Friday, January 14, 2011

patience (ye shul it lerne)

by J J Cohen

Today is day five of my struggle to live with an object that places impossible demands upon me. Partly due to your encouragement, I am learning to play acoustic guitar. Or perhaps more accurately, I am learning to learn how to play the instrument.

My hunch that Craigslist would be replete with unwanted instruments proved wrong, so securing one took some time. Last week a friend gave me his to borrow, a guitar he bought while in Japan many years ago. He'd been keeping it in storage, having decided that he could play with precision, but not passion. I like learning on an instrument with a history, with an object that has been loved. A neighbor suggested a teacher for me, a man she hired last year when her husband died suddenly. She decided in the sorrow of his absence to learn to play the acoustic guitar he'd left behind, and has been making a progress I'll never match.

My first lesson was Sunday. I learned immediately the clumsiness of my hands: I would try to arch them, curve them, attempt to hold the strings singly and tightly near the frets, but my digits weren't so keen on taking these orders from my brain. My teacher, Jamie, is patient. He insists that it'll work only once I have a muscle memory of how to produce the chords, and the only way to gain that knowledge in the body is repetition. He tries to be encouraging, and on the rare occasion when I get something right he gives me a heartfelt yeah. You can hear one of these moments at the end of this video I made with my iPhone to help me to remember how to position my fingers.

Despite my iPhone and finger placement charts and YouTube resources, though, reproducing the positions for the various chords has been a challenge. Each evening I work at chords for a long time and then I get it, but the next day I'm almost starting from scratch, frustrated because I can't remember that Jamie taught me to make a kind of triangle with three fingers for an A chord rather than a straightforward line. But I persevere, and I notice that my fingers are becoming more dexterous, that I create fewer humming noises, that sometimes I actually get a chord right and it is powerfully beautiful. Then I fail at the next chord, repeatedly. I know: it's like learning a language, and I have to give my body time to master new skills so that I don't have to think before acting. A lesson in patience, a virtue in which I am sometimes sorely lacking.

You would think that as a medievalist I'd have nothing but patience. I didn't learn Old Norse, Latin or ancien fran├žais in a week, after all. I'm still learning to allow myself my mistakes. It's a lesson I'm trying to bring into other parts of my life. I am that annoying person who makes most every deadline, often early so that I can have time to work over the "final" product one more time or to move on to the next thing I've committed to (the best way to be efficient? Overcommit; you'll have no choice). I'm also an inveterate plotter and planner: that's why MEMSI exists, that's why New Critical Modes and Ecomaterialism are coming into being, that's why my schedule of public talks actually runs well into 2012. I'm impatient with myself, and at my worst impatient with others when they don't keep up with me. I felt this intensely during the past few weeks as I've assembled the funding application for MEMSI for the next two years. I've tried to be thorough, to prevent any possible problem from arising, to have every person within the university who might question an assumption or slam on a brake to buy into the proposal before it is delivered. It's hard work, and I'll be happy to have it out of my life: but because it's been so time consuming it's also made me weary with handling details related to all the other things going on as the term begins. It is possible that on Facebook I even threatened to shoot rubber bands at my graveyard-quiet Chaucer class to liven them up. So, an addendum to my resolution, a resolve that must go hand in hand with my baby steps on guitar: patience.


James Mitchell said...

If I may make a friendly suggestion: simply because, as your teacher suggests, learning chords is largely a matter of muscle memory, you can make good progress by paying no attention to it at all.
Watching the Superbowl or a DVD or PBS Newshour is a perfect opportunity for practice.
At some point you can learn right hand picking patterns similarly -- assuming you're not going to become one of those horrible people who mistreats the guitar as a percussion instrument.
This is after all the royal instrument of King David, the cithara, from which the word guitar derives.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That's a great suggestion, James, and maybe another way to learn patience: to NOT be obsessively focused on the small details, and to situate everything within a larger frame of life.

Joseph Taylor said...

I think it's great that you've picked up the guitar. A little encouragement: I'm not sure if you've learned your first fun song yet, but it is a transcending experience (note the scene in the film Stranger Than Fiction when Will Ferrel picks up Wreckless Eric's two-chord wonder "I'd Go the Whole Wide World"--that's just E and A).
When I set out to play I often detoured from proper training in order to learn(in the most elementary sense) some fun stuff. For me at the time it was the Beatles' Let It Be album, and I might as well have been on the London rooftop with them. I don't know if this encourages patience, but looking at that C-chord tells me you're already close, so hear the music at the end of the tunnel. Learning that first song will give you--as it did me--the impetus to soldier on amidst the sting of incredibly sore fingertips and the maddening buzz and plunk of improperly-pressed strings. Imagine yourself taking requests from the smoky corner of a Kalamazoo campus cafe, a room full of mellow scholars waving their lighters to the rhythm of your strum.

This old world is a new world said...

Might be easier to play if you put your iphone down.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Ouch, Stephanie, ouch!!

This old world is a new world said...

I think the real "ouch" will come when your fingers start to hurt.

But seriously, what a great thing to do. Even if you were to stop now, or only ever learn three chords, you've still gone ahead and done something. OK, back to grinding footnotes now.

prehensel said...

Someone may already have asked you this, but are you going to have any jam sessions at Kzoo or Leeds?

Consider this my request that you and the Decemberists play a selection of Chaucer-inspired songs in a cozy venue at the NCS conference in Portland.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Jam sessions this year? No, I am so far from being able to jam. Next year: who knows?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

If we had jam sessions at Kzoo, would folks be open to some flutist participation?

I'm really impressed with your resolve Jeffrey -- it's really cool to see you undertaking something so completely new.

prehensel said...

Jethro Tull it is!

"Aqualung," "Locomotive Breath," and "Songs for Jeffrey" (what?!?) will be the setlist for Kzoo 2012.

Begin practicing.