Sometimes you learn a new skill because you want to do something. Other times, you want to do something, start doing it, and the skill is so integral to what you are doing that it just develops out of necessity. The latter is was how I learned to understand chords on a keyboard.
My first musical instruction, aside from my church’s children’s choir, was in piano. The teacher I was with used the Suzuki method. The Suzuki books focus on “Classical” music (I use the term loosely to refer to non-modern concert music). My training focused on intervals and scales, keys and the circle of fifths. This was great, but a little inflexible. I knew what sounded good together, but not why. I could read music, but understanding how chords related to each other left me in the dark.
My first real introduction to learning chords in any usable capacity came when I joined my high school’s Worship Team during my freshman year. I was supposedly a “replacement” for their current keyboard player, who was graduating in May. At this point, I had only a very little guitar training (the short stint of lessons in “Fingernails“) plus a little done on my own time, and I was not yet familiar with chord sheets. Worship Team was structured a bit like Suzuki in that it was largely based on playing by ear — either we knew the song from having heard it during chapel for years, or someone knew it from the radio (usually not me). We would play what we heard, with the other bit being chords for guidance. The “sheet music” we had was only pages of lyrics with chords printed above the corresponding word — or somewhere vaguely close, anyway, meaning that playing by ear was necessary, not optional.
One memorable example was from a song with which I was not familiar. It had a whole page of lyrics, but for the verses, the first verse only had two letters over the first word. G C. That was it. Not even an attempt to put the chords with the right lyrics. Since the verse only alternated those two chords in the same rhythm, they just assumed everyone would know the song and figure it out. I had to listen and watch the guitarists to see when they changed chords to figure out the rhythm, since I had never heard the original song. They, of course, had zero sympathy for my confusion and utter fish-out-of-water feeling. It was a completely different experience from my earlier piano lessons, where the sheet music held all the information I needed (or so I thought).
Learning the chords themselves was an experience as well. I knew very basic chords off the top of my head, and could form the less common ones by using intervals. For example, I knew that a C major chord was made of C, E, and G. If I were asked for an F# minor chord, I would find F#, count up four keys for the middle note, then count up another three for the top, making an F# major chord. I would then drop the third by a half-step to make it minor. It was time-consuming, to say the least. By that time everyone else was a full verse ahead of me, so I learned quickly out of necessity, a.k.a. the desire not to look like an idiot to my musical peers.
This arduous process does not even consider the chords I had never heard of before. I could count out a major, a minor, an augmented, and a diminished; those were easy to understand, if not to form on the fly. It was things like “C2” and “Esus” that left me baffled. Then, of course, there were the less difficult but still unfamiliar things, like G/C and F#m7♭5. Note that, while all the team members were quite skilled musically, I was the only one with relatively extensive piano training. I was approaching keyboarding as a classically trained pianist. They approached everything as guitarists. Both approaches are musical, but they are quite different ways of thinking. For example, I would ask our lead guitarist (electric, with his own separate, huge amplifier and equivalently sized ego),
“So what is an Esus?”
He would stare at me, obviously confused and slightly annoyed at my ignorance, — how could I not know such a thing? — and finger the chord on his guitar.
“Um…this,” and he would show me the guitar fretboard.
“Yes, but what notes are in that? How do I play that on the keyboard?”
Obviously I was not going to get any help from them.
So for these unfamiliar chords, I had to teach myself my own, special way. I was teaching myself guitar a bit, so I had a giant compilation of almost every way to make any given chord. Open, barre, omitting certain strings, alternate fingerings, it had it all. So, for the new ones, I would go and find the mystery chord in my big dictionary of chords. I had figured out, on my own, that each fret was a half-step (yes, it took me a little while to figure that out), and I knew the open notes for each string in standard tuning. Using that knowledge, I would break down the chord into what note each string played, so I had the pieces of an out-of-order chord. Knowing the relative standard chord (C for C2, E for Esus, etc.) I could see what bit had changed and thereby figure out the non-inverted form. If you had any doubt that I tend to do things the hard way, it should be gone now.
Once I finally had the non-inverted chords mostly straight and could play them without literally missing a beat, I worked out inversions and the most efficient way to move from chord to chord. Not strictly necessary, but I thought it sounded better and it made me feel more skillful — not that anyone noticed. (Why, no, I am not still slightly bitter…) In any case, when my time in Worship Team ended, I was an ace at worship song chord progressions.
- The Geometry of Music (musicinyoursoul.com)
I grew up listening to country music. Every time my mom was driving the car, she would put on the big city country music station. As she was most often the person driving me around when I was growing up, this added up to lots and lots of country music. LOTS. While the near-continuous stream clearly influenced me in a number of ways — my preference for story-like songs, enjoyment of the occasional bit of twangy sound, and love of alcohol-related music — the first, most obvious result was that, when I was thirteen, I asked for a guitar for Christmas.
Seeing as I usually asked for very few things, my parents got me a decent classical-style guitar. Keep in mind that I wanted to play country like my favorite artists that I had heard all my life. I had visions of becoming the next country hit by age seventeen, or at least of displaying some supernatural talent on my new instrument. Simply put, I was as delusional as every other somewhat-musical teenager. The issue: I had never touched a guitar before. I had experience reading music and playing the piano, but next-to-none with reading chords or chord charts or with playing anything that did not have a keyboard on it. My parents, knowing I was clueless and wanting to help me use my new toy, signed me up for lessons at Campus Music.
In my hometown, Campus Music is an institution. It sits just across the street from the music center of the university and right next to many a strange business, the likes of which usually accumulate near where college students gather — the sketchy bookstore, the artsy coffee shop, the greasy restaurant, the halfheartedly disguised head shop, the bike place. Campus Music is dark, a little dingy, and worn, as though much of it has not seen the light of day since the seventies. The store is always crammed to the rafters with sheet music, instruments, and accessories. If it is musical, they will probably have it. There was this little old lady who ran it with her sons, and she always knew where to find what you wanted. Of course, what you wanted could be in three different places depending on some minor specification – instrument, collection or single song, arranger, company that printed the book – but she could find it. My mother used to say, “Heaven help them if that old woman ever dies, because they’ll never be able to find anything ever again”.
In a little back room I never knew existed, hidden by stacks of trumpet music, around the corner from the counter behind which hung various violins, some local music teachers would offer lessons. It was with one of these teachers, in this ancient, overcrowded, dumpy little store, that I had my first guitar lessons.
I don’t remember the teacher’s name — and I remember more about his appearance than anything. He had dark hair and looked a little rough, with a worn face, and was grouchy. I remember him criticizing me for “strangling the neck” of my guitar, which, in retrospect, I was indeed doing. However, he did not let me know that a little beginner’s buzz was ok, that I would eventually gain strength in my fingers and the sound would go away, that squeezing so tightly was not necessary. Nor did he tell me what else I should be doing. Just, “stop strangling the guitar”. That advice did not help and just annoyed me. I clearly recall being jealous of his obvious skill, which he would demonstrate when showing me what I should practice, yet incredibly frustrated that I was not making much progress. I know he must have taught me something, probably reading tabs or the pentatonic scale, but I don’t remember. What made the biggest impression on me was his fingernails.
Instead of using a pick, he went with the natural method — he grew out the fingernails on his right hand. Of course, on his left hand, the nails were short so he could fret the strings easily. His nails were all quite clean and well-kept; they were just long, even for a guitarist. They were more talons than fingernails.
I realize now that long nails are a very useful setup for fingerstyle guitar, that nails and flesh together give a different tone. I have tried finger picks — little artificial claws — and I do understand that they are uncomfortable and generally a pain. However, to my inexperienced mind, such long nails on a man seemed rather disconcerting; that it was on one hand only seemed off-balance; that I half-expected him to turn into a werewolf and bite my head for strangling my innocent guitar gave them an almost sinister effect.
Thus, my strongest impression of my first guitar teacher was a surly, middle-aged, haggard-looking guy who forgot to cut half his fingernails for so long that they looked like talons. We never really meshed well, and I ended up quitting lessons after about a month.
Aside from the fact that I need all my fingernails short for my other instruments, I still consciously avoid the one-handed classical claws. What I lose in guitar tone I also lose in creepiness — and that is a perfectly acceptable trade, in my book.
What about you? Any oddly vivid memories of your music teachers?