When I was sixteen I was well on my way to becoming a classical musician. I played a variety of wind instruments including clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon, saxophone and the giant baratone saxophone which was my favourite. I dabbled in brass and played some upright and electric bass. As long as I stayed away from percussion instruments I was pretty good. I played in youth symphonies, got selected for solos, scored high on my Royal Music Conservatory tests, got good teachers and even understudied to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Then I got tendinitius which progressed to arthritis.
In my final year of exams my teacher graciously let me take a break in the middle of my exams to ice my hands, something that should have resulted in a failing grade. I knew then I had no future in music.
I’m not sure what masochistic part of me decided at this point to buy a guitar. I knew then, I know now, that guitar is possibly the worst choice of instrument for someone with arthritis.
Still, I loved music. Music was as much a part of me as my arm, or leg or lungs. There were these moments in orchestra when everything came together and it was a true out of body experience. I ceased to be aware of my own playing, my own finger work and just got lost in the sound of the whole. It was a living vibrant thing and, were I religious, it would be the closest I have come to touching something I would describe as a soul.
I think there was some part of me that knew I would always need to play. That creating music is not something I want to do, it’s something that is fundamental to who I am and how I navigate this world. It connects me to feelings and emotions that cannot find expression in words or any other form.
There are certain tones, chords, pitches that my body physically responds to in a visceral primal way. There are moments when music moves me so deeply that it takes all of my self control not to fall apart while standing at a bus stop listening to my iPod. These moments are amplified exponentially when I can actually play.
Simply put, music is my humanity.
Sadly, I think I have spent the last decade trying to cut myself off from this part of myself. If I couldn’t play music I didn’t really know who I was. I spent much of the next decade creating a new identity that did not involve music at my core. Most people who have met me in the last five years certainly would not associate me with music. I rarely talk about bands, don’t recommend artists, and I certainly don’t play.
Still, despite several moves and my husband’s slight frustration at moving several musical instruments including two almost-never-played guitars, I have never been able to make a clean break and give it up all together.
Every few months I pull out an instrument. I wait until my husband is at work, close the windows, find a quiet room and play. I play Mozart, Handle, Bach, I play jazz, blues and blue grass. There is a problem though. Playing an orchestra instrument, without the orchestra: not the same.
I realize now this is why, in that fit of self-loathing rage I bought a guitar and have held onto it all these years. A guitar is one of few instruments where entire rich compositions of music can be created for the one instrument, with vocals. And, unlike a piano it’s easily portable.
I will never be a professional preforming musician. I am never going to have the strength and dexterity in my fingers to put in the hours of practice needed to play to that level. But that is not why I need to play.
The first actual memory I have from after I found out that Sean had died was going to the park and writing the first song I had written in over a decade. It just came. It poured out of me. I paced around the park singing into the voice memo of my phone so that I could capture it all.
One of my deepest regrets is that despite writing and recording it, I was unable to play it at his memorial. I am forever grateful to Alyssa for playing this song on my behalf. I was the most beautiful gift anyone has ever given me. Still, I wish I had been able to do it myself.
I am truly lucky to know so very many talented people. And so, this year when one of those people offered to give a group of friends guitar lessons I signed up. Life happens, and organizing lessons around a dozen or more jobs, family commitments and life in general has meant the lessons have not so much happened. But, it gave me the starting point I needed to pull the guitar out of the closet, pick it up at least one hour every day, and play it.
So far I’m terrible. I’m thankful every day that this is not a violin and I don’t sound like I’m skinning a cat. I also have no idea how my parents put up with the years of squeaking and squacking that comes with learning reed wind instruments.
My fingers feel like they are giant meat sausages and I am at various points convinced they have grown to three times their regular size making it physically impossible to play a guitar. The first time I coordinated my fingers enough to play one chord I thought I might have broken some fingers. Learning the second chord wasn’t any easier.
Still there is progress. Slow, minimal progress. I can play several simple melodies on the first four strings with reasonable precision, good tone, and in time with the metronome. I can also play the C and G7 chords reasonably well, but learning to switch between them without losing time is still some ways off.
Learning guitar, for me, is about re-connecting to a part of myself that I tried to kill but wouldn’t die. It’s honouring Sean’s memory. It’s accepting myself for who I am, flaws and all. It’s making a promise that one day I will be able to play the song I wrote.