Practice Rooms: A Girl and Her Guitar . . . Sometimes

I’m feeling a little woeful, a little contemplative: the Charming Man from This Charming Band is off to Europe for six weeks, and despite a flurry of texts about possible times, we didn’t manage to get in a second date before he left. I’m going to take him at his last words (“Oh, and I think it’s hot when a woman takes the initiative”) and believe he did want to see me again before he left. Time just ran out. Also, and this hurts my ego irrationally and shows how incredibly reliant I am on what I am told is my “magic,” I am, after all, just a woman he’s just met.

Ego, insecurity, trying to gain perspective. This is the optimal time, then, to turn my investigation of practice styles and love on myself.

I’m on the first date, a picnic date, with The Charming Man. We lie in the grass of the arboretum, and I split an iPod and a bottle of wine with him. “Here,” I say, “you’ll love this band,” and we listen to Kishi Bashi, the clouds racing like microfiche across the sky. Charming closes his eyes and holds my hand. “I like it,” he says. “There was so much music I wanted to see with you this summer. I wanted to play with you,” say I. This moment—the music, the hand-holding, the wine, the air—this was what I was ready to have for the rest of the summer, and despite my better self, I am internally cranky. Of course I meet him before he leaves for six weeks in Europe. “Six weeks isn’t really the whole summer.” He smiles at me, rolls over on his side to touch my face. “And there’s lots of music we can go to in the fall.”

That sounds like a promise of dates to come, but I am good at hearing what I want to hear. Even a year and a half later, I can still hear the couples therapist say the words that will make me realize I have to break up with Eli: “Bryn, he’s not saying no, but he’s not saying yes. So, why do you still hear ‘maybe’?” I am so afraid to be on this date, afraid I will feel something and he won’t, or that we will both feel something and I will do all the work, or, worst of all, that I will feel nothing—not because I don’t like him or because I’m not attracted to him but because I have, finally, been hurt enough to approach dating with so much skepticism that I still will go through the motions but without any hope of something lasting. I am trying so hard to let this date be just that—one date. Followed maybe by another. Maybe I’ll hear from him when he gets back. Maybe I won’t.

He spends an inordinate amount of time explaining how he’s usually over-committed and how he could only see the last girl he dated once a week during the school year, between graduate school and teaching. He seems honest and thoughtful, but what’s a girl supposed do with all the caveats? I ask him, directly, “Why are you on this date, then?” Charming looks startled. “Why not?”

This doesn’t really explain why he is giving me so much backstory on how little to expect. I want to ask him more about what he thinks he wants, but it seems like there’s already been enough of that kind of talk—and not even from me, for once. The night we meet at the Tractor, sometime during “How Soon is Now,” he tells me he always tells girls two things before he asks them out: 1) that he doesn’t have any money and doesn’t care about it and 2) that he isn’t ready to have children. I feel the skepticism setting in—is this really what dating looks like now? We don’t even use lines on each other to attract one another; we make it a practice to use them to turn others away. “So, you’re asking me on a date?” I say. He kisses me, and we go back to dancing and singing.

If it’s not clear already in this blog, I love music. No, I mean I really love it. I love it so much. I plan my days around how to fit more of it in, sit down once a month with my daily calendar and computer to look through all the venue listings and write down which shows I want to go to, console myself with being stuck in traffic by making playlists. I still make CD’s for people—when I like someone, I have to hold myself back from making them one after one date. I want to make them mixes as much as I want to have them over for dinner.

I want to make him a mix.

But this brings us to the current thread’s focus: what my own ways of practicing music reveal about my issues with love.

You know how I practice music? I don’t practice.

I sing a lot, loudly, in the car and in my home, serenading Judy and perfecting my Joni Mitchell octave jumps. But I haven’t picked up my guitar in three years.

When I do, though, that’s all I want to do. I leave the guitar for so long it feels like a recession, a financial crisis where everyone has to develop new skills to face a changed world, for so long that it feels like rejection. I won’t play for so long that you’ll think I forgot how or that I must not want to anymore. And then, I’ll pick it up, and that’s all I want to do for months.

I’ve tried to become more disciplined in my practice habits. In high school, I played both flute and piano, and while I was more diligent about piano than flute, I had to trick myself to maintain the regime, promise myself ice cream if I did 50 minutes or remind myself how much my mom loved hearing me practice while she made dinner. As a child, I would try the tricks suggested in the ancient piano books of my mother’s: trying to balance quarters on the tops of my hands to keep them even and arched (very hard) or following in the footsteps of Mozart, who would start over entirely every time he made a mistake (maddening). But practicing was rarely something I did for myself, really, and that’s why, despite my performative inclinations and minor vocal talent, I could never imagine being a musician for a living. It’s never the singular passion to which I want to return, day after day.

The Charming Man and I lie in the grass, and I want him to kiss me and tell him so. He does but then tells me he wants to move more slowly, and I realize, for the first time, how uncomfortable it makes me to have to wait, to not have the power a kiss gives a spell, to practice patience. He looks at me, hand on my face. He seems to mean it when he says, “I am interested. This is how I show I’m really interested—to want to get to know you more before we get more physically involved.” I wonder how I can manage this, if I can re-imagine slowing down as anything other than the slower death of passion.

There’s a side effect to my practice of music that bears unpacking: my singular passion is language, my love of words. You know what I don’t feel like doing when I AM into playing my guitar? Being in language. Writing poetry. Considering the arc of an essay. Even when I’ve been writing songs, somehow, the immersion into one universe seems to require that I exit the other. It’s hard for me to leave that place in which I feel myself “selving,” as Gerard Manly Hopkins called the act of being oneself, of enacting one’s “inscape.” In language, I know myself and I can reach out to others.

But when a guitar fit comes over me, I cannot help it. I leave language and find my fingers cramping into their old positions, the F chord mirroring the frustration akin to arranging a second date, the pads of my fingers developing callouses more quickly than my heart. I will practice and practice the same songs until suddenly, I can sing and sing with them, walk down a chord as easily as walking down the block. I play it and play it, and while I might learn a new song here or there, I never really get any better as a musician. As Peter Buck once said, of the young men who hovered close to the stage to see what chords he was playing, “Guys, I hate to disappoint you, but it’s C, D, C, E.” It’s passionate, but it’s simple, and it’s the same stuff you already know.

Sometimes, I feel like this is how others might see me as a lover: returning over and over to the same songs, the same four chords, and they wince to think of how I have to develop the callouses all over again, wish I could break my old habits and learn better, more sustainable ones, improve as a musician and a woman.

But practicing for others is something I don’t do anymore, and maybe I still don’t do it for myself, in terms of how to improve. Maybe this is just how I do it: I pick up the guitar, I fall in love, after long absences from both, and that’s all I want to do for awhile, not so I can get better at either but because the feeling comes over me, and it’s what I want to do. And when I’m good enough at the basics to sing along, I sing and sing.

But that’s a bit self-congratulatory, isn’t it? Is this “singing alone in the dark” some kind of Keatsian nightingale hang-over? Aren’t songs meant to be sung with another, mindful of their rhythms, of the adjustments needed for their range, their abilities, their desires? The first time I was ever disappointed in Jason was when we first sang a song together: while he was an excellent guitarist and we sang Kishi Bashi’s “Q and A” (“our song”) passionately, he never once told me I had a beautiful voice, and I never felt like I was an important part of the singing for him, that he would really rather be practicing “Big Love.”

I wonder if slowing down could be, perhaps, a way of maintaining both language and music: the clarified understanding and the blinding immersion, the sense of fully selving with another while getting into that broader space beyond myself, the one I feel in music. What would it mean for me to get to know someone gradually, building up to the bar chords, while still allowing myself to burst jubilantly into the chorus?

I don’t want to think of “going more slowly” as an “improvement” on my way of loving. I like my way of loving.

But maybe it’s hard for someone to stay in that song with me. I can see how much fun it is to join in lustily at the chorus and just as easily how it’s not fun to feel like you’re just the side kick, the back-up singer, never in charge of any verses. I ask so many questions, and, without intending to, I direct the conversation. Maybe that way of falling in love feels more like being put under a spell than creating a collaborative connection. Maybe that’s why Charming is resisting my magic. Or maybe, he’s asking me to do something new, something that involves choosing to practice differently.

I have a lifetime of getting to the good parts—not because I can’t do the work but because the good parts are good, and I know how to get there. What would it feel like to not know the song at all, to not know what the good parts were? How will I know how to hold on until they come? What if I practice and practice and never get any better?

We walk back to the car from the picnic. We are holding the picnic basket between us, one handle per person, and I joke that I wanted this picnic to be a “collaborative effort.” I am jittery; this must be what people feel when it’s been a good date, instead of magic.I have only his word at this point that, despite the impending trip, he wants to see me again. I feel like I have asked a lot of questions, so I ask him to ask me a question. Charming Man turns his head and looks intently at me, asks it: “You seem like you’ve had a lot of love in your life. If you don’t do online dating, how do you meet people?” I have to offer what I can, demystify myself, even if it means I’ll break what remains of any spell. “Well, a lot of people think I’m magical. But really, I just ask them questions, and I care about their answers. I guess most people don’t get that enough.” He nods, as if this is answer enough for now, and I hope inside that I get more time with him, more time to practice, even if it doesn’t make this, or me, perfect.

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