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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Taking lessons at any age or level will help you improve

By Ted Slowik

I'm 48 years old, and last week I started taking guitar lessons.

Ted and Paul, 1982
I remember I did take a few guitar lessons once before, in 1980, when I was 15. Our parents made us all take piano lessons, and I took violin lessons as well. But I never practiced. Ever. I may not have even been 10 years old, but I already didn't like people telling me what to do. I wanted to go outside and play, not sit and plunk some stupid instrument. If only I'd practiced my scales as a kid, there's no telling what would have happened.

After I bought my first guitar at a garage sale and borrowed a library book on how to play it, I'd heard the music teacher from grade school gave lessons at her house. She lived about 2 miles away. I walked to her house. Back then I was embarrassed to be seen carrying a guitar, so I stuck to the side streets. I didn't yet get the whole "chicks dig guys with guitars" thing.

To get from our house in Countryside to her house in Western Springs I had to cross busy 55th Street. One winter Saturday, as I was hurrying across the four lanes with my guitar in its case, a brown van slowed down, then stopped. A long-haired dude popped open the passenger door and asked if I wanted a ride.

Sure, John Wayne Gacy had just been sentenced to death for raping and killing boys but I did what any kid freezing his nuts off would do in that situation. I hopped in the windowless van with the stranger.

Well, nothing bad happened. He said he was a roadie for Styx and a picker himself. He turned out to be a nice guy and drove me all the way to my teacher's house. I only took lessons for few months, and that was almost 34 years ago.

Mostly, I learned to play songs by ear. As a bassist, I didn't have to play solos, my rhythm was good, and if I hit a bad note more than once usually Rich Westrick the keyboardist or someone else with more musical knowledge would correct me during rehearsals.

The Internet makes it a lot easier today to learn music. In a flash you can find the lyrics and chords and charts to just about any song. You can watch free instructional videos on YouTube on how to play just about anything. I've been using those tools, too, believe me, but something happened recently that made me realize I needed help from a live human being.

I was at the Wednesday acoustic open mic hosted by John Condron at Tribes Alehouse Mokena when Bridget Cavenaugh showed up for the first time in a while. She was playing guitar and singing beautifully while Pat Otto played mandolin. When Pat took a solo, you could feel the energy increase in the room. It was something palpable, yet magical, to feel. I've heard Pat say after playing a particularly beautiful but difficult piece that he'd played it 1,000 times before.

Teacher shows me a new way to play F, a very important chord.
Nowadays, I love to practice. Most days I practice for two hours, sometimes more on weekends. I've been doing this regularly for more than two years. Still, I felt my abilities were beginning to plateau. I'm very happy with the progress, especially vocally, and with rhythm playing, and tone quality, and overall confidence, which makes me more relaxed when I play, which makes me sound better.

But it is music, after all, and wouldn't it be nice to play guitar solos and other musical interludes where the sounds I made didn't sound like cats fighting? Yes, I've been awful. But realizing you need help is the first step toward improvement.

I know many exceptional teachers of stringed instruments--Pat Otto, Bill Ryan, Tom Maslowski, to name just three. Parents, I encourage you all to make your kids study an instrument. It will help them develop their mathematics and problem-solving skills. I chose a teacher who is I think the right fit for my needs at this time. Someone with an excellent reputation for teaching, particularly in the blues and rock styles, who is also a working guitarist in a band, an accomplished songwriter and singer, and to top it all off a really nice guy, too. His son is a student at North Central College, where I work, and studied abroad in Iceland to learn about folklore. (Storytelling must run in the family.)

Teacher charges a very reasonable rate. And what, I ask, could I possibly spend money on at my age that would bring me more joy than guitar lessons? Helping less fortunate others, I suppose, but nothing for me, personally. Teacher's name is Kev Wright. You may know him for his work with the Righteous Hillbillies. He does music full-time, he's passionate and animated but a great listener, too, and he has the patience and explaining skills needed to be a good teacher.

We've only had a couple lessons so far but I can tell this is really going to help my game, as it were. Just learning the terminology of music, speaking the language that musicians speak, is going to improve communication when making music with others, not to mention how my own performance will improve.

Kev's a great teacher and I can't wait to apply the skills, techniques and theory he's teaching me.

Photo of Kev from a David Masciotra article in Chicago Now, 2010