Learning to play

Author: Suzanne Tinaglia

It is nearing 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. The office is settling into its close-of-day hush. Yawns and sighs replace the urgency that pervaded the morning conversations. I tidy up my desk, pack a few files into my portfolio and prepare to escape the confines of business into the vibrancy of classical guitar.

I visited this world my senior year of college when I signed up for a one-credit course in classical guitar instruction. I thought it would be a pleasant way of rounding out my studies with a nod to the arts. I pulled a forgotten old guitar from a closet in my parents’ basement and set off for school.

Learning to play turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. By midsemester, my weekly lesson had degenerated into an exercise in futility. Discouraged by my lack of progress, I would delay practicing until the last minute — with predictably disastrous results. On graduation day I packed up the guitar with the rest of my belongings. I left college with no discernible guitar-playing skills but a love for classical guitar music and more than a little regret for not trying harder to play.

Each year I would make a mental note to find a teacher and begin again, but each year life had a way of distracting me. Twenty-three years after I fastened the buckles on the guitar case I opened a catalog of college summer courses and found a listing for classical guitar, private instruction. Before I could find an excuse to pass up the opportunity, I phoned the office and registered. Since then, I have been making my way one afternoon each week to a tiny classroom tucked away in the fine arts building of my local community college where I try again to learn to play.

One of the most gentle and expressive forms of music, classical guitar is also one of the most challenging to master. The guitar is held on the left leg, which is usually supported by a footstool, ensuring that the neck of the guitar is higher than the body. The classical guitarist plucks the strings with the nails as opposed to strumming or playing with a pick. The many tonal variations possible on the classical guitar enable the musician to function almost as a mini-orchestra. But the slightest shift in the position of the hands or angle of the nails can mean the difference between a clear tone and a jarring twang.

The voyage

I struggled, physically and mentally, through the summer course. All the difficulties I encountered as a college student came flooding back. The muscles in my left hand ached from stretching to reach far-flung frets. My fingertips throbbed as I struggled to press the strings against the fret board. Even if I’d practiced well on my own, playing in front of the instructor unnerved me. My right hand felt unsteady to the point where I could barely maneuver my fingers over the strings. Background noise distracted me during lessons. I competed with opera singers, drummers and entire jazz ensembles for musical air space. Worse still, I had forgotten how to read music. Practice sessions dragged on endlessly as I transcribed notes into letters, and time signatures into rhythms.

“Art hurts. Art urges voyages — and it is easier to stay at home,” said poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Painted in large, black letters on the wall across from my classroom, these words greeted me before and after each lesson.

I pressed on. When the summer session ended, I signed up for the fall semester.

I sounded terrible. My guitar did not sing. It did not hum. It did not lilt or sigh. It buzzed. It squeaked. It screeched and groaned. It made every sound except music.

“How can you stand this?” I blurted out to my instructor, Linda, during a particularly painful review of the week’s exercises.

“Pull the accented notes harder,” she insisted, unfazed by my outburst. “That’s where you’ll hear the melody.”

I thought I understood what she meant, but even my best efforts sounded weak and dissonant. Pangs of regret gripped me with each tenuous pluck of the strings. I had squandered my chance to learn in college. Maybe I had waited too long to try again. If art urges voyages, perhaps this ship had sailed without me.

As the days grew colder, I continued my weekly trek to the tiny classroom. Despite my doubts and frustrations, I liked being a student again. I enjoyed walking the corridors of the fine arts building and gazing at the paintings and black-and-white photographs on the walls. I’d hear an aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni escaping from behind one door, the opening notes from Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” from another.

As my concentration improved, the cacophony of instruments during lessons distracted me less and less. I just played louder. Calluses developed on the fingertips of my left hand, enabling me to hold down the strings without wincing in pain. I groomed my nails to the appropriate specifications for a classical guitarist: short on the left hand to press firmly on the fret board; long with finely polished edges on the right hand to glide off the strings. Music theory workbooks helped improve my sight-reading ability. I no longer looked like Nancy Drew deciphering a secret code each time I encountered a new piece of music.

But most important, I practiced. Every night, I practiced. I knew exactly why I had not learned to play in college, and I refused to repeat my mistake.

A song is born

Finally, one evening, it happened. While practicing in a corner of my living room, an actual melody emanated from the sound hole. Startled, I stopped playing and started again. I dug in and pulled the accented notes hard. By the time I reached the end of the piece — all 16 measures — I could feel myself smiling. Somewhere behind the din of buzzes and squeaks emerged the elusive fragments of a song. Andrés Segovia would have been proud.

It’s been well over two years since my first lesson. Progress is excruciatingly slow but steady. I have changed my practice schedule from evening to early morning, when my mind is clear and my muscles are relaxed. Not every practice session is satisfying — sometimes it’s just a race between the metronome and me. But on good days, the poignant tones of the guitar ease me into the day.

Linda recently introduced a full-length classical piece into the lesson plan: Johann Anton Logy’s “Partita a-Moll.” It is delicate and stunning.
“This would be nice for a recital,” she suggests. “You could have it in shape by December for the holiday program.”
I cringe, picturing myself following a 12-year old virtuoso on to a recital stage.

“The participants are all ages,” she assures me, “and performing will improve your playing.”

I protest but secretly welcome the challenge. I want to improve.

I am captivated by this world, so disciplined yet so freeing. I attend classical guitar concerts and seminars. I watch the professionals. I study their hands, their posture, their demeanor. I am both humbled and inspired by their seemingly effortless technique. I know I will never reach their skill level, but this is a singular journey and the destination is not nearly as important as the lessons I learn en route.

Tonight as I drive to class, I glance down at my hands on the steering wheel. Put side by side they look like the hands of two different people. Both are growing strong and dexterous.

The forgotten old guitar I’d dragged to college sits in the passenger seat beside me. The factory finish has dulled and, despite new strings, the tone sounds tired, but it’s taken me a long way. I don’t want to pack it away again. Someday I may invest in a hand-made model — not as a replacement for this one, merely as a companion.

The sky darkens and the dashboard lights click on. I hum the opening notes from the first movement of "Partita a-Moll.” Regrets fade into the gentle tune playing in my head. I had not waited too long. The ship is leaving the harbor, and I am safely aboard.

Suzanne Tinaglia, a freelance writer, is working on a book about USO Camp Shows during World War II.