Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Guitar Smarts

A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the blackboard. I've had to deal with the latest Ottawa/Big Pill attempt to take the humble hawthorne berry away from the birds, the bees, and all those people doing their best to stay away from heart surgery. By now everyone has heard of Bill C-51, but it snuck up on me a little late, as I have obviously been busy elsewhere, and anyway health questions, as I have said before, are specifically the problem of our housekeeper. The rule is, don't upset MT. She's always been one of the calmest people I've ever known, so when she's in danger of losing her cool, it's infallibly for a good reason. One of these days you'll hear about what happened at the Vatican because it seemed that the Curia was trying her patience.
So I've had to get stiff with Stephen Harper before I could take up the git-fiddle, and this is ironic because before I read the warnings on C-51 that showed up in the Nelson Daily News on the Friday just past I was ruminating over a story about a tremendous good done to a ten-year old me by the ministry of education in the very province our PM comes from.

Are we there yet?
Yes. I know we're there because on Monday evening I sat on my front stairs and played a little serenade over Nelson, and the ideas for what follows came rather well. This was not on the Hummingbird, but on the more readily available old Harmony classical that MT's mom bought her back in 68, after she called me up and asked if I'd teach her daughter guitar. As a classroom teacher would say, I was getting up my lesson plan. It was an exciting few minutes, with the Muse letting me know that we were getting underway, but it will get even more exciting when I take out the 5 string banjo and take it to the front stairs. Same volume as a bugle, but with a lot more sounds per whack.
There were a number of questions.
Should I first present an entire scale, or should I concentrate on showing the surfer/reader/student the incredible amount of music available on simply the first three notes, once he or she has understood how simple it is to throw in a simple bass line? As Aristotle said, the whole is the sum of the parts, which translates roughly into the pedagogical need to give a true indication of the breadth of the subject while at the same time showing how to get such a firm grasp on a part that joy and confidence become automatic. (As Aquinas said, the greatest pleasure is in knowing.) And of course every student is unique, a class unto himself. I once thought this rule only applied to voice studies, but no more.
At the same time, it should be said that the following principles apply to more than the guitar. At this stage a ukulele will do as well, both tenor and baritone, as will re-tuned banjos, like my old four-string tenor.
The guitar is tuned in such a way that all the pairs of strings except one are four degrees of the scale apart from one another. Thus, as we are starting on the thinnest string, down at the bottom of the neck, which is called the high E and the first string, we only need to know for now that the second string, the B, should sound identical in pitch to the high E when it is stopped at the Fifth fret.
The frets are the little brass rods that cross the neck of the guitar. That little gizmo that the strings first cross when they head from the pegs toward the body of the guitar is called the Nut.
All the frets have numbers. And so does the nut. The nut's name is 0, even though the note that you get when you strum or pluck the E string is called One. As I said earlier, the nomenclature in music never ceases to be interesting.
The frets are numbered one to twelve, if you decide to stop the E string all the way up to the top note of the octave. On a classical guitar the 12th fret lines up with the body, but on flat top steel strings and such that position is usually taken over by the 14th fret. Where a cut-away enters the picture the coincidence is even further along. The sooner you become familiar with the numbers of every fret, the better, and if you work at it a bit you might start to feel yourself fond of, and competent in, the jazz idiom. Lately, I've been hearing Duke Ellington's horn riffs on my 12 tone practice.
How come 13?
That's just how it is. They call it the 12 tone scale, but you need the 13th note to round it off, just as with the pentatonic (5 note) scale you need the 6th. The diatonic scale that is usually the first you hear of in music class uses all 7 letter names - C to B but has to add another C at the top.
The foundation note, but the way, is called the tonic, not because music is healthy for you, but because it is that note that sets the tone. It is therefore always One, in music other than Gregorian chant, and can be used as a good harmony line, or second voice, all by itself, no matter what the melody is up to, without annoying anybody who actually understands music. I think I first actually understood this as a member of the Nelson Choral Society, singing Bach's Christmas Oratorio.
Happily enough, the Five, called the dominant, will also serve as a constant bass on its own. It is in knowing how to use one or the other, the tonic or the dominant, according to how the key relates to the particular design and tuning of the guitar, that makes the number-wise guitarist as free and flexible and all over his instrument as Wayne Gretzky was all over the hockey rink.
In today's lesson, therefore, we acknowledge that the B, string 2, is our dominant, our harmony line, our access to double-stopping as dear old Amy called it, without having to actually lay a finger on it.
So, let's go.
Count the nut and the frets merely up to the 4th fret. Perhaps even draw a guitar neck and its string on paper and write down the numbers on the space above. 0, for the nut; 1,2,3,4 for the frets. Make these symbols small and neat, as you should now draw a circle around each of 0, 2, and 4. Above the circles write 1, 2, 3.
You now have the first notes, in any variety of order, of more songs than I want to count, but I will mention "Three Blind Mice", not only because it is known universally but also because if you slowly plunk 3, 2, 1 you will hear what I mean. Some people say that the nursery rhymes were full of political innuendo. Not TBM. It was written by a very clever music teacher who wanted his students to see how the whole scale was organized around the notes of the tonic chord, 1,3,5. But that is for later. For now, just the first 3 notes.
Don't fuss about the fingering. The index on the left hand will be enough for now to stop the strings - only for notes 2 and 3, as 1 is obviously a freebee. Later on, for your own good, I get very fussy indeed, about all four fingers. By the way, you put that pressing finger as close as you can to the fret, to get the purest tone.
For the right hand making the sound use the index finger for starters and then, when that seems a little simple, try alternating with the middle finger. Do this index/middle pattern on each of the three notes, and don't rush. This is a good time to practice your adagio. i/m, i/m, i/m . . . .
Once that is rolling, starting playing the B string with your thumb, so that you now have an arrangement that goes 5, 1, 1; 5, 2, 2; 5, 3, 3; Again, slowly, and repeat each phrase or position until not only until it is perfectly clear but so you can also start to hear the next one. Go up the E string to the 3, come back down, start on the 2 and go either way, explore all the possibilities of just those three pairs of notes. Try different rhythms. Or not. T/i/m; T/i/m; T/i/m . . . .
AND COUNT! Not the beats, but the number names for 1, 2, 3.
Not necessarily out loud, although if you feel like singing, go ahead. Practice resonating the vowels in one, two, three. They are UH, OO, and EE. At the lower end of the E scale you're nicely in the middle of an average vocal range. I think Emmylou Harris might have practised this way because she has one of most resonant voices in the business. Resonant and relaxed.
But it's really the mental word for the number that is so crucial and so necessary for separating the men from the boys. For the development of the mind that ensures complete success the correct numerical mental word is the grammar of the science, the syntax.
And that reminds me of the good thing from Alberta, but for another time. And maybe we have to see what Stephen comes up with. Or backs down to. God, I hate the threat of mandarins interfering with the peace of mind I find strolling through the woods. Especially when I have to be afraid they might be on the take. Indeed, the love of money is the root of all evil.

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