Writer’s Workshop: Play vs. Practice

I didn’t learn to play the guitar until I stopped taking lessons. I took lessons for over a year, and that taught me more about not playing the guitar than about how to play.

I had a hand-me-down guitar from my cousin, and my friend Willy had a ukulele. Neither of us knew what the hell we were doing, but we’d get together once or twice a week and bang on our instruments, make lots of noise, and sing goofy songs. I talked about it here.

Anyway, we were driving our moms crazy, so they decided to sign us up for guitar lessons. Willy got a guitar, and the two of us were off to the Marion Cole School of Dance and Music to take lessons from a guy named Stan. Stan told us both to get Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method and a thin guitar pick, and come back the next week.

After a couple of weeks of ol’ Mel, I wondered what the hell I was learning. I knew other people who played the guitar, and they didn’t do anything like I was learning how to do. My Aunt Bitsy would come to our house, grab my guitar, and play all kinds of songs, like "Edelweiss," "Green Back Dollar," "Yellow Bird," and "Sloop John B". Meanwhile, I was struggling to learn the notes in the key of C on all the strings. My mother told me that I was learning real music, music that I had to read off the staff and all that. Screw that noise, I thought to myself, I want to play the guitar, not read notes off the staff.

Willy did fine. He took to it like a duck to water, and soon was on to Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method, Volume 2. Meanwhile, I was still dragging myself through "The Volga Boatman" and the ever-popular "Etude #2." I really hated Mel Bay by this point, and swore, if I ever met him, I would knee him right in the groin.

Stan wasn’t much better. Stan was a real jerk to start with, and I probably made matters worse by not practicing. Oh, I was playing the guitar just fine by then; I just wasn’t playing what he assigned me to play. They actually threatened to call my Mom. I begged them not to, then went home and told Mom I hated the lessons and Stan was a jerk and it was a real long walk to the studio and that I wanted out. She was amenable to that, and I called the Marion Cole School of Dance and Music and told them to take their guitar lessons and shove them where the sun didn’t shine. Well, I was a little nicer than that…

I considered burning Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method, but settled for throwing it in the garbage. Thus liberated, I went on to play the guitar and actually have fun doing it. I was doing what I should have done in the first place…

11 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Play vs. Practice

  1. You would think instructors would incorporate music that their students are excited about. I’m glad you stuck with it even without them. I wish I could play an isntrument!


    1. No reason you can’t start… 😜

      I think the problem with the “method” was that it started with reading music and playing scales and melodies. Most of guitar playing is strumming chords and singing while you play. That’s where the journey should begin. There’s plenty of time to learn all that other stuff.

      I was thinking about it last night: something tells me now (almost 60 years later) that the guy trying to teach me guitar couldn’t actually play himself…


  2. My paternal grandfather played and taught classical guitar. Actually, having reconnected with his son (from a second marriage) who is my uncle, I’ve been privileged to learn so much about him that I did not know, aside from him being an accomplished writer. A while back, I met someone who performed with a few rock bands back in the day and he had taken guitar lessons with my grandfather in California.

    If any of the talent from that side of the family has been passed on to me, it’s definitely doesn’t involve music, sadly.

    I’m glad you learned in your own way; so many instructional methods often tend to turn people off from enjoying playing an instrument.


  3. As a child I took piano lessons from a friend of my mother’s. My teacher belonged to the school of thought that playing piano was work, not fun, and she never showed any inclination to make the experience enjoyable. I lasted for two years before I quit. By that time I’d learned to read music, but not much more, and after that I was completely self-taught. Eventually I taught myself to arrange music, both for solo piano and for small instrumental ensembles, and I taught myself to transpose, which is a necessary part of arranging.

    That was a long way of saying that I can identify with your experience.


    1. I had a great-aunt who was a trained musician (coloratura soprano, opera etc.), and then there was her sister, my grandmother (Mom’s mother), who couldn’t read music but played the piano beautfully by ear. Drove her piano teacher nuts: the teacher would play something, then Walkie (our name for her) would play the whole thing perfectly, in a different key. Mom said her parents would go to a show, and when they came home her Mom could play all the songs.

      I wrote out a couple of horn charts when I was in high school, remembering the trumpet and trombone were in B flat and alto sax was in E flat… Got most of them right, too… The guy who amazes me is Leonid Vorobyev from the band Leonid and Friends. They cover bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears. He can write out everyone’s part by ear, just listening to the records. That’s a good ear…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. They only knew what sounded good, and that was enough. Reading music is an important skill, sure, but not necessarily the first thing you learn, particularly on guitar. You could learn a dozen chords and be able to play lots of songs. At that point, it’s being able to make chord changes smootly and how to sing whlle you play. The other stuff comes easily enough after that.


      1. That probably would have helped! Reminds me of my two older brothers. One had lessons from a great teacher and he flourished, still playing bass in a couple bands. The other one may he rest in peace was self taught and fine player and singer.

        Liked by 1 person

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