The nuns taught me to read music. They taught the rest of the sixth-grade class at the same time, so things were kept simple. My knowledge atrophied as I used the skill exactly never. But I still can read music in the same way a first-grader reads Dr. Seuss — slowly, with lots of pauses to sound things out.
My new music teacher picked up on that right away. “Say every note out loud,” he said as he pointed up and down the staff. “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” I thought to myself, using the generations-old mnemonic device that helps you remember the notes on the lines. (The notes in the spaces spell out F-A-C-E, in that order from bottom to top, so that’s easy enough.)
But I kept trying to slip sharps and flats in there. “A. B-flat,” I’d say, walking up the list of keys instead of the list of notes on a staff. He’d pause his pointer. We’d start again.
Thus went my first music lesson in, oh, 40 years. I’m taking mandolin lessons, as much to keep me disciplined to move forward and improve my theoretical knowledge as anything else, and I found a good teacher near my house. I pity him a little bit — you really don’t want to be teaching 54-year-olds — but he was patient and naturally good-natured. (And I am smart enough to know how dumb I am, which should help.)
You may wonder at this point how I could possibly have been in bands for 30 years with so little ability to read music and about thismuch music theory knowledge. It’s really not unusual. The old blues cats couldn’t read anything, much less music, used all sorts of made-up guitar tunings and taught each other by demonstrating things; most rock ‘n’ roll is kindergarten music by theory standards. Once you learn I-IV-V (or, as it’s referred to in some corners, “three chords and the truth,”), you know 80 percent of everything in popular music. Few of the guitarists I’ve played with can read music, and don’t even get me started with singers. And as a harp player, I rarely pay attention to the actual notes I play; once I learned how to stay in key and use different harps for the same key signature, it all became about what my ears and head told me to do.
I eventually took up guitar in my 20s so I could play actual songs, not play along with songs. But I plateaued on that fairly quickly as I struggled with barre chords and couldn’t be bothered to learn scales. The result is that I am what is known as a “campfire guitarist,” the kind of guy who plays simple chord songs for friends. That’s fine; I never really wanted to dig into guitar once I started getting good on harp.
But the mandolin has really sucked me in, and I quickly recognized that if I didn’t want to repeat my guitar fate, I would have to be more disciplined. Thus: Lessons.
Traditionally, they don’t work out so well for guys my age, but some people do pull through them with success. A lot of that involves the willingness to practice, which could be interesting because I already am having my free time pulled away from me by the demands of two bands and that whole ‘job’ thing. But I am confident this will pay off.
It also will help that I don’t have to teach my left hand to do a ton of things from scratch. For most people, the first weeks of playing a string instrument are a fresh hell of putting your fingers in unnatural positions and getting, as John Lennon once so famously yelled, blisters on your fingers. I’m past most of that.
So here we go. I’m not going to be firing off any Jethro moves any time soon, but I look forward to reaching a certain level of solo competence. And it’s sure a lot easier to get a mandolin on a plane than a guitar, as yet another band recently learned.