Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Layer 414 . . . Christmas Reviewed, Midwinter Celebrations, Family Gatherings, Musical Ambitions, Learning to Play, and Getting Started

Christmas reviewed

And so begins New Year Proper. Life returns to normal, whatever that might be.

Looking back at Christmas, I feel fortunate to have had two whole days in the company of my entire close family - children, grandchildren, partners, dog, cats, etc - with no obligations except to enjoy a very unhurried, relaxed time together, with nothing much to do except eat, drink, chat, play, take photos, play games, play music, read, watch TV and snooze. No-one was ill. No-one had a cold or flu. No-one got sick. Everyone enjoyed good food and drink. There was warmth and laughter and extremely good cheer.

No-one had anything to do with religion, or paid any attention to the religious aspects of the season. Yet there were spiritual as well as social (and personal) aspects to our time together. Maybe we should pay more attention to this. Maybe we should all try to re-claim the spiritual realm from the God-botherers and those who think they hold a monopoly on spiritual intelligence. Of course it's love that binds people together, and binds the universe together, but 'love' is a peculiar and ambiguous word. We might as well use 'attraction' or 'gravity' or 'magnetic fields'.

Maybe we ought to talk more openly and more often about what the midwinter gathering and feasting means to us. If the whole experience is kind  of wonderful, then we ought  to make time to say so, and give proper thanks to one another.

The giving of gifts isn't the biggest thing, but I now think it's also important. After all, it doesn't take a whole lot of time or energy to buy somebody a bottle of wine or spirits, or some special teas or coffees, or a box of excellent chocolates. These things might be cliches, as far as giving is concerned, but I do believe that something is better than nothing. And if you have no money at all, then there is hopefully a parent or a best friend one can turn to for a small loan.

When there are large gatherings, however, the Secret Santa gift is possibly the best idea, where everyone just gets one special gift, with a fixed price ceiling, and with no-one knowing who gives what. If you want to give someone something more - then you can always do it when you meet one to one - at any time of the year. The gift of time - in terms of hours saved from doing stressful shopping - is surely the best gift of all. Especially at Christmas time.


Learning To Play

I had an interesting chat with my cousin's husband, who said he'd love to learn to play the guitar, but doesn't have time to do it.

He's a busy man, but surely it's possible to make the time to do something, like playing an instrument, when it gives so much pleasure and relaxation? A few years ago a friend I was close to said something similar with regard to her piano playing. No time for it.

In the case of guitar learning/playing, I think the problem is the mystique that surrounds achieving anything musical. As far as most people are concerned you need to sign up for a fixed course of fairly or possibly very expensive lessons, depending on whether you have group or one-to-one tuition with a decent tutor. And then there's the cost of the instrument. And knowing which one to buy . . . The obstacles seem endless. With the time thing being the biggest obstacle of all. Even if it is 'just' one evening, or part of an evening, per week.

My solution is this. Most adults in full-time work can find £200 - £300 for a decent electric guitar and a powered 'effects box', into which they can plug headphones. Later on, if required, they can invest in an amplifier. An effects box (such as a Zoom) is better than an amplifier in the first instance since it'll give a bigger range of tones and sounds, and you can have it as loud as you like through the headphones. An electric  guitar is also a lot easier on the fingers for beginners, since the tension on the strings is a lot less. By all means have an acoustic guitar as well, but electrics are the best bet - which is the opposite of what most people presume.

Secondly - DON'T have any lessons. At least not until you can strum the basic major and minor chords, and you have your fingers moving properly, and 'instinctively' - in the same way you move your feet on the pedals of a car - without consciously lifting and pressing them down.  You can find chord charts on the Internet to show you where to place your fingers on the strings.

What you need, in the beginning, is a proper 'feel' of the instrument. Tutors and lessons can't give you that. You get that from hours of strumming on your own - even whilst watching TV. You need to properly familiarise yourself with your instrument - making it your friend. Getting to know how it sounds, how it responds to your touch, knowing when one or more strings sounds 'wrong' - and needs retuning. Easily done with an electronic tuner.

Neither do you need a tutor to teach you the scales. Again - find scale diagrams on the internet and practice them on your own. No need to leave home, pay tutors, or spend time coming and going.

Next you need to know the chord structures of your favourite songs and tunes. Again - discover on the internet that the majority of rock,folk and blues tunes need only three or four chords. Practice strumming them, memorising them, moving from one chord to the next with precision and timing, and without having to look where you're putting your fingers. This bit can take months, or years. Practice, practice, practice. It's enjoyable when it all starts to sound like it should. A tutor can't teach you how to do this. You just need basic knowledge, and the time (and determination) to practice.

Next - research shows that most people who play a guitar have picked up far more knowledge and techniques from personal friends and family than from a tutor. These people will tell you what you want to know. A tutor will tell you what he or she wants you to know. Most tutors are crap teachers. They are inflexible in their methods, don't pay attention to what the student really knows and can do, and don't pay attention to what their pupils most want to do. They will assess  you in terms of what they want you to do - not what you are trying to do.

The time to go to a paid tutor is when you are familiar with your instrument, have a working knowledge of the basic individual notes and chords, and have trained both hands to work together to strum chords or pick individual notes. I believe this to be true even if you ultimately want to play classical  guitar, jazz guitar or improvised lead guitar.

I just wish someone had said to me when I was young - you CAN play a guitar, you CAN play a keyboard - all you need is an instrument, some basic knowledge, and someone who's already  picked up the basics to show you what to do.

Had there been an Internet to use in those dim and distant days . . . who knows what might have been possible?

JFDI - Just Friggin Do It.


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