Author: Campbell, Bruce

Getting started as a musician

The past three Welcome Messages had sort of a common theme - the frustrations of trying to become a musician, or a better one.

I loved Geoff Sargent’s column on music lessons. I took music lessons when I was a kid. First was clarinet, and it was very frustrating. I didn’t particularly want to play clarinet, but I did want to play something in the school band, and my cousin had a clarinet I could borrow. I didn’t care for the greasiness or the smell of the wax that lubricated the corked connectors to the thing, nor the taste of the darn wooden reeds that always seemed to split once they got wet. And I didn’t much like the sound of the clarinet, nor did I like the music I was learning on it. But I did learn a bit, and I did take a liking to the structure of music – the time signatures, the secret code of the dots on the musical staff, and the artistic elegance of the treble clef.

But then I discovered something else – in the orchestra, it didn’t seem to matter how I played. The whole band sounded pretty awful. If I played poorly, it didn’t make it sound noticeably worse. If I played well, it was undetectable in the din. The guy next to me, Calvin Humphreys, didn’t play ANYTHING on the clarinet – he just pretended to play, and THAT didn’t make any difference, either! I wanted to be on the stage real bad – to have the spotlight on me, to be seen by my parents in the audience, but not on these terms. I knew my parents would say they were proud of me and how good I was, but I also knew they couldn’t possibly tell if I was any good. I was just one kid sitting on a metal folding chair, along with about 30 other kids.

So, then I wanted to play guitar. As luck would have it, I had a cousin who had a guitar I could borrow, and once I got it home, I loved the sound of it. The low E was so authoritative – that one note sounded musical in a way that no note on the clarinetcould. I still remember the first song I wrote on it: “Down on the Prairie”, using only the open strings (it was awful of course, but hey - I was only 9). I really had no natural talent, so I bugged my parents to spring for lessons, and soon enough, kindly old Mr. Dingley (I swear that was his name) would come to my home weekly and we would slog through the Alfred’s Guitar Method books.

On one level it was excruciating. Not the slow going – I did make discernable progress, and practice really did make a difference. It was the music I was playing in those books. Not a single piece was a song I knew or liked – it was like learning to speak Latin – I had no idiomatic reference, as to how it should sound, so I just played the notes. But when Mr. Dingley played the accompaniment to my picking, it did sound pretty good, if unfamiliar.

In retrospect, the initial musical education I received was valuable. I learned the basics of music, meter, keys, and learned how to read music (I still can - not that anybody cares). And I learned how to use proper right and left techniques on the instrument, which served me very well through the next 30+ years of guitar lessons, banjo lessons, workshops and self teaching. I think I have to thank my father for this – he was adamant that I learn how to pick, rather than learn how to strum (he probably disdained the folk movement) – he said “You learn how to pick like Chet Atkins, son, and you’ll always have work.”

Well, I never did learn how to pick quite like Chet Atkins, but I know how to have a heck of lot of fun playing music!
Posted:  8/18/2010

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