When I was a kid – around 7 years old – my family moved to California. We were there cause my dad had been in a severe auto accident that shattered both his knees. He had a foot-long scar down the front of both of his knees and he told us that they’d taken out his kneecaps. During his recovery, Michigan weather caused him constant physical pain, so we moved to California because the weather was more temperate. I never knew why he picked Cali as a place to move to. We had no family out there. My dad and mom (as far as I know) didn’t know anyone out there. We just… moved.
And there we stayed for four years.
While there, I became fascinated with the guitar players in our church. Just something about them drew me in. My mother (being the empathetic guru that she was) instantly noticed my growing obsession. She mentioned it to a friend of hers (a lady that mom kept encouraging us to call “Grandma”, even though she was no relation to us at all), and on my 8th birthday, “Grandma” gifted me with a brand new guitar.
And, like most kids, I dove right in and tried my absolute best to learn how to play that guitar… for a while, at least.
My mom arranged for me to meet with a couple of the regular guitar players from church, and they showed me three of the most-used chords: G, C and D, and showed me all the songs I could play with just those three chords.
But, after a couple months, an 8-year-old’s mind travels, and mine did too. The guitar found a corner, and patiently waited for me there… for a few years.
When I was about 12, dad’s knees had recovered enough that he decided it was “time” to move back “home”, back to Michigan.
My guitar got packed up with a surprisingly modest amount of “stuff” – especially for a family of 11 – and we hauled our selves and stuff back to Port Huron.
Initially, we moved in with my mom’s mom – my real Grandma – Grandma Reynolds. She was a tall, graceful, and very strict woman who, on occasion, I could make laugh. I lost track of my guitar, but my mother sure hadn’t. Not long after moving in with Grandma, my mom greeted me one day when I got home from school and my guitar was in her hand. And, sounding eerily like my Grandma Reynolds, she told me firmly that I had a choice: I could begin practicing the guitar again (and “…seriously, this time!”), or she would give the guitar away to someone who would appreciate it.
Our family was definitely money-poor. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back, I know it now. We had very few possessions, we were poster-children for the practice of hand-me-downs, and the only “gift” any of us got on our birthdays was the Birthday Ritual: mom would buy your choice of Betty Crocker cake mix (for under a dollar) and bake it up (mine was always German Chocolate), the family would sing Happy Birthday, you blew out your candles, you got the first piece, and then the rest was quickly gobbled up by the rest of the clan. Happy Birthday!
So, a person in this situation definitely wouldn’t want to lose something as rare and precious as a guitar – even if it meant learning how to play it when they’d rather be outside playing with their brothers and friends. And, to make it worse, my mom (almost as an afterthought) threw in one more condition: If I was going to keep the guitar, I’d have to practice one hour a day, every day after school, and to make sure I practiced, I’d have to go into the room I shared with my 5 brothers, the door would be shut, and my mom would be just outside the door (in the kitchen) listening to make sure I was practicing. I definitely didn’t want to lose the guitar, so I promised I would learn.
At the time, though, I had absolutely no idea “HOW” I would learn. And, to my mom’s surprise, neither did she.
I struggled for a couple days, nearly to the point of tears. And my mom’s solution was to give me three piano books that had guitar symbols stamped above the musical scores of the songs. She figured they would show me what chords to play. It never occurred to her that these books contained songs from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s (she’d gotten them for free from a friend). How was I supposed to learn to play songs I didn’t know with these books?
But I tried. I really did. I did not want to lose my prized possession.
Then, my tough-as-nails Grandma Reynolds came to my rescue, albeit, by accident.
She had this gorgeous console record player, and she loved to play Jimmy Swaggart albums. She adored Jimmy Swaggart, and – even though she was almost as poor as my family – she still managed to buy every album Jimmy Swaggart produced. And – Wow! – did he ever have a LOT of albums.
It was all gospel music, and it was only while his music was playing did I ever hear my Grandma sing. It was contagious! Eventually, I was singing too! Over the course of a few months, I learned the words to all of the songs on every album she had. I didn’t care that they were gospel songs. It was music! THAT’S what I cared about. Something inside me loved music. All kinds of music. My Grandma was so overjoyed at the sight of me sitting “too close” to the console records player (I loved watching the disc spin, the needle move, and the records drop), that she (somehow) got her hands on some 45’s with 60’s music on them. Herman’s Hermits. The Turtles. The Beatles. I was over the moon!
Looking back, I’m still surprised that my finicky Grandma actually let her pre-teen grandson touch her precious record player. But she did. I would stack these 45’s to the limit and play them over and over… until either she or my mom would tell me to stop.
And it was Jimmy Swaggart and the 45’s that saved me from losing my guitar.
I had music in my head now. It played 24/7 (yes, even when I dreamed). So, my guitar practice sessions eventually morphed into me trying my best to recreate the music in my head. It was a struggle, and it was often forced, but over time, I made it work. And I was one day surprised to realize that the guitar players back in Cali who had originally taught me the mighty C, G and D chords – the chords that could play nearly everything – were SO right. Those three chords made up the bulk of the Jimmy Swaggart songs and the songs on my 45’s. Oh, I eventually needed to learn the other major chords, and – over time – all of the minors and 7ths and so on, but I was thrilled with how quickly those three chords allowed me to play the music in my head.
We eventually moved out of Grandma’s house and into a house of our own, and mom stopped forcing me to practice because… well… she no longer needed to force me to practice.
Then, a few years later (around age 15), mom told me that she was willing to pay for formal guitar lessons, if I was willing to buckle-down and learn. I was a little perplexed at this offer. I had already learned to play a lot of songs. I had already been a part of 2 groups (briefly), and I felt pretty confident about my abilities. But she told me that if I was going to get better, I had to learn to read music and play “the right way”, whatever way that was. In hindsight, I believe that someone was feeding her the belief that a “real guitar player” had to be classically trained. But, even then (and especially now) I was very appreciative of the attention mom was paying me and her willingness to spend money on me, even though money was so extremely tight for us.
She found an ad in the newspaper offering lessons. I don’t remember how much the lessons were, but every dollar was precious to us, so I took these lessons very seriously – at first.
My teacher was a 17 year old who had learned what was called “The Mel Bay Method”. So, in addition to the cost of the lessons, and the cost of the gas to take me there, wait for me during the hour-long lesson (once a week), and bring me home, mom had to buy the 7 Mel Bay books that taught “The Method”.
She never flinched or hesitated.
And I tried. I really did.
But there was just “something” about learning to read notes and play endlessly repeating scales and mundane ditties that just didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to play popular songs. I wanted to play for my friends. I wanted to play music that made my spirit soar. I wanted to play John Denver songs and songs by Bread and the Beatles and James Taylor.
But my mom had invested a lot of money into this, and I truly didn’t want to disappoint her. So I learned scales and I practiced The Method as best as I could. But my 17 year old instructor wasn’t impressed with my progress. He told me on a regular basis that I was wasting too much time on popular music and not learning the lessons assigned to me. He even had his mother give me “a talk” one time, just before a lesson; a talk about serious musicians and serious dedication and how her son was doing his part and I had to do mine. The Talk ended with a threat: learn to play The Method better, or her son would stop teaching me.
After that “lesson”, I went home completely depressed. Now I was learning to play something I didn’t want to play, and I was burning MY energy and time doing something for someone else – this 17 year old and his mother – instead of following my own passion for music.
Mom, being the empathetic master that she was, noticed my mood. And, in short order, got me to tell her why I was feeling so depressed. She patiently listened to me blabber all the way home, and we sat in the driveway for several minutes longer while I finished. And, before we got out of the car, she thought for a few moments, and said simply, “Honey, if he’s not teaching you the music you want to play, throw away the books and learn what you want to learn.” She then kissed me on the cheek and got out of the car.
I was dumbstruck!
She wasn’t mad – even though she had every right to be. How much money had she wasted on my guitar lessons, on those damned books, and in so many other ways to support my musical growth? In the end, I realized that the money didn’t really matter to mom. In the end, all that mattered was: me following my heart; me following the music in my head.
Now, decades later, that whole experience is encapsulated in my mind under the heading of “Throw away the book!” And that priceless lesson has been repeated time and again in my life.
Sometimes, traditional methods, traditional pathways, and traditional ideals aren’t the right “way” for some. I mean – look at how many people are learning to play guitar now simply by watching others on YouTube. They are learning the songs they love, they are learning them quickly, and they are more easily learning the joy of playing music.
Postscript: I actually did throw those Mel Bay Method books in the trash. I’m not sure if she was being literal when she told me to “Throw the books away”, but it was very cathartic for me and, on many levels, very symbolic.
I eventually bought the complete set again, but only to serve as a reminder of the valuable lesson my mom taught me, so many years ago.