I have told many people these past few months that I am not a music teacher. This, despite the privilege of having thirty guitars in my classroom, and despite the fact that I sometimes teach music to two classes besides my own. I stand by what I said.
Music was never forced on me. When I was seven, I told my parents I wanted to play the violin. I did. I played it for two years, under the kind of strict instruction that seems to go with learning the violin. When I was nine, I told my parents I would not play violin anymore. They didn’t stop me; music was a choice. My violin teacher, on the other hand, told me I was a quitter. Now that I think about it, she only confirmed the decision that I made.
My next instrument didn’t come with an instructor, at least not at first. My next instrument was a guitar – a cedar-top classical La Patrie. It sounded warm, and it still does. It was an obvious choice of instrument for someone who always wanted to sing.. On the afternoon in grade six that I got it, I went to my room and picked out a song on it. I didn’t know the names of the strings yet, but I could recognize the intervals of “Ode to Joy.”
My first year or so of playing the guitar, I played it… badly, if I’m being honest. My learning was slow, until, on a camping trip in the Bowron Lakes, my parents’ friend John quietly asked if he could see my guitar. He didn’t say that he could play campfire songs like a demon, or that he knew all the lyrics to every song, or that he had a voice you could hear across the lake. He simply reached for it, and started to play.
That is how I learned. Watching. Singing along while John led campfire songs. Gradually, as I got older, as we kept camping together, it became me leading the songs, or both of us. I had played with John for years when I learned that he couldn’t read music; he just read chords, and sang with joy, and everyone joined in.
I have had a smattering of music training. I played clarinet for six years. Tenor saxophone for four. I even took piano lessons in university, proudly playing the scales I was never forced to play as a child. I have loved all of it, but for me none of it compares to guitar and a song. None of it has the force of inspiration that guitar has, the instant desire to play until your fingers are callused, that a guitar has. You can learn a song in an afternoon, or you can spend a lifetime learning everything that it can do. Preferably, both.
Music always takes time and patience, but the last thing that I have ever wanted to impart for music is exasperation. I’m not always successful at this. Sometimes my insistence that we learn harmony, or the insistence on learning chords on the guitar, frustrates my students. I know it. I see it. But I also know that a guitar has a singular power to be both a comfort in solace and an invitation to be social. I can’t think of another instrument that fills that role.
There was a hashtag on Twitter yesterday that ran #WhatMusicMeansToMeIn3Words. Impossible. How to tell what a lifetime of music means in three words? The best that I could come up with was “Passing a torch.” Guitar was passed to me. The ability to make joyful noise was passed to me. I wasn’t so much taught as I was inspired. I try to do the same.
I am not a music teacher. I simply offer someone the makings of a fire, and set it alight.
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.