Does Being a Dad Make You a Bad Teacher?
Is it wrong to start out with a quote from Frank Zappa? I would guess not, especially considering the guitar guru and founder of the Mothers of Invention can also be considered single-handedly responsible for the Valley Girl. Maybe it’s his fault I’m in the state I’m in!
Still, Zappa was the farthest from my mind in the laborious decision to let my two daughters take guitar lessons. It wasn’t like this was an easy decision. Their father, after all, plays and even recorded two CDs with his brother to moderate success, thank you very much. While the first attempt was less than stellar, our second release, The Blind Leading the Blind does enjoy a modicum of success, even if it does fit the stereotype of being “big in Europe”.
I did try, after all, though my spouse would probably relish saying it was a perfunctory attempt at best. I would dispute that, claiming frustration. I’m not sure why the attempt at teaching my six-stringed skills failed. I did teach myself.
At the ripe old age of 19 I made the decision that I was going to learn how to play the guitar like the man they called “God”. Slowhand, Cool Hand Luke, the man who created the “woman” sound, Eric Clapton. I even went so far as to buy a Fender Stratocaster, for way too much money, from the local music store. It was sunburst, meaning, the stains on the natural wood grain were light, almost yellow in the middle turning into a dark brown, almost black on the sides. I bought it because it looked exactly like the guitar on the back of the “Layla” album.
I was in college for journalism but had no job and nothing but time. I was an awkward, frustrated, angry teen from a small town relishing his newfound freedom and bored out of my skull in the process. So I eventually broke down and confessed to buying the guitar to my parents, who allowed me to keep it if I learned to play it. I had a reason now.
Over the next year I listened to every Clapton, Buddy Guy, Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Hendrix, and Vaughan album I could find. I learned the simple riffs and screamed at the frustration of my inability to learn the complicated ones. It took me two straight days with no sleep and a cache of Old El Paso frozen Chimichangas to learn to play Stairway to Heaven, but I did it.
By the time I was 20 a guy doing his laundry in my building heard me playing “How Many More Times” through my new wah-wah pedal and knocked on my door, asking me to join his band. I immediately accepted, figuring I’d either be murdered tomorrow or playing music like I’d dreamed all my teenage life.
It took me one year to reach that first goal. One year.
It took me less than one month to fail teaching my kids to play guitar.
I thought it was the equipment. I had given my youngest daughter a 1960 Supro student electric. (I’d actually bought it because it looked cool with a tweed amplifier I had, but she loved it and I wanted her to have a cool guitar) I thought the neck too wide and the tuning machines too stiff.
Then I thought they weren’t paying enough attention. I bought a DVD with a chord book and thought I could reinforce what it said.
Maybe it’s the material! I know they love that alternative, 3-chord, grunge meets dance techno stuff, with some Green Day mixed in for good measure. That’s not great guitar soloing and melody like “God”, that’s just a bunch of chords thrown together!
But it wasn’t the music. In fact, it was me that was the problem. I know how to read music from my days of playing trumpet in high school. I have no basis for the guitar.
I never got angry nor did I ever yell at my children, I just got frustrated. It turns out I was far more wise than I thought. I did the best thing I could ever have done and hired someone else to teach my kids.
Here is why: I did nothing right in how I learned to play the guitar. I had a finite way I wanted to do things and I did it. As a result, I am doing everything wrong. I know the chords, but have no idea what I’m doing that makes the “G” chord I’m playing a “Suspended fifth” or something like that. I just know it sounds good. Hell, I’m even holding the pick wrong. Everything I do comes from my angry, tortured, teenage years where I wrenched every note, sound and melody from the guitar. In the process, I beat the instrument into submission, tearing at the strings by holding a pick with two fingers, pulling up on the strings and plunking the notes out.
My children will do it right. They will know a suspended 5th from a major 7th. They’ll know how to delicately change the dynamic of a piece. They’ll know when to calm down and coax a note from their instrument, calmly, serenely.
Not long after I bemoaned my failure to my brother Adam, possibly one of the greatest musicians you’ve never heard of, he told me what I CAN teach them. Adam told me that sometimes you just aren’t a good teacher. But what he told me I had achieved as a musician is something my children will get from both watching me and listening to my performances: emotion.
While the girls will learn the notes, scales and dynamics, my brother said that what I considered wrong was what made my playing so right. That anger, emotion, sadness, joy, everything I thought was beating my guitar into submission was also the deeply entrenched feelings I could release. Adam reminded me of why I had bought that first guitar. I wasn’t learning to be proficient or get girls or be famous. The guitar was my way of opening up the gates and letting out all the emotions I couldn’t express.
My teenage years were difficult, almost depressing. I wasn’t happy, I couldn’t “get the girl”, and I was almost paralyzed when I was forced to talk about any of my feelings. But that guitar, it was the surrogate. I could be frustrated the girl of my dreams was dating my friend and play “Have you Ever Loved a Woman” with fierce abandon. I could miss home and play Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song”, but it always sounded like me playing it, not some note-by-note copy. That, Adam said, was what differentiated a guitarist from a “guitar player”. If you listen to their version of a song, you feel what they’re feeling.
So while my girls will learn how to read the music and play the notes, the greatest lesson they’ll get from their father and their uncle won’t involve sheet music. At home, after the amplifier is turned off, they’ll learn how to play with emotion. After all of that, one day, maybe, people will sound off the greatest players and find that with the Becks, Claptons, Santanas and Vaughans, one day, someone might just be able to say: “what about Manoucheri?”
God help me, though, if I ever start having to say “turn it down!”