When I looked around at my colleagues at Asheville Catholic School in Asheville, North Carolina, I wasn’t thinking about how kind they were or what their personalities were like or anything like that. Having a three-dimensional understanding of another person isn’t a common thing in 6th grade – we hadn’t learned geometry yet, after all. These were the days of simple arithmetic, and the way in which we judged one another’s characters was consistent with our limited knowledge of mathematical operands. When a new kid joins the class in the middle of the school year, he or she is assessed for pluses (athletic ability, sense of humor, etc) and minuses (acne was one of mine), with an early onset of puberty serving as a possible multiplier of both the positive and negative.
This approach was not only implemented for assessing others but also oneself. When I attempted to get an idea of who I was as a person, my 6th-grade mind was only capable of putting together a list of quantifiables. I was confident that I could count my ability to make dumb jokes in my favor, and I thought that I was pretty good at drawing pictures (as long as it was accompanied by the white noise of a lecture on plate tectonics or sentence diagramming). I had experienced considerably less success in sports, however, and did not think for a second that my average of one successful (basket/hit) per (basket/base)ball season was worth much admiration. I needed a new thing, a new boy scout badge to pin on my proverbial lapel, and so I sought to gain the one ability which was the golden egg of coolness in my eyes, the ultimate thing which I could claim as my thing: I would play the guitar.
My parents were eager to endorse my musical venture, happy that I had taken initiative to learn something new and that I would be out of the house for a few hours a week. Plus we already had a guitar lying around the house. So my parents would drop me off every some-day-of-the-week at the local youth arts center to lug my big acoustic guitar across the parking lot and through the door. I would wait in the lobby for my instructor to greet me, taking in the sights and sounds in this breeding ground of young talent. I heard other more experienced guitar players through the walls and saw myself surpassing even their abilities on my road to virtuoso status. I saw girls dressed in ballet outfits taking a water break and envisioned my future self playing that one song in front of a crowd with every pretty girl I could think of. They do concerts like that sometimes, right?
I was shocked to discover that in order to play the guitar, you had to learn to play the guitar. This took a greater level of commitment than I had anticipated; my guitar instructor gave me music to practice while at home, a time which I had clearly set aside for playing Xbox, eating, and occasionally completing schoolwork. I stuck with it, however, and kept going to lessons for a few months before finally calling it quits. During this time I had learned the basics; I knew some chords and I could play some simple songs that had been designated by my instructor. “You Are My Sunshine” wasn’t going to rock stadiums, though, and I ended my guitar lessons with the sort of half-regret that accompanies any failure to live up to your own extravagant fantasy. I didn’t pick the instrument up for a while after that, unsure that I ever would again.
I got over my crisis fairly quickly, however, convinced that I could learn to play guitar just as well on my own as I could with lessons. I had decided that it wasn’t worth my time to learn music theory at all, and thanks to my newfound freedom from the oversight of a goateed, twenty-something guitar instructor I could now learn to play whatever songs my 6th-grade heart desired. I won’t try to recall what songs these were, but rest assured I would be embarrassed by them now. Thus began a long period of going to my home computer, printing out chords or tabs for several songs, and retreating to my room where I would attempt to recreate my favorite music to a satisfactory degree.
Predictably, I wasn’t just amassing a stockpile of songs for all these months. I was becoming a significantly better player, both in terms of my knowledge of the grid of notes which comprises a guitar neck and in terms of speed, muscle memory, and fluidity. Playing songs in different styles gradually built up an arsenal of musical phrases and riffs in my mind, and much in the same way that mental conditioning adds synaptic connections between neurons, I grew the ability to link together these musical chunks with increasing effortlessness and grace. The goal was no longer to learn to play something that someone else had spent time writing but to master the art of piecing together coherent (maybe even good) music on the fly. I had unknowingly adopted a musical instrument as an outlet for a deep-seated addiction to improvisation.
When I reflect on the method in which I ended up learning guitar, it’s easy to see precedent for it in other areas of my life. It seems as if my self-importance in concert with my laziness causes me to eschew the tried and true paths to accomplishing any task. This aversion to preparation is linked to a skill and love for last-second tests of my creative power (read: BS-ing). It’s not an acceptable or advisable substitute for legitimate preparation in most situations, but it’s certainly easier, and more importantly, I find it really fun.