Cut Your Teeth

I’m ten years old.  My violin teacher has just approved me to start playing a more advanced book of songs.  I am over the freakin’ moon.  I can’t quite contain myself as I say to her, “I’ve actually taught myself some songs from that book.”

She gives me a skeptical, slightly mortified look and says “Have you?  Which song?”  I open the book to the second song and start playing it.  I get really into it, playing it exactly the way it should, in my opinion, be played, and finish beaming.  “So, we can skip that one, right?” I ask, thinking I know the answer.

“Well, actually, you learned that all wrong,” my teacher says as my heart sinks, “I mean, you made up all these rhythms that are wrong, you made up fingerings, you hit none of the notes right.”  I’m now looking at my feet, feeling embarrassed and rather stupid.


“So, it goes G, C, E minor, D,” says my friend Dat, the kid that can play pretty much any instrument you want him to (except banjo, although I suspect it’s because I always tell him to learn it), “You only need to learn those four chords, keep to the beat, and we’ll be fine.”

It was May, and my band and I, all sixteen years old, were rehearsing for my brother’s graduation party, which was taking place the following month.  Our “band” basically consisted of Dat playing guitar, our friend Nicole singing, and me playing cello.  But, when you’re going to play for a celebratory event, like a graduation party, there are not a whole lot of “happy” or upbeat songs you can play with just voice, cello, and guitar.  We needed to add drums (which Dat could play) because most of those “happy” songs all required the use of drums.  Either I was going to learn to play drums, or I was going to have to learn to play guitar (I don’t think it ever occurred to us that Nicole could learn to play guitar, something she did a year later).  I chose the latter, knowing I could never get the hang of the drums in time.

“It’s really not that bad, Phil,” Dat continued exasperatedly, pointing to the many charts and diagrams he drew to teach me the chords, “you can handle this.  After this, you never have to play the guitar ever again.”

“I know,” I said with an edge in my voice.  When people tell me that I don’t have to do something, I tend to do it anyway just to prove them wrong.  So I started practicing those four chords so much that I actually broke a couple guitar strings that week.

But I didn’t stop there; I looked up other chords, and found sheet music for my favorite songs and figured how to play those chords.  Over time, I eventually figured out many different chord progressions, strumming patterns, and how to create different sounds.  I never took any formal guitar lessons, unlike my previous eleven years of being trained classically to play violin and cello.  But once I started playing guitar without any professional guidance, I was not going to stop.

I remember at the beginning of my guitar-playing career thinking “I’m probably doing this all wrong.”  Whenever I practice any of my instruments, I always think back to being ten and feeling the way I did when my teacher berated me for daring not to follow her methods (she actually was not as mean as she sounds).  But I like the fact that I may be holding my guitar the wrong way, that I may not have the right fingers on the right frets, and that my rhythms or strumming patterns could be totally made up.  I like that freedom.  Without any formal guidance, there are no limits to what I can do with my music, which I think has made me more passionate about playing music.  What it comes down to for me is that the music sounds good, and if it does, who cares how you got there.

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