This week I’ve become consumed by a powerful obsession that has precluded all other activities. I haven’t been blogging much. I don’t want to sleep. I forget to eat — which hardly ever happens. I want to do nothing else but spend time with the object of my affection. I’ve fallen in love, as middle schoolers tend to do. I have only recently become acquainted with the guitar, but I am completely, head over heels, crazy about it.
My introduction to the guitar was a fluke (or perhaps, as you romantics may believe, it was destiny). The other day, when I was on campus at my elementary school, one of my best third grade friends, whom I’ll call Lisa, pulled me into an after-school guitar lesson. Lisa is the most adorable little blond creature I know, yelling my name with glee whenever she spots me, giving me bone-crushing bear hugs, and swinging my hand as we walk down the halls. She insisted, “You HAVE to come to guitar!” and since I’ve always wanted to try it anyway, I attended my first lesson with the Little Kids Rock program. The nonprofit trains schoolteachers to give lessons at their sites and, stunningly, provides instruments — in our case, guitars — that the students get to keep. The Little Kids Rock programs, as well as programs run by foundations like VH1’s Save the Music, have often filled in the gaps that have been left by budget cuts in public schools.
The elective after-school class, which meets for one hour per week, has been perfect for introducing me to a skill I’d expected to be difficult to learn. Third grade teacher Craig Madison has been wonderful about letting me sit in with his bunch of eight-year-olds. The slow initial pacing of the lessons suited me well, easing me into guitar bit by bit and allowing me to learn without being intimidated. For the first few days after my lesson, I practiced on my mom’s guitar every night, playing the two- and three-chord songs we’d learned in class: “Aiko, Aiko” and “Hound Dog.” The steel strings, much tougher to play than the nylon of the classroom guitars, cut painfully into my uncalloused fingers. Over the weekend, my mom generously offered to buy me a nylon-string guitar as an early Christmas present. (Have I mentioned that I adore my mom?) At $99 from the fantastic Sonoma Valley Music and Klein Guitars, it was cheaper than what I’ve paid in the past for a single acupuncture session — and just as good an investment in my well-being.
I’m stunned at how inexpensive and easy it’s been to learn guitar, which I’d avoided because I thought it would require pricey, time-consuming lessons. The Internet has been a surprisingly helpful teacher. I’ve spent every day since my last lesson looking up chord charts and songs online, and just trying them out. We’d already learned A, D, and E in class, and I discovered that I could play “California Stars” by Wilco with just these three chords. Adding an F# minor let me play Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” The C and G chords added a bunch of other songs to my repertoire, and learning E minor allowed me to play “The Way I Am” by Ingrid Michaelson and “Black” by Pearl Jam. I’ve been aiming to learn at least two new songs per day so I can serenade Darren over Skype video chat. Tonight he indulged me by helping me search for songs by the Gin Blossoms, Coldplay, Amos Lee, the Beatles, Counting Crows, and Radiohead, which I sight-read for him. Since I don’t yet know how to pluck out melodies or read guitar tablature, I stick with music broken down by chords and skip over any tricky riffs and any other funny business.
Having musical experience does speed up the learning process, but I’ll bet that learning to play an instrument is a lot easier than you’d think. For example, I discovered that “Anyone Else But You,” which Ellen Page and Michael Cera sing to each other at the end of Juno, is comprised of only two chords, and so is “If You’re Into It” from the comedy series Flight of the Conchords. If you know the tune of these songs, you can probably learn to play each of them in less than an hour, whether you have musical experience or not.
The last time I felt this enchanted by music was, appropriately, at age 11, when I started taking piano lessons. I remember marveling over every recognizable song I learned to play, and when I mastered a simple arrangement of The Simpsons theme song, I felt as if I’d just played Carnegie Hall. I spent most of my allowance as a preteen on sheet music that documents my musical tastes from that time: “Love Is” by Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight (from the Beverly Hills, 90210 soundtrack), “Basket Case” by Green Day, and “A Whole New World” from the Aladdin soundtrack — which I used to play with my mom on guitar and my sister on flute. We were like the Partridge family, only without the matching bellbottoms. My piano lessons introduced me to Mozart, Bach, Handel, and many other composers — as well as Joplin and Gershwin — and gave me an appreciation for what might otherwise seem like “elevator music.” Though I stopped taking lessons in college, I got into the habit of relieving stress by playing soothing music by Fiona Apple and Sarah McLachlan or pounding out the dramatic chords of pieces like Beethoven’s Pathetique.
I’ve felt blessed to return to my love of music through other classes that I’ve been able to take during my time at the schools. I sat in just once on the elementary school choir class that meets for just a half hour every other Thursday, and it was literally the highlight of my whole week. The teacher was introducing the kids to “Rockin’ Robin,” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Come On, Let’s Go” and a bunch of other oldies that I’d forgotten were occupying space somewhere in my brain. I felt myself start to grin as soon as I started singing. During my first week of middle school as a grown-up, I got to see the end of the movie Amadeus. I remembered that my first viewing of the movie many years ago had introduced me to the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem, which still brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. My favorite scene in the movie is when Mozart, sick in bed with fever, dictates the Lacrimosa to Antonio Salieri part by part, hearing each one layer onto the other in his mind to create a synchronized whole. Though fictionalized, the scene leaves me in awe at the composition’s complexity, which I would have missed if I hadn’t heard each part on its own.
Altimira’s Music Appreciation teacher, Doug Bates, recognizes the power of music and shares this reverence with his students. The day I visited, he reminded them that along with language, art, and religion, music has been an essential element of every known human culture. In schools, music should not be considered just a luxury for kids, something expendable to be pushed aside in favor of “fundamentals” like reading or math. Music is the reason that some kids make it through school at all. It is, as the Little Kids Rock website puts it, “a vehicle for human communication,” and I don’t know what could be more fundamental than that.
If I gain nothing else from Reschool Yourself, I’ll consider the experience worthwhile for having reignited my passion for music. I’ve remembered how essential it is to my happiness: how I’ve bonded with many of my friends through ridiculous karaoke performances, how bursting into song — usually “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead or “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder — can snap me out of the worst case of the blues. I’ve taken to humming to myself throughout each day and experimenting with different radio stations in the car. I’ve even sat down at the piano again for the first time in months, and I’ve remembered some of my long-term musical aspirations: singing with a choir again as I did at the ages of 10 and 23, expanding my vocal range, and learning to play the violin. For now, I’m happy to maintain my daily new-song quota and sing to my one devoted fan via webcam, before forcing myself to put down the guitar already and go to sleep.