Love Letter to the Guitar
When I was 14 my mother took me to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to hear the classical guitarist Andres Segovia. I was already in love with the instrument but wasn’t prepared for the jolt I was about to receive by its master. We found our seats inside a massive, ornate auditorium with a stage that could accommodate a large orchestra or full cast of actors-dogs and ponies included. The auditorium looked like an inverted wedding cake. There were red velvet curtains tied back by gold ropes and crystal chandeliers. The lights dimmed in the theatre and the stage lit up. In the middle of the stage, towards the front, stood one simple chair. That was all. No microphone or other equipment- just a chair floating on this vast stage. After a few moments of palpable anticipation a small man came walking out from the wings holding a guitar. The audience roared in appreciation and anticipation then quieted to a whisper. The man walked up to the chair with his guitar, sat down and the theatre hushed in full silence. There sat a small man with an acoustic instrument on a very large stage with a room full of hundreds of silent, focused people. When he plucked the first few strings something suddenly materialized that was not there a moment ago. The sound was rich and alive, filled with the vibrato of sorrow and brightness of joy. The sounds filled every crevice of the auditorium with richness, and a fullness larger than anything else in the auditorium. Then, just as simply as he had walked on, he walked off the stage, without saying a word, and the magic disappeared. Once again we were a room of strangers with bodies that needed care, lists of things to do, problems with relatives and hassles with parking and freeways. The magic disappeared as quickly as it arrived.
Walking out of that chamber of wonders into the bright southern Californian light I knew I had been changed forever. I couldn’t talk, didn’t even want to deal with the inadequacy of words. Pure sound was so much more expressive than words and sound didn’t have the problems of misunderstanding and manipulation that words bore.
I love the guitar. I have no idea when the attraction began. Neither my mother nor my father played an instrument and music wasn’t a big part of our home life. When I was 11 I begged my mother to buy me my own guitar. She drove down to the music store in Studio City and brought home the cheapest guitar in the store. When she handed it to me I thought I would die of joy, plucking the strings, drinking in the bright, resonating sound. My mom left me on the living room floor with my new instrument to do her errands. By the time she returned the guitar had fallen apart in my bereft hands-the neck had broken right off the body. My mother found me on the floor in tears clinging to this injured creature.
The guitar is much more than pieces of pine or rosewood glued together with taught nylon or metal strings. It is a magical force of nature that creates beauty out of thin air then returns to being an object in the corner of the room. I spent hours in my room listening as my guitar filled the air with sounds my soul could not get enough of. The sounds lifted my spirit and, in some indefinable way, made me feel like life is good, even under the harshest of conditions. I had no desire to be a musician or play for others. I was just enchanted by the sounds resonating through its hallowed out sounding board, enchanted by the smell of the wood and by the simplicity of its 6 strings.
Throughout high school and college the guitar became part of my body. It accompanied me as I sang of love and life. It called in the rolling waves of Hawaii and the timelessness of a wide front porch at dusk. It soothed me through many difficult and confusing times. I enjoyed the intimacy of playing music with friends and wrote both silly songs, like one picturing my father as a mouse, and touching songs about my brother and friendship. I enrolled in Berkeley College of Music to hone my skills as a vocal student only to find, after arriving, that there was no vocal department (in the early 70’s). Once again my guitar saved the day. I became an arranging and composition student with the guitar as my instrument. It was there that I learned to accompany myself singing Jazz standards. I didn’t stay long but was happy my guitar bailed me out once again.
After my divorce the guitar became a means of income. I used it to play music from the American songbook to elders in nursing homes. It didn’t work to sing the blues in nursing homes- they were blue enough. So I chose upbeat songs like I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and Sunny Side of the Street. Time, pain, and loneliness stopped for all of us during the hour we spent filling the room with song. People who didn’t remember the names of their children could remember the words to songs they sung when they were younger. Their faces became animated and some got up and danced. The music entered their mind through a different, more primal, channel than words just as it had entered mine when I heard Segovia and whenever I played my guitar.
The guitar has been a fine and constant friend. I’m not an excellent musician and no one knows my name. By worldly standards I have not been successful. But the instrument has sustained me through childhood, adolescence and all of my adult life. It lifted me up when I was in the deepest grief, provided a channel for my sensuality and love and enabled me to make enough money to sustain my daughter and myself. Now I pass that field of possibilities on to my granddaughter. Restringing a guitar someone gave her, teaching her how to tune it and play chords to a song by Harry Styles is another way I express my love for her and see that she has the tools she’ll need on her journey. People often think the arts are extra curricular, less important than math or history or English. But my guitar has taught me the value of doing something over and over to perfect it, it has developed coordination between my hands and brain, and it has taught me to collaborate with others and think creatively. It has been my therapy and my livelihood. I’m grateful to my parents for letting me stay in my room and play the guitar. May all children find their instruments.