story. He need not tell me anything.

Part of my job is to play amateur psychologist and figure what what a student is really saying.

"You got frustrated, didn't you?" He didn't look at me when he answered, "Yeah. Frustrated as hell."

In short, starting classical guitar is a real bitch; especially for guitarists who have some playing experience. It asks that you short circuit your musical life and concentrate on mundane things like finger nails, posture, arm and hand angles, etc. It takes you back to that lonely and difficult square one. The place you thought long left behind.

[Sidebar: A older guitarist told me he was tired of banging out rockabilly in clubs and it was time to seriously study classical guitar.

We met, had a very nice chat and then he played for me. He tried some Bach. (My hat goes off to to the self-taught, but when you enter the Bach arena, you must be trained or be Segovia.) There were mistakes everywhere, but when it was all over, I was very encouraging. I tried to summarize what he needed to do in order to change his technique. We had four lessons and after the fourth I got a call. He had come to the conclusion that he could not devote the time necessary to change the many bad habits he had acquired. I felt he had given up too soon, but at least he was sensible and honest enough to not waste both our time.]

That's just one example in a very long line of students who realize the work ahead of them and soon depart from study. I can hardly blame them. Besides the work, the taking away of your musical identity, it's the most marginalized form of guitar playing in the world. Guitar gods play electric thunderbolts, strutting upon stadium stages with millions of hungry, entranced fans. Watch a guy who plays a soft and mellow acoustic while sitting perfectly still? Boring. We play antiques; the music from museums. Some would say that the majority of the repertoire is mediocre anyway. Did Mozart write a note for it? Nope. Even Beethoven, who called it a "miniature orchestra," left nothing, not a scrap nor sketch. We don't play orchestral instruments, but rather charming and quaint "salon" curios. It's an instrument from a much quieter and infinitely slower world.

Author Glenn Kurtz nailed it in his wonderful book. Listen to an interview. Very poignant. The guitar has always caused controversy and suspicion by those who hold the keys to high culture. We are ushered in like hired help, to soothe the digestive machinations of dignitaries and nothing more.

Still, it is beautiful and the sound has always been intoxicating for me. It comes with a real quid pro quo: long fingernails.
On the plucking hand, the nails must be grown out so that the proper tone can be elicited. These must be shaped properly, kept in good condition and at the proper length and generally protected during daily activities. Break a nail and your whole sound changes immensely.
You can go a little bit crazy about this stuff too.
To say that some guitarists have an almost fetishized fascination/obsession with their finger nails is almost too harsh to say, but very true. I remember one guy named Philip at Peabody who excitedly told us about a new product he had discovered. Sally Hanson's Nail Buff is what I think it was called. We all went out and got one. For weeks, we all had shiny, perfectly smooth nails. It started out for the right hand and soon the left was equally glossy.

I have had these annoying additions for at least thirty-two years. When I was younger, it was an embarrassment. I consciously hid them from people. I was ashamed of them.

My brother would call them "girly" and constantly badgered me to cut them and be "a regular guy." I can cite at least two instances which caused me romantic disfavor among the fairer sex. One girl was gorgeous who never gave me the time of day in high school, but in the context of a noisy bar and full tilt beer consumption, things were going well. When she saw my nails, she shook her head in a jerking motion as if what she had seen did not compute. She quite quickly bailed. Cursed ruination of my love life! That happened with another gal and her reation was about the same: repulsion.

Sometimes during a summer vacation, I would cut them all off just to be rid of them. Freedom! No more cumbersome appendages. And a chance to look normal. I self-consciously displayed my hands as if to say, "You see? I'm a regular guy."

Now, being older has one distinct advantage: I don't give a damn. I don't think about it.
So back to the beginning story.

What's the student going to do? I don't know. It's up to him. Very few stick with it. We shall see.

But cutting them all off in frustration is not a good start.
You only do that on vacation!

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