The guitar class seems to always be some demented free for all. Maybe the students sense that I am a bit unorganized when it comes to this class. How do you organize 16 or 17 beginning guitarists who are a bit self-centered for the most part into a cohesive unit? How do you say its okay to an answering machine?
Okay, I need to correct part of the above. All of the students are not self-centered. In the guitar class, half the students actually are in the class because they want to learn. Nevertheless, the other half of the class seems to not particularly care about learning. They are in the class because they look upon the class as two free periods at the end of the day on Thursday. And, they – seemingly - just want to annoy me.
Last week, like some continuing hopeless night soap on American television in which the protagonist keeps doing the same thing over and over, I tried to teach the students the G chord. Needless to say, this was not a success. My students under-whelm me. Sometimes, I am baffled by just how inept they are. By the time, I was their age…Oh, fucking skip it!
Jacky seems to be excited about learning the drums. Before class, I print out the basic rudiments. This is how I learned the drums. This is how I will teach Jacky the drums.
As a child, for the first year of drum lessons, I just had a practice pad. When I was in third grade, I started taking drum lessons from Ike Luther, an 80 year old man. My dream as an eight year old was to be Ringo Starr.
Ike Luther lived in a converted garage apartment. There were no windows in his apartment, no windows that I remember anyway. My mother would sit in a recliner behind the table where Ike and I sat. Ike and I sat side by side. He was hard of hearing. He thought my name was Dodd.
We would rat-a-tat rudiments. Sometimes he would sing as we played. When I messed up he would yell ferociously at me. Now I know, he did not mean to be cruel. He was hard of hearing. His yelling was not meant to be abusive.
One time when he yelled at me, I broke down and cried. I was in third grade. He felt horrible. My mom told him I had a lot of pressure at school. He was really a very kind man who was hard of hearing. Through it all, through my lessons, my mother would sit and read the Reader’s Digest as we flam tapped and rolled on the table.
Always after practice, he would give me a bag of candy. At the time, I did not realize how generous this was. After the novelty of getting my own bag of butterscotch hard candy wore off, I started opening the bags of candy and throwing the candy in the air on the school bus. I loved to see the kids scramble for it. An entrepreneur would have traded it for cool stuff on the playground – Mod Squad trading cards, Emergency Rampart Hotwheels, condoms.
When I was in fourth grade, I got my first trap set, a cheap Torodor my mother bought at Service Merchandise. That same Christmas, I received John Lennon Imagine. By that time, I had been taking drum lessons for over a year.
In the tiny bedroom of his garage apartment, Mr. Luther was in the process of building a miniature motorized amusement park. For Christmas the next year, he gave me a small motorized carousel with small plastic horses. This I was too young to truly appreciate. Eventually, this was put in our shed which led to its rapid deterioration.
Now, I do not remember exactly how old I was when Mr. Luther went into the hospital. He was an old man, in his 80s. He died in the hospital. Maybe he went in because he caught Pneumonia. While he was in the hospital, somehow, he scalded himself while he was bathing. This led to his death.
After Mr. Luther died, my mother started looking for another instructor for me. She contacted Mr. Tanzey (Kermit). Yes, his first name was Kermit. Mr. Tanzey told my mother he was not taking on new students. She told him my teacher had been Ike Luther for three years before he passed away. This impressed Mr. Tanzey. Soon, I was a pupil of his. It is so funny to think about that now over 30 years later. My mother was very proud of this.
Mr. Tanzey was the junior high band director. He played drums in a jazz band. He smoked cigarettes and drank Pepsi during our lessons. The lessons were held in the garage of the small ranch style tract home that he lived in with his wife and son who was a few years younger than me. Within a few feet of our practice pad, his Ludwig trap set stood with all of its Ringo Starr, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Neil Smith secrets locked inside its wooden shells.
Back then, the rudiments were taught on the snare or a practice pad for a few years before the trap set was introduced. For the first year, at least, with Mr. Tanzey, we rat-a-tatted side by side on said Remo practice pads. Sometimes, he would watch me play solo as he smoked and drank Pepsi out of a glass. I think he smoked Kools.
Now, I am to teach Jacky the drums. With Jacky, I hope for the best; I expect the worst.
Up until now, I have tried to hold the lessons in the design room. Now that we will add drums to the mix, I tell my boss we need a place where we can spread out. The art teacher that sits next to me in the teachers’ office is teaching 30 students to knit in the auditorium. Maybe she will switch. My boss tells me I need to ask her.
When I go back to my desk, I ask her if we could switch. This is fine with her.
At the designated time, I tell the guitar students who are gathered in the design room that we have switched locations. They follow me to the auditorium which is actually a lecture hall that has been converted into an enormous art studio. The back half of the room is a lecture hall with no chairs or tables. This gives the back of the room a Mormon Tabernacle Choir vacant stage look.
The students come in and spread themselves around the room. Jacky wants me to go get the drum out of the band room on the first floor. I tell him we are getting the snare together. He is carrying the drum. He likes to talk about his muscles.
Jacky and I go down to the band room where the flag corps teacher from earlier is teaching dances and cheers. We ask her if she has seen the snare drum. A few girls are standing in front of it. Jacky grabs it. We walk back to the auditorium.
No American movies come to mind but those French movies that involve orphaned boys and boys from destitute families come to mind. The ambitious drama coach, choir director comes to town and has this vision. The drama coach imagines the boys acting out Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov. The bandleader, he wants them to know the finer things about Wagner, Straus, Ramones.
In the movies, within thirty minutes of the film, the choir director or drama coach sees progress. There seems to always be odd puberty fueled shower scenes in these movies with trips to the country and swims in nameless creeks. Somewhere around the forty five minute mark, the conflict arises – the sadistic headmaster, the choir director’s dark past, the drama coach’s strange habits and infatuations with exotic vegetables. Nevertheless, by the time the film hits the hour mark, the boys’ acting is flawless, the choir director has the young upstart choir singing arias – Puccini, Handel, Gluck. Everyone looks upon them differently. The boys and their leaders are heroes in the town. Usually, these stories are told through one of the boys looking back, one of the boys who was on his way to going wrong until he met this teacher who came at a pivotal moment in his life and changed him. The boy, now a man, is a famous actor, conductor, pornstar.
This does not happen here. I show Jacky how to hold the sticks. I give him a choice between traditional– and matched-grip (my preferred option). With a bit of rust in my bones and cobwebs in my brain, I try to instruct him. I show him para-diddles, flam taps, and rolls. Maybe I am going too fast. I tell him to practice them as I go start the other students on their lesson that I know is hopeless.
During all of this, the lady who drops off the schedule-changes comes in to the room. She has the roster printed in Chinese. I am to put a check by the students’ names that show up for class. Kevin tells me all of this. On the sheet, there is no place to write their English names. Naturally, I am a bit baffled. Maybe I just pass it around and let them mark off their own names which means they could in turn mark off their friends’ names. Kevin then tells me she said I could use two squares to write in their English names.
After I have Kevin pass around the roster, I try to start working with the throng of students. Ten guitars are shoved in my face with the words “Teacher! Teacher! Tune!” The auditorium is on the second floor of the school. If I jumped out the window, I would probably only sprain my ankle. Futility arrives.
At this point, I take some deep breaths. I start tuning the guitars. Most of the guitars are not that out of tune except for when I get to the last one, I am greeted with some sort of Killdozer tuning. There is a really good chance that because of these musical disasters I am getting a facial tic.
While I am tuning the guitars, Jacky comes over to tell me that drumming is too hard. He does not want to be a drummer. His hands are dumb he tells me. This is within the first fifteen minutes of class. The larger part of me wants to explode and be an old man about it. This instant gratification video generation sickens me, these Play Station 2 vegetable drop outs. Did he think within fifteen minutes – or less, he could learn how to play the drums? From what I have seen, we are free to smack students here. I do not. I give him one of those adult looks, one of those looks that involves a slow shaking of the head. Nevertheless, I do really want to smack him.
He wants to sing. He wants to sing Chinese rap. Inside, I cringe. This is not what will happen. I tell him he is not singing because there is nothing to sing at the moment; He is playing drums I tell him. He keeps arguing with me.
Busily, I go about tuning guitars and showing the G chord, as I am swatting Jacky away like a gnat. The first forty minutes of the lesson does not drag like I thought it might. During the break, students from other classes wander in to the auditorium. I tell the class they may take a break. I stay and try to help an interested student with fingering.
After the break, one of the students from the local sector picks up his guitar. While he was out of the room, his high E string broke. Obviously, the string did not break itself. Someone broke it. No one owns up to this. How this could have happened I am not really sure because I was in the room the whole time. This was a stealth maneuver on the part of someone sneaky.
This upsets me because the kid with the broken string is a good kid, a kid who is actually trying to learn. I tell him I am sorry that it happened. This is not a big deal I tell him. This is a common occurrence. He is not as upset as some students would be. As I said, he is a good kid. He asks me if I have any extra strings. No, I don’t, I tell him. Now, he seems like he may be near tears. This is heart wrenching.
A few minutes later, he has an E string. Where did he get it I ask? He doesn’t really know how to tell me in English. Soon, I learn that William (with the Disney animation eyes and eyelashes) gave it to him. He asks me if I will put it on for him. I tell him I will after class. Some guitarists play without their high E I tell him. This seems to momentarily appease him.
Some of the students are very attentive. However, other students are not. The inattentive students distract the attentive ones. At this point, Jacky has become a major annoyance. William actually seems to want to learn how to play, Jacky and Joker keep distracting him.
Rebecca in the international section of the eighth grade knows how to play the guitar to some extent. She brought her guitar the day we went to the music store and played a song with some C chords before we trekked off to the guitar store. As I am making the rounds, going from student to student to see which ones need help fingering the G, I stop and talk to Rebecca briefly. I tell her that maybe since she knows this stuff she could practice scales and such since she is ahead of the pack. She is a very shy girl. Her English seems to be fine. She tells me this is fine. I would hate for her to lose interest because she is ahead of the others in her abilities.
At the end of class, I pass out copies of Leaving on a Jet Plane, not one of my favorite songs but a really easy one – G and C are the main chords with a few stops at D. This does not go smooth. I play the chords. Again, the kids look at me blankly. And, again, I am baffled at how virtually talentless the lot of them are. But then, suddenly, I hear a D, a fairly clear D. This could be that breakthrough moment. I wonder who is playing this. This D is like the glass slipper, like a chord sent down from heaven. Nick Drake smiles.
The player of the chord turns out to be Sean, who, in class, is one of my non-attentive students. If someone took a photo, I know there would be a look of shock on my face. Finally, something good, finally, I am so proud of him. Immediately, I flood him with encouragement and more or less ignore everyone else.This makes him very happy.
Then, I go over to my sad sack with the broken string. With cheap guitars, sometimes, changing strings can be a little tricky. I show him how to do it. After I put it on and get it wound and almost in tune, the sucker snaps. At this point, the kid is about to cry. I do not want some 12 year old crying on my watch. I tell him to take the package to the guitar shop. The guy will sell him another. He asks me how much it will cost. I tell him it should be 8 or 9 yuan. He tells me someone told him strings are 50 yuan. I told him I thought they were probably cheaper, especially for a single string.
How he talks me into this, I do not know, but somehow he tearfully tells me that there are no guitar shops near where he lives. Could I get one for him? He will pay me for it in the morning. I look at his face. He is close to tears. I tell him I will go get the string for him. What the hell, while I am out I will get a movie. Me, Me, Me and my flat panel TV have a date.
I give my complete attention to a very good friend of mine
He's quadraphonic, he's a, he's got more channels…
My T V C one five, he, he just stares back unblinking..