The first song I learned to play on the guitar is a love song.
A friend of mine wrote it for the wedding of some of her friends, and then recorded it on one of the five albums she has filled with mostly original songs over her life so far. And then, when I was 32 years old and decided that I wanted to learn to play the guitar–for real this time, not like when I was a kid–she sat me down in her living room, handed me her battered old backup guitar, and taught me to play four chords as her kids ran around us. I dutifully wrote them own in the little notebook I had selected for this purpose–A, E, D, and G. I wrote down the order. I wrote down their fingerings–not in tab, but in a jargony shorthand of my own devising, based on nothing but the general sense of how things make sense to me, developed over 32 years of learning who I am and how that differs from who other people are. I wrote down everything she said about how to hold the guitar, how to press my fingers to the frets, how to hold the pick, how to strum. I wrote down the order of the strings, making a crude diagram where one side said “I am here” and the other said “this is my lap,” as if I am distinct from my lap.
I went home with her old guitar and I practiced diligently. At some point I started to hear an arrangement wanting to come out, and sitting on my bed in my peaceful bedroom with the blinds open to let in the light, I started to write it down on a piece of purple paper with a purple owl in the upper left corner. My notes are probably meaningless to anyone else; I don’t know, nobody else is allowed in here while I’m playing.
I’ve been making music since I was barely old enough to read. I started singing in a choir before my eight birthday. I took piano, I played the handbells and the flute all through school. I taught lessons for a hot minute (I was bad at it). I’ve sung professionally and semi-professionally, in college and in the community, on stage and on the street and in homes and in concert halls, with operas and sacred choirs and folk singers and theatre troupes, solos, duets, trios, quartets, sextets, ensembles. I even did karaoke. I hate karaoke, but that’s neither here nor there. Singing is as easy to me as breathing nowadays, but it wasn’t always–I struggled and worked and paid buckets of money to train to get where I am. I fought raging allergies, asthma (undiagnosed until my 20s), stage fright, bad technique learned from a bad director, attention problems (still undiagnosed, but I have my suspicions), crippling anxiety and depression, a world that wants everyone to belt for some godforsaken reason. I still fight those things, but they no longer stop me opening my mouth. I’m good at it.
But I don’t consider myself a musician. A singer, yes, sure, but that’s different somehow. Over the sixish months I’ve been playing guitar, I have explicitly invited mr. biscuit in to hear me play a song maybe twice. I have spent the rest of the time pretending he can’t hear me on the other side of the wall. Over Christmas my parents came to visit, and both they and my husband, the three most supportive people in my very supportive circle of loved ones, begged me to play something for them. I refused. Flat out. No. Don’t ask me to play music for you. I’m not good enough to show anyone. I will not be one of those youtubers making a video in their living room and earning pity likes. I will be amazing or I will sit in my room and cry over this battered old guitar while I try to play loud enough to drown out the voice telling me I am so bad at this, I’ll never be any good, I started too late, I have terrible technique, my hands aren’t strong enough, I don’t practice enough, I have no work ethic, I still have zero idea what to do with my strumming hand–how even do you strum pattern?–just shut up, shut up SHUT UP.
A few months ago, I played the first song I learned for the friend who wrote it and tauht it to me. I arranged it differently than she did–at first to cover the fact that I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the strum pattern, but then after a while I realized I had taken a beautiful song and added beauty to it. When I played it for her my hands shook so hard I almost lost my grip on the guitar. “This is the lowest stakes environment imaginable,” she said to me, as we sat in plastic chairs in her backyard while her kids played on the swing set. I got through it. She smiled. She said she loved my arrangement. She said I was doing well.
mr. biscuit says I am doing well, but he’s biased–of all people he has spent the most time picking up the pieces of my depressive spirals, he probably just wants to make me feel better (a wretchedly unfair assessment, both to him and to me and our trusting, loving partnership). Intellectually I know that I have progressed, but is “better than when began” really something to be proud of? It would be difficult to be worse at guitar than I was when I began. I came to it with some advantages: two decades of musical training; long fingers with all the strength and dexterity of two decades of typing; muscle memory and ear training from playing the flute (half forgotten, but only half); hunger to create music that I hear in my head and my heart. But still. I’m better than I was–so fucking what. Spare me the “compare yourself to the artist you were” sentiments–they only apply to other people. People who are hard working, persistent, diligent, who didn’t waste all their talents and opportunities when they were younger. People I like. People who are worthy of being liked.
There is a moment in any given guitar practice when my heart breaks and I start to cry, my head sagging over the body of this battered old guitar as I struggle to keep moving my hands against the tide of doubt and self-hatred that is choking me. It doesn’t always happen. It happens enough, though.
I’ve started practicing with the door open*, though, and that’s something.
*not today. Today it’s 30 degrees outside and the central heat is borked, so I’ve got the bedroom door closed to help the space heater along. It’s toasty warm and bright in here; mr. biscuit is happily ensconced in the dark, cold living room. He is at least 30% cave bear.