A Boy and His Guitar
If Tyler and I were best friends each day would last forever. In the summer, we would travel everywhere by bike and skateboard—down to the baseball diamonds for our little league games, then to the Mobil station to buy baseball cards, or to the Dairy Queen on the square for Dilly Bars and Popsicles. Our dads would drive us up to Chicago for Cubs’ games (Tyler’s favorite team) We’d arrive at Wrigley Field early to clamor for autographs and chase down stray balls from batting practice. When the humidity became unbearable in July, we’d take the most circuitous route to the city pool, while hunting for snakes and toads. Girls would be at the pool, but we would pay them scant attention—at least this year. In August, we would scheme to go to 4-H Camp together, even though there’s no air conditioning in the bunk house, and some of the older kids scare us with their rough housing. We would enter swim meets and get our new school clothes at J.C. Penney’s. Late in the summer, when the fireflies were twinkling and the cicadas were buzzing, we’d suddenly realize—with that sinking Sunday-evening melancholy—that school began the following Monday.
Tyler is eleven-years-old and lives in a bungalow in a small Midwestern town. He just finished fifth grade. He’s all skinned elbows and scabbed knees on a thin frame that hasn’t reached five feet yet. Once he threw a four-inning no hitter and, in the same week, almost hit a home run, but it was foul—by inches. "It was long enough." Recently, he burned his calf on his bike tire doing stunts, but he didn’t mind because it happened around the time that he finally achieved a goal of owning 1,001 baseball cards. He wears a Boston Red Sox cap backwards and T-shirts from a variety of sports teams, including the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Dodgers and, of course, the Chicago Cubs.
When I first met Tyler his light brown hair was dyed blue. He had never touched a guitar before. I was forty-six and had been playing for thirty-six years. His mother had surprised him at Christmas with a $79, three-quarter sized, nylon string guitar that still looked too big for his hands. "He’s been bugging me for guitar lessons," she told me on the phone. "He saw you play last summer at the library. What do you charge?"
I had never taught guitar before, but I thought back to when I was ten and took lessons with a dozen other kids from an older man in the dingy basement of Fret Shop, a music store in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. This was in the Sixties, the height of the folk music craze, when everyone in my neighborhood was listening to Dylan, Baez, and Seeger. That guitar teacher, whose name I’ve long forgotten, unlocked a door that led to a lifetime of musical exploration and discovery. Later, as a teenager, I spent Sundays at the Earl of Old Town, trying to steal chords from Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Bill Quatemen. I learned the hardest gig of all was a guitar and a song.
To have the opportunity to offer lessons to an eleven-year-old boy felt like the completion of one of life’s circular passages that come around repeatedly in middle age. I wanted to offer Tyler a safe harbor with an older man with expanding crows-feet and a handful of songs. I wanted to nurture his budding musical interest, and to show him the magical possibilities of strings and wood.
I also knew what Tyler didn’t know: that a musical instrument is a cheap form of therapy. The first songs I learned to strum were the repetitive "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and the somber "Down in the Valley." Three chords over and over until they came together to resemble something approaching a tune. Feeling and nuance for the songs came much later and changed with each passing year. The late poet William Matthews once wrote about merging rote with emotion in the poem "The Blues":
"What did I think, a storm clutching a clarinet/and boarding a downtown bus, headed for lessons?/I had pieces to learn by heart, but at twelve/you think the heart and memory are different."
As a young boy running the alleys in Chicago, I indeed was the "storm" Matthews describes, but I can say with certainty I was not thinking in terms of heart or memory. I only wanted to play like Dylan and sing like John Lennon.
During those tedious afternoons, when the tips of my soft fingers roared with pain and it seemed I could never keep any of the six strings in tune, I had no idea how a guitar would eventually sustain me. Through divorce, financial woes, illnesses, court ships, and the usual bumps and bruises associated with living past the age of forty, I always had a melody to carry me through. The ability to play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" after losing a job, or "Don’t Think Twice its Alright" after you sign divorce papers is a unexpected gift. Picking and singing have usually been for my own personal pleasure, but now I play once a week at an Alzheimer’s unit at a local nursing home to an appreciative, if captive, audience. Equally satisfying is strumming "I’ve Been Working on the Railroad" and "This Land is Your Land" to grade school kids and having them shout out the lyrics. But Tyler didn’t need to know all those complex psychological reasons for learning the guitar. Nor, at the age of eleven, did he need to know about life’s vagaries, or how the word "sustain" has several meanings. Instead, we would have fun.
At our initial lesson, I tell him the letter name of each string and how to tune a guitar. "Tyler, I’m going to teach you a finger-picking style of guitar. Are there any songs you want to learn?" He shrugs his shoulders. I’m relieved. I’m not too current on the repertoire of Pink, Eminem, or Kenny Chesney. I show him how to make a "D" chord and the importance of placing his fingers as close to the fret as possible so the string can ring true. His hand bends awkwardly around the guitar neck and he moans. This is not as much fun as shooting baskets. "Don’t worry Tyler," I tell him, trying to sound wise and encouraging. "This is first time you’ve attempted a "D" chord. You’ll get it. You just have to practice a lot. Pick up the guitar for a few minutes when you’re watching television or listening the Cubs’ game on the radio. Now let’s try each note of the chord separately until we get them down."
When the half hour is up, he can actually, sort of, almost, strum a "D" chord. He peeks at a clock above the mantel in the living room where we sit. His legs are restless from just a few minutes of inactivity. I don’t mind. I know a young boy’s attention span can only focus in spurts and I need to let him move on to his next activity. Still, I feel as if I failed somehow. I want to leave him with something to aspire to. "Tyler, do you recognize this song?" I launch into a slow, finger-picking, polka version of "Take Me Out to the Ballpark." His eyes light up as he watches my fingers bend, pull off, and hammer on each note. "Whoa," he says, his eyes wide.
"This is what we’re working toward, Tyler. But you have to practice every day. OK?"
"I will," he promises. And, much to my surprise, he does.
During the next six months I teach him all the major and minor chords with the exception of the "F" chord, which requires a pesky barre, or an entire index ("pointer" Tyler calls it) finger pressing down all six strings on the first fret. He greets me each Wednesday at the front door and tells me some exciting event that occurred in the past week. "I’m going to Milwaukee to see the home run derby!" I usually tease him about the Cubs’ woes and he, in turn, wonders (quite correctly) why on earth I root for the White Sox.
I test him by calling out random chord combinations. "OK, A minor. Now D minor. E." I show him shortcuts in moving from one chord to the next, how to use different fingering positions to his advantage. "Always make a ‘G’ chord with your middle, ring, and pinky fingers. This leaves your index finger free to hit the ‘C’ note on the second string." In that same position I show him how to swing back and forth between a "G" and "C" chord. After about three weeks he surprises me and plays it. "I was practicing and I just started doing it!" I didn’t learn the same technique until after I had left home. We go through three different variations of finger picking, including alternating bass and an easier form of the complicated Travis picking. He more or less learns all three in two months.
I won’t exaggerate my influence with Tyler. I’m just one more adult in a network of parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, and coaches in this farming community of 5,000. (He will even have another music teacher this fall when he takes on the saxophone.) I have thirty minutes a week to teach guitar, thirty minutes to offer up one more example in life’s endless possibilities. What I haven’t been prepared for is the influence Tyler has on me.
At mid-life, my priorities have shifted dramatically. My daughter is in her twenties and living independently. I have found my life’s work through writing. The frantic push toward material and professional goals has been replaced by a focus on what is manageable, and what I can possibly accomplish the next few, quick decades. This is a humbling place I now reside—middle age—and I’ve been humbled by my own limits. Being the lead act at the Newport Folk Festival never came about, but I do have a great time playing with the Alzheimer’s crowd. I once thought I could affect the world in a grandiose fashion, like Gandhi or King. How could I know in my teens and twenties all the hard adjustments it takes to move your own heart one centimeter, let alone the world’s? At forty-six, I know what I can and cannot accomplish. This might sound like failure, but it’s quite the opposite. Teaching Tyler has reminded me that if I truly want to change the world—for example, make it a place where playing music is a daily part of one’s life—I should begin by sharing whatever modest talents I possess with a child in my own community. One chord at a time. This may not be as dramatic a gesture as I once envisioned, but it certainly is attainable. Besides, this troubled world needs all the guitar players it can get.
"Look at my hands," Tyler tells excitedly me when I arrive one Wednesday night in June. "My left hand is longer than my right…it’s stretched out from guitar." I compare his two hands and I have to agree with him.
"Just wait until we get to the jazz chords," I tell him. "You’ll have mitts like Shaquille O’Neal."
Today is a big test. I had found a simple piece of classical guitar tablature. The composition, written by 19th Century Italian guitarist Matteo Carcassi, is simply titled "Air." Mostly a dexterity exercise, the piece is tricky for a beginner and requires Tyler to connect four, two-note chords over a space of five frets. We’ve been working on it for several lessons with mixed results. I ask him to play it with me and he nails it. "See, I’ve been practicing," he says, beaming. Unbelievable, I think.
I call his mom in from the kitchen, and ask Tyler to play the piece again. He flubs a couple of notes, but it’s much smoother than I would have expected. "Amazing," his mom says.
Tyler looks outside. He can hear his pals skateboarding down the sidewalk and the carnival notes of an ice cream vendor winding his way through the neighborhood. Two hours of daylight are left—an eternity in a young boy’s life.
" See you next week, Tyler," I say, packing up. "Don’t
practice. And stay out of trouble."
But I’m talking to an empty room. He’s already gone, to the next