Taking Guitar Lessons With My Son Taught Me More Than I Bargained For
By Susan Goldberg
Photo © JosiEpic/Twenty20
Jan 15, 2019
This past summer, my younger son — now age 11 — decided that he wanted to learn how to play electric guitar. He’d just spent a week with his older cousin, who taught him the chords to Smoke on the Water and Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and now my kid was hooked.
He pleaded. He wanted a guitar, he wanted to take lessons and he wanted to go to a music store right that second and sign up. All in the key of please, please, please.
“You’ll really do it?” I asked him. “If we buy you a guitar and sign you up for lessons, you’ll stick with it for at least a couple of years? You won’t quit?”
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He nodded, vehemently. He wouldn’t stop talking about it. His other mom and I pooled his upcoming Christmas, Hanukkah and birthday presents into an intro-level Fender Stratocaster and amp. I began asking around for teacher recommendations.
And then — against the constant backdrop of Smoke on the Water — it occurred to me: “Wait a second. If I was going to be shepherding a child to guitar lessons every week, wouldn’t it make sense to take lessons myself?”
Yes. Yes it would.
I’ve wanted to learn how to play guitar for at least a decade, possibly longer. Several years ago, I made some inroads: a friend lent me her acoustic, I bought a couple of books and I managed to teach myself a half-dozen or so basic chords and a smattering of theory. I eked out an almost-passable version of Blackbird after playing a YouTube tutorial over and over and painstakingly copying each chord and finger position. I even found a real-life teacher, a guy across town who never really asked me what I wanted to learn or why, and just tossed different songs at me each week (“You’ll like this!”) until I retreated, overwhelmed.
"He was certain I could play anything I set my mind to."
The highlight of the experience was that it coincided with my older son’s pop music phase (i.e., the phase that predated his current rap music phase, which may or may not be a phase). At his behest, I looked up the easy versions of Ed Sheeran’s The A Team and Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself and strummed through them while he — oblivious to my mistakes and stammers in the way only an 11-year-old boy could be — sang along, recording us on my phone and then listening to us over and over. He was certain I could play anything I set my mind to.
Whether or not I could, I didn’t. The guitar got shoved into its case, and then into a closet. I busied myself with other tasks, and that particular dream lay dormant. Until this past September.
Now, every Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., I gather up my guitar and my younger child packs up his Stratocaster and we head on over to the teacher’s house in its tidy subdivision and settle into his basement studio and pluck away at our strings.
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I love it. I love the calluses that are re-forming on the fingertips of my left hand. I love how ridiculously, stupidly difficult it can be to move my index finger from one string to the string above it and back again — and how much better I already am at it than I was a few months ago, even though I still pretty much suck. I love that my rendition of Blackbird is improving. I love each tinny, twee little song in my beginner book, and how hours can fly by as I practice Alouette or Clair de Lune or, more prosaically, “three-string rock,” concentrating so hard that my tongue pokes out the corner of my mouth.
I love that my son practices alongside me, or on his own, Clair de Lune wafting down the stairs from his bedroom, along with, obviously, Smoke on the Water. And how he's adding AC/DC’s Thunderstruck to his repertoire and, yes, the opening riffs of Blackbird, or any other song he’s interested in. “I figured out the theme song to The Simpsons!” he told me a couple of weeks ago.
"It turns out you can progress a lot even on five minutes of practice a day."
And I love that he has already burst into tears at how hard — and how not fun — it is, and how a year is a really long time, and how he just wants to quit and he doesn’t like the songs in the book. And how we have talked through the difficulties, how I have had to breathe through my own frustrations and expectations ("But you said you would stick with it! You said you wouldn’t quit! All new things are hard!") and just listen.
I love how I have helped him navigate conversations about his desires and frustrations with our teacher, who has — of course! — helped both of us find ways to enjoy the process. It turns out you can progress a lot even on five minutes of practice a day.
Because, I am discovering, learning how to play an instrument is only partly about the instrument. So much of it is about learning how to learn: how to figure out what you want and how to achieve it, how to recognize what kind of teacher you need and how to talk to that person, how to handle frustration and how to marvel at even the tiniest amount of progress. If my son gains these skills from our time playing together, it will all have been worth it, even if he ultimately doesn’t stick with the instrument.
For me, it’s also one more lesson on how to be a mother. Of course, I have all kinds of visions of my child and I becoming ace guitarists together, of continuing our dual lessons until he graduates from high school. (For the record, no, I do not want us to start a band.) But those things might not happen. He may quit, or decide that he doesn’t want to take lessons with me anymore. He won’t even let me teach him the second riff of Blackbird, although I keep offering.
But, right now, for this year, we are learning this new thing together. My older son, now 14 and in high school, starts his guitar elective this coming semester. I hope he enjoys it, for his own reasons, as much as I’m enjoying it. But really, that’s his business. For now, he moans audibly from the couch after my 18th awkward pass through “four-string rock.” And then, to appease him I begin to strum Blackbird.
That's when he yells, “Sing!”
And I do.
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