It’s no coincidence today’s guest blogger and I share a last name. Scott is my husband, my soul mate, and one of the most creative people I have ever known. When he plays his classical guitar, or his baroque guitar, while I am writing, words flow freely from my fingertips. When I’m sick, he soothes me with Bach. He writes beautiful poems; he shares my passion for haiku.
Scott is an adjunct music professor at Mount San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in Walnut, California. He’s a PhD Candidate in Musicology at the University of California–Santa Barbara, meaning he really, really knows his stuff when it comes to music. Read his post. See for yourself:
I’m a guitarist. The guitar, my dearest, sweetest musical instrument, inspires me, touches my soul.
The first guitar I ever played belonged to my sister’s boyfriend. He brought it to our home one evening to show off, to impress my sister. He could play only one thing on the instrument, “Memphis, Tennessee,” the old Chuck Berry tune. To say he could play “Memphis” is an exaggeration. He merely stumbled along, missing one note after the next with grotesque scratchy buzzes. My sister, a very talented flutist, was embarrassed for him as he slaughtered the song. But I was enthralled. Not by him and his inept performance—it was his guitar. Wow! It was so beautiful, a shinny red electric guitar. After his performance, he and my sister abandoned me, disappearing for a couple hours to a more private place, to make out. But I didn’t care. I was alone with this magical instrument; I had the biggest smile on my face. When they finally returned, each with very swollen raw lips, I could smoothly pick out “Memphis” and several other favorite rock songs. I was thirteen years old.
The instrument inspired me then, and it inspires me now. It’s completely a sensual thing: before abstract musical language, before the intellect, I experience the guitar on a primitive, child-like level. I love holding the guitar in my arms. I love looking at the lovely woods, the rosewood, the mahogany, and the ebony. I dearly love the smell of the guitar, the scent of the ancient trees that waft from the instrument. I enjoy the feel of my fingers caressing the strings; when everything is working correctly, when my right hand nails easily touch the strings, when my left hand glides up and down the neck … it’s almost like falling into the instrument, into the guitar’s hollow depths. Yes, of course, I also love the music, but the music is not what sustains me. How else can I explain the joy I receive from endlessly practicing scales and arpeggios, or the pleasure of playing the same piece for hours a day, day after day, year after year, for a lifetime.
A short time ago, I watched an online interview of two well-known guitar teachers at a prestigious eastern music conservatory. They boasted about their guitar program. They carefully emphasized that their program, first and foremost, offered prospective guitar students a strong musical foundation, rather than just focusing on the instrument—in other words, music first, guitar second. This pedagogical stance is admirable. As an educator, I’ve had the same attitude myself. It protects me from flashy fingered narcissistic students looking for compliments, praise, even worship, rather than good instruction. But, for me, at this moment of honest contemplation, it’s the guitar first, not the music; it’s not the mind, not the noble quest for understanding that inspires me. Even on a pure musical level, as a listener, experiencing the sublime beauty and intelligence of a composer like J.S. Bach is primarily sensual for me, even physical. Bach gives me chills, makes the hair on my arms stand up, makes me gasp. It’s ironic that I’m illogically in love with his mathematical, logical music. I don’t use my mind to appreciate Bach; I use my body. It’s the same with my guitar. It’s something I feel first and think about later, long after the music is silent.
Mary Oliver, the wonderful poet, touches me in the same illogical way. Writing about Whitman, she said, “first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple … in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing.” Yes, that’s it! My guitar is a temple in which to feel. As a highly educated musician, spending years of my life as a student in the classroom, learning what to say and what not to say, I know I’m treading on dangerous ground here. But my personal confession is this: my art form is not of the mind; it’s physical, emotional, and, at the best of times, spiritual. This is the way I feel. A music professor once told me a scholar and a musician should never use the word “feel”; one should replace the word “feel” with the word “think.” An intellectual thinks, not feels. Yes, perhaps, if that’s the way you play the game. That was my game, my discipline long ago, in a past life. But here and now, in this life, as a guitarist, I know I’m not alone. A writer must enjoy the feel of their fingers on their computer keyboard. I’m sure that sometimes painters forget themselves, their mind, their intellect, in the meditative feel of the brush and the smell of the paint. My art, my guitar, is sensual, physical, spiritual—all these things mixed up in a random, uncontrollable order. I’m thrilled by this sensation, this surrender to the guitar.
I’m inspired, of course, by many other things: the lupine blooming along the Kings River on the End of the Road trail in Kings Canyon, the soft skin along the curve of my wife’s back, the warmth of my children’s breath, the memory of my long dead mother and father. But I would play the guitar without these things, in a prison, in a cold black void. I would play the guitar if nobody listened, even myself, even if there was no such thing as music.
NEXT WEEK: Fiber Artist and Painter Kathi Anderson