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Old Dogs…

Hello Troubadourians! In past columns I have mentioned that about a year ago, after 40+ years of playing the guitar, I started taking guitar lessons again. I have been surprised by what I have learned – and not just what I’ve learned about the guitar but also what I’ve learned about myself. I really like learning new things but I don’t like feeling like a beginner. But that’s really what it’s about. Old dogs can learn new tricks. And I’ve found that the hard part isn’t learning the trick itself, it’s being humble enough to be a beginner again and sometimes even re-learning how to learn.

When you’ve been doing something for a very long time and have an acknowledged proficiency with it, there comes a certain amount of pride associated with your ability to perform at a high skill level. Learning anything of significance will reduce your perceived ability to execute the new skill anywhere near your current level. That can be a really tough place to be for most of us – especially for us guitar slingers – and often forces us to back away from new concepts, ideas, and situations that have the possibility of making us “look bad.” I believe that ego is the biggest reason we fail to grow in our art and music. Being torn between “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and a desire to re-invent oneself usually leads to stress, indecision, and stagnation; none of which is of any benefit to you artistically and can sure take the fun out of the simple joy of making music. Growth doesn’t have to be as draconian as a complete re-invention, but it does require a decision.

I wanted to better understand – and play – jazz music. So my decision was that I needed to take some lessons. Simple, right? Not at all. It took me two years to arrive at that conclusion. I didn’t want to make a complete transition to a different genre, not that I believed for a minute that that was even possible, but I did want to seriously upgrade my playing and understanding how to approach music from a jazz perspective seemed essential to that end. OK, but how do I choose a teacher? There are several well qualified teachers in the San Diego area, any one of whom would have been a good choice. For me, I wanted to learn “old school” jazz so I knew I needed to choose someone as close to the “source” as possible. And it was important that I choose someone I felt I needed to be accountable to. Being accountable to someone else is a very important component of learning and requires that the student have a great deal of respect for the teacher. Fortunately for me, two of the Linkuns are related to a legendary jazz guitarist. Easy decision, right? Well, sort of. It still took me another two years to gather the nerve to even ask if he would take me on as a student.

And so it began. Breaking down my playing then building it back up. Breaking it down and building it back up. I had so many misconceptions of what I was attempting that sometimes it felt like I was opening a vein, pouring in some strange stuff, and stitching it back up with a bent needle and dental floss. Of course most of this was all in my head, but for a long while I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I had to overcome the “language barrier” between the complex jazz vocabulary and the simplistic vocabulary of the rock and country and blues music that I was accustomed to, as well as the generational gap in points of reference between my teacher and myself. To me, pop music is Beyoncé and Brittney Spears while to my teacher it was Jerome Kern and Hoagy Carmichael. (At least I knew who those guys were…). And then, slowly, it started to make sense… What I needed was a “way in,” a way to take what I knew and re-imagine it, and to learn and listen and hear differently. Nothing was actually different. I mean the notes are the same, the scales are the same, but the context has been shifted. “Jazz Ears” is what my friend Claudia calls it. Another way of thinking about it is that I needed external “permission” to attempt new things.

Now I’m sure that I’m exaggerating the pain of learning new things and I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from doing whatever they need to do to improve and refine their art. Indeed, I want to encourage everyone to study, take lessons, join a band, quit their band, whatever they believe it will take to grow their music. Some of that growth will require big decisions, sometimes painful decisions, but be strong and dedicate yourself to what you decide. Live with it for a while and you’ll see what it’s really about. For me, it was learning – what works for me and what doesn’t, regardless of what I “wanted” to work for me. Be open to change and embrace the work required. Some of it will be easy, most of it will not, but don’t stop and don’t get discouraged. If it was easy, everyone would be a virtuoso. Be prepared to suck for a while as you learn. Remember that you’re integrating the new stuff into what you are already comfortable with, not just smearing something over the top of it. And that integration takes time to do it well. Seamless, that’s what you’re after. You only get better. Trust me, the first time you play something you’ve worked on, instinctively; without thinking about it, just reacting to the music in a new way, it’s a total rush. People will notice; especially your bandmates or other musicians. Your audience will notice too even if they don’t know what just happened, but they will know that something did happen and that it was special. Your new “stuff” might just bleed over into other parts of your life if you let it. Now wouldn’t that be too cool?

Coda: Some of you may have noticed that the subtitles of these columns usually contain a reference to the lyrics of some song. Sometimes the column content mirrors the spirit of that song while other times it’s only a vague or tangential reference. This month is the latter. Just for fun; if you know what song is in this column’s title, send me an email with your guess…

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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