HOW TO GET REALLY GOOD AT CLASSICAL GUITAR
by Erika June Christina Laing
First, you will need to get a guitar. It helps to start early, so be about eight years old. It doesn’t really need to be a classical guitar at first. Just any old guitar will do. You might beg your Papa for one because you heard a pretty Flamenco song on NPR when you were all out running errands in the car one day. The instrument in the song will excite you because its unique and jazzy and fun but also because its elegant sound reminds you of your mom, who you don’t see too much because she is out traveling internationally as a world-renowned harpist. The radio host talks about the nylon strings and you get all revved up and tell your Papa you know what instrument you want to play. He will say, “Why don’t you try the piano? We’ve got that piano in the living room already. How about giving that a whirl?” You cross your arms and stick out your bottom lip and notice in the window’s reflection that your ponytail is all messed up so you rip out your scrunchie and let your waves fly loose. You sulk, hard.
Your Papa will get the picture that only a guitar will do so he’ll take you to the one dirty pawn shop in your tiny Ontario town of Durham to see if they’ve got one. It is run by a creepy guy with gold teeth who wiggles his ears at you when your Papa isn’t looking. You stick out your tongue but your Papa catches you. He sighs as he hands over forty dollars for an old beater. At first you are mad that it isn’t from the pro shop in the better part of town, but you also feel special about it, like you swooped in to save this particular guitar. You imagine how much better off the guitar is with you plinking away on it than it was collecting dust in Old Wiggly Ears’ shop. You vow to do your best in honor of this old, wonky guitar. That night before you go to bed, you whisper to it that it has a home now with someone who really loves it, and you won’t let it down.
You start with technique. You learn that it always starts with technique. You will want to skip straight to the good stuff, but you get discouraged real quick when you realize you don’t have a foundation to build from. You try and try but it just sounds like twangy, buzzy jangles. You panic and worry you will never be good enough. You hear your mom’s laughter in your head, the mean kind you overheard during late-night kitchen conversations she had with your Papa and Nana when she used to come home for the holidays.
You ask for lessons, but your Papa questions how serious you really are. You stomp the ground and huff. Later, from the top of the stairs, you hear Nana pleading with Papa. She says things like, “She hasn’t been so excited for something in ages!” and, “We can use the money from my craft shows”, and “You have another chance.” A chance at what? Who knows, but you go to bed elated because at the end of their conversation you hear a faint grunt of agreement coming from your loving Papa. From then on, every other week you will go to a group class at the Canadian Conservatory of Music. You will have a balding teacher named Mr. Crawford who has a horseshoe of hair whose forehead turns bright red when no one is listening to him.
In class, you learn that there’s six strings on the guitar: E, A, D, G, B, and E (highest). You learn it is the same as on classical guitar, so you know you aren’t learning anything too extra to your end goal. In the first lesson, Mr. Crawford will tell you that the first thing you always, always, always, always do is TUNE. Mr. Crawford says, “TUNE OR DIE!,” so you think in your head, TUNE OR DIE! You learn that you are, essentially, always out of tune. He teaches you how to do it by ear but at after three months of lessons your Nana surprises you with one of those clip-on tuners that tells you what note you are playing and how out of tune you are. TUNE OR DIE!, you think.
You will start by working with your fingers. Mr. Crawford will teach you technical exercises that train them to be in all the right places at the right times applying the right amount of pressure. This is gonna mess up your brain for a while and you will feel like a complete loser for screwing it up constantly and for being really slow, but you just keep doing it. Mr. Crawford promises it will be the kind of hard work that will pay off.
After six months, your Nana uses her craft fair money to surprise you with a real wooden metronome, like the one Mr. Crawford tries to get all the kids to strum to in class. This is a thingy that keeps time for you. It goes click-click-click at whatever speed you set it. Whenever you mess up while practicing at home, you just try to get back in time with the metronome, but when Mr. Crawford finds this out, he tells you that to do it right you have to slow down the metronome. It bores you but you get really good at the slower speed so you tell Mr. Crawford how pleased you are with yourself and show off to him after class one day. Mr. Crawford tells you, “Fine, OK, now speed it up.” He doesn’t act too impressed. You go home and speed it up, but suddenly you suck all over again, like you’ve made no progress at all. You work really hard every night at home and get good at the new speed. “Again,” he says, “Turn up the tempo Coralyn.” So you do, and you suck again, and you realize that you will always keep sucking no matter how good you get. You wonder if your mom ever feels this way.
You go to the little pharmacy up the street with your allowance jingling in your pocket. You buy a stamp and an envelope. At home you fold some construction paper to make a card. You draw a woman dressed in royal garb strumming a gigantic harp, with the inscription, “Queen of Harps”. “Perfect”, you think, “She’ll love it.” You write in it:
It is Coralyn! How is your trip to China? I heard Nana telling Papa you are there, but I don’t know where you are exactly so I’m just gonna send this to your apartment in New York City. Write back right away so I know when you are back! Please tell me all about what it is like there! In China, I mean. I watched a travel show on TV – do they really eat eggs that have dead whole baby chickens in them?? Yuk!!!!!
I was wondering if you ever get mad when you practice. Did you know that I started to play the guitar? I am starting on a regular guitar, but I plan to get really good like you and play it classical style someday. Anyway, I was wondering if you ever feel funny, like you aren’t any good. That’s a silly thing to ask I guess. You are so amazing and beautiful, how could you ever think that? Sometimes I just wonder if it’s totally hopeless for me. Anyway, Papa and Nana are good. He is still grumpy in the mornings and she is still doing craft fairs. I help her sometimes. She says I bring the smile to the table. She lets me keep some of the money from whatever I sell, and she also buys me guitar stuff like new strings. Guess what I learned? TUNE OR DIE! But I guess you already know that.
Here I go now. I hope you come home soon so I can show you my guitar!
I love you THIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIS much!
You stuff it in the envelope and then you carefully copy the return address from a torn-up envelope you found in your Papa’s trash bin by his desk. Lick, Stamp, Send. Off it goes.
After a week, you start bringing the mail in for your Papa and Nana when you return from school, hoping each day for an envelope to arrive. After two months you still check, saying to yourself, “Maybe she’s not back from China yet.” You check every day, just in case, sometimes even on Sundays. Maybe the mailman forgot to bring it Saturday and drove over to drop it off on his own time, you don’t know.
Meanwhile, you double down in your practice. At the group lessons, you start to outpace the other students. At first it feels really good, because you feel like you are getting really good at it. The best in the class, for sure. It feels good to be the best. But then one day it feels kind of weird. Mr. Crawford tells Henry from 5th grade to play a scale but he is going soooo slow, you can’t stand it so you say, “No Henry, it goes like this!,” and you jump in and finish it for him. You go into your mental music zone and do it so fast that you do it twice just to make it last longer, then you do it two octaves long. You stop because you hear Henry is crying and you look up at Mr. Crawford. His forehead is turning red like a fire engine and he tells you to leave and you don’t know what you did wrong but you feel bad on the inside and you want to cry too. But you are also defiant. You are not about to do bad on purpose just so cry baby Henry feels better about himself. “Maybe Henry should practice more,” you think, “like me.”
Later when Mr. Crawford comes out to talk to you about the incident, his forehead is back to normal. He tells you he thinks you are not challenged enough by the class and that you need special attention. You look at him with round eyes and panic-stricken heart. You hope he isn’t kicking you out. What will you do? You need your lessons! But instead he says he would like to help you. He offers you weekly lessons. When Nana comes to pick you up he tells her in a hush that he will do the private lessons every week for the rate she was paying for the group lesson. You hear him say he knows, “things are tight.”
So, you start weekly lessons with Mr. Crawford and start really kicking butt. He teaches you how to read charts and notes on a staff. He teaches you about the circle of 5ths and the circle of 4ths, how to do bar chords and how to play scales other than major. Words like minor, pentatonic, diminished, and augmented all enter your vocabulary. You spend your days in school, come home, check the mail, do all your homework right away and then start practicing for the rest of the night, pausing only to eat dinner. On weekends, you have a lesson with Mr. Crawford on Saturday and go to the craft fair with Nana on Sunday, and otherwise its pancakes for breakfast and practice for lunch.
Summer comes and now its June and you are celebrating your 9th birthday. Your Nana makes you a big guitar cake with red licorice rope for strings and gum drops for tuning knobs. You think it is sooooo cool, you don’t even want to eat it! Your Papa gives you with a beautiful new guitar strap that has CORALYN embroidered across it and depictions of sunflowers and little birds. He tells you he is so proud of you for sticking with it. He says, “you are getting pretty good!” and ruffles your hair with his big rough hands.
After the festivities, Nana is puttering around like she is looking for something. She asks, “Did you forget the mail today Coralyn?” You sit straight up. You can’t believe you forgot! You race out to check and there is a big white envelope inside, addressed to you! When you come back in, Nana looks at you with a little cheeky smile, saying, “Anything?” You hide the envelope behind your back and say with a chirp, “Nothing!” and run up the stairs to you room.
It says New York on the return address. It must be from your mother! She must have finally gotten back from her long trip to China! But you are afraid to open it. You want to make this moment last and last and last. Instead, you pick up your guitar and put on your new CORALYN strap. It is stiff because it is so new. You hide the envelope under your pillow and practice your guitar technique all night, until your new strap chafes your shoulder. When you go to bed later, you put your hand on the envelope under your pillow. It is your secret special message from your mom. You fall asleep thinking of all the things it might say inside.
China was amazing! They do eat those little chicken eggs! I almost tried one but EWWW!
I feel just like you do sometimes, but it is OK – just keep going! I’m so proud!
I love you so much Coralyn, I can’t wait to see you again! Be home soon, Love you, Mom
After two days you can’t stand it anymore. You get your Papa to open it for you, using his super sharp letter opener. You tell him, “Be careful Papa! Make it perfect!” He sighs like he is sad, but he slits it open at the top and if you look at it from a certain angle, it looks as if it hasn’t been opened at all. You take it to your room and sit cross legged in the middle of the room and stare at it for a long time, not even daring to take it out. You peak in the slit and see a card. You pull up the side just enough to see there is a picture of balloons on the front. You set it back down and wait and stare. Your chin gets sore from resting it on your hand, and your legs fall asleep and you have to change positions, and finally you decide to ever so carefully pull the card from its protective sheath.
The card has balloons on the front, six of them, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. You stare some more. You open it slowly, barely touching its edges. You will not want to get finger grease all over it.
Happy 9th Birthday Coralyn
A twenty will fall out. You lightly touch the pen marks. You feel the groove of the letters, imagine the pen and the hand that held it. Nana knocks on your door to come in and say goodnight. You say, “just a second!,” and carefully place the twenty back into the card, close it up, and slide it into the envelope. You place it back under your pillow. Nana says, “Well you’re awfully quiet up here tonight, Coralyn. I thought you’d be practicing. Is everything OK?” You lie and tell her yes, you were just changing your strings. She tucks you in, kisses your forehead. Papa comes in and picks up your music box, twists the crank on the bottom. You listen to My Funny Valentine and cry yourself to sleep.
The next morning you wake up determined to practice even more. You will become the best. You will Keep Practicing just like your mom said to. You get another piece of construction paper and make a new card, this time with a lady in a red dress with horns in her hair and a pointy tail playing a guitar with the caption, I practice like the devil to play like an angel. You write inside a thank you for the wonderful birthday card and you will practice even more and you hope she is happy and where is she going next and what is New York like and can you visit her there sometime and you sign it, Love, Coralyn xoxo.
You start practicing more but after a few months you stop checking the mail because there is never anything in there for you and it starts to make you feel a little hard on the inside. For the next few years life continues on just as such: school, practice, lessons, practice, summer, another card from your mom, Happy 10th Birthday, Keep Practicing; Happy 11th Birthday, Keep Practicing; Happy 12th Birthday, Keep Practicing; Happy 13th Birthday, Keep Practicing. All the cards are the same six balloons. You notice she never signs love. Somewhere in the middle of all that, you send her a card on which you drew a house with your best rendition of your house mom playing her harp inside. The caption reads, Home is where the harp is. In it you wonder if ever she will come visit for the holidays again, then you ask her what countries she has been to lately. Sincerely, Coralyn.
After all your practice, you start becoming really amazing at guitar though. You use all the money from your birthday envelopes and all the money from your craft fair earnings, and, with additional help from your Papa and Nana, you purchase your first real classical guitar. You pick a Canadian-cedar-topped Cordoba C9 Dolce because the action of the strings is low, enabling your smaller hands to press them to the fretboard more gracefully. With Mr. Crawford’s weekly help, you start playing full classical songs and Flamenco songs and you win every talent show at school. That Henry kid askes if you want to make a band with him but you say no, you just want to do your own thing. You are, “working on something, something big,” you tell him. You want to enter a classical guitar festival. You want to be the youngest to ever win.
You start to get so good, Mr. Crawford isn’t even sure what to do with you. But he knows you can go further. He calls your Papa and Nana in for a talk. He tells them he knows a guy in Toronto and would they take you twice a month to meet for lessons with this new fellow? He says he wrote to the guy, sent him recordings, and the guy will meet for free if they just bring you there.
You get so excited, you get a new piece of construction paper for the first time in a long time and fold it up and draw a lemon playing a cello on the front. Inside you write,
I heard Nana tell Papa recently that you were in Italy. Did you ride a gondola in Venice? Did you eat spaghetti every night? Is there really a town named Bologna?
I’m really proud of myself. I’m so good now that I’m going to be taking lessons at University of Toronto Music School twice a month. My new instructor is Jeff Gordon. Maybe you knew him when you went to school there. He’s teaching me for free.
I am going to start entering big competitions. I’ve gotten really good at Gran Vals by Francisco Tarrego, Fantasia No. 10 by Alonso Mudarra, and Grand Overature Op. 61 by Maria Giuliani. That’s just baby stuff though. The one that’s really going to wow the judges is Invocacion y Danza by Joaquin Rodrigo. You might not know that one. It’s probably obscure to a harpist. It’s very complicated with extremely fast strumming patterns
One day I’d like to visit the countries these composers came from. So many of them are from European countries, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France. I’ll go to them all. Must be really great. You’re always there.
Anyway, just thought you might want to hear. Who knows, maybe we’ll play together some day.
Three weeks later, you come home and see a different car in the driveway, New York plates. You run inside and your mom is there, in the middle of an argument with your Papa and Nana. She is yelling.
You run up and try to hug your mom but she gives you a dirty look, like you are one of those dead baby chickens in an egg in China. Nana tells you to go to your room.
“But,” you protest.
With a voice both soothing and firm, Nana says, “Up Coralyn! I’ll call you when you can come down.”
You begrudgingly trudge up the stairs. You strain to listen at the top landing, but they are communicating only in harsh whispers. You can’t make out many of the words. You hear a hiss of, “think you are doing?” from your mom and, “we think is best!” from Papa. As they walk from the living room to the kitchen, they go right by the bottom of the stairs and you pull back to hide. As they go, you can hear Nana say, “Why is this a big deal, Agatha?” Once in the kitchen it becomes hard to hear again, but the response is something like, “just can’t OK, I’m telling you. Don’t send her there.”
You can hear venom in her whisper. You are confused because she is full of threat. You wonder why she is here just now. It’s not even a holiday. What is she talking about? You stretch your ear and cup your hand to it, but it’s impossible to tell what everyone is saying. The whispers come in and out of audibility, though the tenors are clear.
Papa, gruffly, “If you can’t say …”
Agatha, dismissively, “… the father, OK? … doesn’t know.”
Nana, astonished, “… didn’t you tell us? But … don’t think … a reason…”
Papa, angrily, “Since when … care? … never here!”
Agatha, with spite, “… fault is that?”
Nana, in desperation, “Stop!”
And Agatha, with finality, “I can’t stand it here! I shouldn’t have come at all!”
But that last one you can hear crystal clear, because they are all walking by the bottom of the stairs again.
Your mom makes an exasperated grunt of frustration and there is clomping. You hear a metallic scrape along a wooden surface and the rattling of small metal pieces clinking against one another, then a snap as they are clutched into a hand.
It occurs to you she may be leaving. You scream in your head, “Already? But it’s not fair!” You know you should be angry. You are angry. She’s never here and now suddenly she is, but she is not here for you. You are hurt, but you also desperately want to connect. There is only one way you know how.
You leap to your feet and go get your instrument. Running back, you hear her steps leading towards the front door. You toss the now soft and supple CORALYN strap over your body and hastily sit on the top step. TUNE OR DIE! you think automatically, but there isn’t any time. You start playing the Invocacion y Danza piece but you are shaking all over and it’s not coming out right, so you take a deep breath and try again because you yearn so deeply for your mom to hear you, to know you, to see herself in you like you see yourself in her. Here she is, she is right here, and you can play for her and she can hear you and she will come up the stairs and she will find you and scoop you up and realize how she has missed so much and how she will want to stay and how you are just like her. You force yourself to go a little slower than your best so that you don’t miss a note. You play through your nerves, and you concentrate and go into your music world, your private mental space, your zone, and you feel your brain talk to your hands and you feel the movement of the melody and the rhythm throughout your body and you play play play for the eight minutes it takes you to play the song. You have awareness of nothing else.
When you are done you slowly come back to the room like from a daze. Your ears adjust back to the real world but you can hear only two things, the vroom of a car driving away and the flatness of your A string as the last notes suspend in still air.
Your Nana tries to console you. Your Papa tells you not to invest yourself in your mom. You tell them you don’t care. It’s a lie. You tell yourself you will practice harder, become better, and that you will not be ignored. You meet with your new teacher at the University every two weeks. He treats you just like any one of his much older students and your learning accelerates at a rapid pace. Whenever your Papa and Nana ask if you like him, you tell them about how he really seems to get you and that it’s almost like he knows what your mistakes will be before you make them. With new inspiration you practice three, sometimes four, sometimes five hours per day. You enter competitions and win awards and make sure not to slip in your classes. You have a goal, Julliard, full ride based on merit. You achieve your dream and are offered a spot in the prestigious program where you will study with the great Sharon Isbin.
On your last night in Durham, you pull the pile of balloon-covered birthday cards out from beneath your mattress. The most recent ones are unopened. You touch the envelopes; the paper feels distant under your calloused fingertips. You bring them with you when you sneak out to visit Henry in the middle of the night, quietly throwing them into the trash can at the end of the driveway as you pass. In the park, under the moonlight, in between kisses, you say, “My new teacher literally wrote the book, the Classical Guitar Answer Book.” Henry says that he is proud of you and that he will miss you. He asks, “Will you write?” You say nothing, but you reach out and hold his hand. Then, you let it go.