Friday, September 16, 2011

Life Rhapsodies: What I learned when I learned to play guitar

Part 1.

At the end of my journey in college, I decided to learn how to play the guitar. It wasn't a last-ditch attempt to woo a girl, but it was a girl who taught me: or, put another way, it was only a girl that could have persuaded me that I needed to be taught. The timing was purely coincidental. I was accompanying my suitemate, Zach, to Bass Library, because I had nothing better planned – my last college final, History of Life, was four days ago – and I was secretly hoping that a walk through Thain Café would buy me one last morsel of that college-only spontaneity I would never quite have again. 

In the cafe, I ran into Christy. She’d been my Taiwanese-American Students Association little sibling for the year, though our “family” wasn’t very cohesive; other than a dinner at the only (and extremely lackluster) Korean restaurant in New Haven, we (Kim, George, Christy, and I) had more bonding events fail than happen. I’d always been friendly with Christy, saying hello during Sunday brunches in Berkeley, joking around at campus-wide parties, voting for her during Asian-American board elections.

She was staked out at a table in Bass, studying for her organic chemistry final. I plopped into the seat next to her, and we caught up: summer plans, clubs for next year, stories from Safety Dance – as she would say, "the yooj." “I can’t wait for this to be done so I can play guitar again,” Christy said. “Beginning of school, I’d play every day out in the L-W courtyard.”

“You know how to play?” I asked. At this point in my non-existent musical career, I held the belief that girls didn’t actually play guitar.

“Yea, I started picking at one in high school,” she said. “And then got really into it. Started playing so much.” Her words were aloofness touched, on the fringes, with passion.

“Can you teach me how to play?” I asked, for reasons that, at the moment, seemed completely capricious.

“Sure,” she said, in that way people exclaim when they make plans they know aren’t actually going to happen. “I’m done with the final tomorrow?” She was leaving the morning after, but might have time in-between packing.

I told her I was free whenever—but made sure to tail off at the end, temper my response, because, of course, I couldn't be that interested in playing guitar. I hadn’t touched one in 12 years, and hardly ever thought about learning.

The next day, we traded desultory text messages. We were to play that afternoon; then, after dinner; then, later, around midnight. I made it to her room on the fourth floor of Lanman-Wright (LW) at 11:20 p.m, armed with nothing but curiosity over how much she could teach me. Her common room was empty. The furniture had been moved out; the decorations all packed or tossed; the room was bare, open to possibilities. “Hey,” she said. “Alright let me get my guitar.”

It was a Yamaha acoustic, with metal strings. Normal-sized, but on her five-foot-two frame it looked huge.

“Ok, so we’re going to start with Taylor Swift, because that’s how I learned, and all her songs are easy,” Christy said. I gave her a thumbs up – secretly, I was ecstatic. I (abashedly) love Taylor Swift. And it’s not just because John Song introduced me to her; I’ve always loved twangy pop, and, 2 years ago, when I spent a summer in Ecuador, I’d walk to the Internet café at the bottom of the hill by my homestay and pump “Love Story” through worn-down headphones while checking my email.

The song we started with was “You Belong With Me,” my second-favorite T-Swift song. Christy sat on her balcony and turned towards me so I could see her fingers. “So the first chord is D. See what I’m doing? It looks like an upside-down D, kind of.” She taught me the next 3 chords in succession: A, E minor (Em), and G. She proceeded to play them smoothly, and sang to it, her rich voice rolling in the room's folds. Then she handed the guitar to me.

It wasn’t hard. I placed my left hand on the finger board and pressed my three fingers on the strings; my right hand naturally fell by the sound hole. I strummed, and the sound vaguely emulated Christy’s; I could hear the note, muddied by imprecision and marred by roughness. “Press harder on the strings," she told me. You got it.” This time, the sound came out almost perfectly. She acted as if playing a chord was like tying a shoelace -- simple, repeatable, natural. 

I had tried learning guitar before. In 2nd grade, my parents bought me a miniature guitar and an instructional book. I followed its lessons for 3 days, learning the names of the strings and plucking each individually to play simple ditties, but the lessons were also adamant about memorizing fingering and chord charts -- excessive work for songs I didn't care about. The guitar soon lay deserted in my closet, where it gathered dust for the rest of my childhood.

This lesson was the polar opposite. After I had tried the first four chords, I started -- mechanically and brutally -- switching between them, my fingers moving in a horde from the bottom of the finger board, at D, step-by-step to the top of the board, to G. Despite needing multiple seconds to process how to position my fingers correctly between every transition, I could hear the song in my head. I understood how much progress I was making. Playing the guitar had transformed from a mysterious, legendary skill that seemed to require superfluous front-end preparation to a simple series of steps ordered for coherence. That I had learned 4 chords in 4 minutes was success enough.

There were struggles. After working on the transitions, she taught me new chords: E, C, and F. I struggled with F. There were two ways to play it – either my index finger had to cover four strings, or I needed my pinkie as a fourth finger – and both methods were equally frustrating. I tried to splay my fingers wide to reach different frets, but my hand stiffened to concrete. I tried to arch my fingers to prevent myself from accidentally muting other strings, but I felt like I was controlling an artificial limb with a limited range of movement. Christy told me the flexibility would come, but, at the time, I couldn't see how I'd ever develop the dexterity.

For the next two hours, I sat cross legged on her balcony and played the 4 chords of “You Belong With Me,” occasionally challenging myself to strum the other 4 “higher level” chords, moving faster and faster between transitions. I wasn't worried about strum patterns yet; Christy told me to make it up, and to strum up and down naturally. She also told me not to worry about pausing the strumming between chord transitions. Even if I missed a beat, nobody would notice. I was heartened by the margin of error; this wasn't like the piano, where a wrong key would drop like a dead weight in the air. 

Christy watched me, held her interest for as long as she could, then, sensing the self-sufficiency of my infatuation, moved to more lively pursuits: cleaning up the last bits of the common room, Skyping in her roommate and laughing about ridiculous gossip, talking to her suitemate about going out that night. I sat there, feeling a little awkward that I was impeding her plans, but at the same time feverish with this limited time with the guitar. I was learning, and learning fast: Christy told me I was the quickest study she'd seen. (Though, she hadn't really taught anyone before, so it probably wasn’t much of a compliment no matter, I felt good). So I stayed and tried to blend into the background, strumming the same four chords over and over, and once, even attempted to sing/hum the song while playing (disastrous results ensued). Eventually, I realized it was 1:30 a.m., and that I really should go.

I gave Christy a hug, told her I didn’t know when I was going to see her again, and thanked her for teaching me how to play guitar on her last night at Yale.

The plan was to call it a night, but as I walked back to Berkeley, I realized playing the guitar made me fatuously happy. I was, for the first time all year (maybe all of college?), learning a skill from scratch, instead of building on what I already knew, and experiencing the exhilarating hockey-stick learning curve of a new capability. It couldn't be over so fast. I took out my phone and called my boy Graham – who I’d seen strumming “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” a couple of weeks ago, while hanging out at another friend Garrett’s party – and asked him if I could borrow his baby. I grabbed it from his room in South Court and brought it back to my common room.

On my common room’s slightly ripped black leather couch, with half my suite at Myrtle Beach, Zach peripatetic in the night, and Tommy exhausted from Belltower books, I propped myself up with Graham’s guitar, pointed Google Chrome to Alyssa Bernal’s acoustic version of “You Belong With Me,” and played until 5 a.m. The only reason I stopped was because of my left-hand fingers. The sneakiest, most underrated challenge about playing the guitar (at least at first) is developing your fingers' resistance to the strings. Holding down on the finger board is akin to having an extremely dull knife saw at your fingers for hours. Within the first twenty minutes of playing, I saw diagonal imprints on the pads of my fingertips; an hour in, touching the strings incited a sharp, neural, pain. By the time I was in my room, my head throbbed, even when I wasn't playing, and I could see the angry veins blossoming. Christy told me it was a rite of passage to develop callouses, but I didn't understand why it had to be so painful.

I rested 5 minutes for every 5 I played. I tried pressing lighter. I wondered if I could use gloves. I honestly thought I was going to start bleeding. But I kept playing. An hour later, when I had reached a mental point of no return, I eschewed the delicacy and pulverized my fingers, storing the hurt in a faraway corner of my brain, removed from the consciousness controlling my movements.

By 5 a.m., I had looped through hours of acoustic YouTube covers, confirmed that Alyssa’s was the most emulable (and best-looking), and copied her strum pattern. At the peak of my confidence, I managed "You Belong With Me" (and "Love Story," which has the exact same chord progression) all the way through. I dabbled in "Hotel California" (too many foreign chords) and "I’m Yours" (damn that F chord). I sang to myself. That night, I had taken a pick-axe and interred myself in the deepest hole of flow I've ever dug. When I went to sleep that night, the sun was coming up, and I dreamed in chords.