Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

My daughter announced her wedding plans early this year and they included her Dad (me) playing the guitar……and singing (!) Of course, her memories of me playing and singing to her as a child were perfect……….much more perfect than stark raving reality I assured her.

Nonetheless, I was soon embedded in the ceremony and while I convinced her that time had taken away those dulcet tones she remembered, I still had to play the guitar. Right about now those of you who have heard me actually play are thinking "Yikes!". My youngest son upon hearing the news asked incredulously "Have you been practicing………a lot?"

Since the wedding was to take place outdoors in Santa Fe, New Mexico before 150 invited guests, my mind immediately went into overload hum. The saving grace was that I had the presence of mind to arrange for Dale Miller to play the wedding and reception and all I had to do was to identify a single piece to murder in solo performance.

Keep in mind that I don't now, nor have I ever, had serious aspirations as a guitarist. Sure, I like to noodle around but my repertoire consists of about a dozen small pieces none of which do I know more than about 70%. I have been taking lessons from Dale Miller for a few years and he rewards me for not mentioning this in public, such has been my progress. I'm on my third lap through the Christopher Parkening book having been held back the first two times.

As a guitarmaker, it is helpful to have a couple of tunes that I can play to evaluate my work and that of other makers. The first is "Danny Boy" and one of the others is "Romanza", the anon version. This is a song that is easy to learn and hard to play well and since the topic seemed to be right on for a wedding, this is the one I selected. Yes, I know it is a shop worn piece, but how many people in a wedding party are going to know that?. Besides, I really like it……..honest, I really like it. And this as an aside to Woody, I did first learn it in tablature years ago before I knew you weren't supposed to take the easy way out.

I had some ideas for an arrangement that could turn the song into something lyrical and less mechanical than the way one typically hears the piece. And so I turned to my instructor with fear in my eyes and insisted in having help with making me the original "Johnny One Note", a guitar player with exactly one song in his repertoire. Dale asked "How long before the wedding?" I said "About three months" He said grimly, "That doesn't give us much time" Since I already knew most of the song I thought this was a little pessimistic.

During the days and weeks that followed we worked on basics of interpretation and the use of free and rest strokes for variation, and so on. I also decided to play not my own guitar, but rather the instrument my guitarmaker son had built for me some five years ago and since this was his first classical, we had to go in and do some fancy set-up work to make it acceptable for my erratic playing technique. Being mildly superstitious, I also attached a bird's feather found at the wedding site to the peghead for inspiration. I took to playing the piece cold without any warm-up. I would take my guitar outdoors to unfamiliar places and play with fierce concentration. Once, I played the piece reasonably well with a bug crawling up my nose and two Mosquitoes drilling into my thigh. Finally, I read every book I could find about performance anxiety (there are many!) The secret is to know your piece cold and to believe that you have something to share with your intended victims……er, audience. Gradually I came to actually believe that I could nail this thing or at least prevent it from running off into the ditch……..or if it did, I could fake my way back on track without my Daughter and guests knowing it. Failing any of that I would simply burst into song thereby distracting attention from my playing. By wedding day I was ready.

You need to know that my wife has an ability to see into the future. And in this case she predicted rain would engulf the whole wedding party and sweep them off downstream to Albuquerque. As you can well guess, the hours leading up the the great event were indeed filled with rain and the preacher, actually, a facilitator as my daughter is a tree hugger and would never do anything in the conventional way………well , never mind, I'll just stick to the issue. Fortunately, the clouds lifted just enough to perform the wedding and everything went smoothly and emotionally forward. When the time came for me to play I blubbered my way to the microphone as any father would.

I sat down where Dale had been playing in his usual sensitive way, taking care to tune carefully and quickly, preparing my mental state and visualizing the song. I began to play and eventually realized that I was sounding all right! Furthermore the sound amplification gave me a sense of legitimacy and power………I was performing! Suddenly, all manner of flashbulbs started going off in my face as the photographers began recording my debut for posterity. (Gulp) My first unplanned crisis had arrived and I almost stopped to shoo the Paparazzi back into the crowd, but thought better of it and kept moving along bravely.

I had determined that during the piece that I would glance confidently toward my Daughter to show her that her old Dad could still manage. This I did and when I looked back at my guitar, I had no idea where I was, but my fingers were still moving. That is they were moving into the ditch. Ok, I can fake this and I did with little interruption in tempo. I continued grinning as though that was just improvisation and went on to finish the piece. When I looked back at my Daughter, she was in tears. Oh-oh, I hadn't expected that I could play that badly! As it turned out, to my relief, she was simply moved by the events around her and later claimed that she was just "over-stimulated".

Well, that's what I did this summer. I have now officially retired from show business and am happily noodling about on my guitar. But every once in a while I think back to those camera flashes and wonder what might have happened if I had gotten serious about the guitar back when I was Jim Bosse's age. I have resolved to make another attempt to acquire some fundamental music skills and just maybe…….well, never mind.

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