Category Archives: practice rooms

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.

Practice Rooms: When I Didn’t Enjoy the Silence with Amy

Last night, I went to the Tractor Tavern’s annual New Wave Cover Band Night: Love Vigilantes (the New Order band), For the Masses (Depeche Mode), and This Charming Band (Morrissey/The Smiths). It was, frankly, epic. There was a light that will never go out, and people were people on a Blue Monday. I’d been chatting up this charming man throughout the evening, and sometime during “Never Let Me Down Again,” we began spontaneously choreographing little moves.

And that’s when I missed Amy.

I believe Amy played the flute briefly, but this post isn’t about how she practiced music. It’s about how WE “practiced” music together, and why we failed, as friends.

In this case, “practice” doesn’t refer to the honing of skills through repetition; it refers to a state of being, a way of living, like the practice of yoga or the practice of non-violence. Music was a religion for Amy and me. We made each other tapes with obscure songs on them—she would hold the recorder near the record player to capture Bobby Bare’s “Skip a Rope,” and I would hold the recorder near the television to capture bits of dialogue from Singles to put in between songs. We cruised the one mile you could cruise of our town for hours, listening to Erasure and making up elaborate synchronized arm movements we could both do, even while the other was driving. We did that so much. And when I first saw Depeche Mode, on the Songs of Faith and Devotion tour, it was with her. And when he sang the line “I’m taking a ride with my best friend,” we pointed to each other.

And then, in graduate school, she dumped me.

I’ve tried to write about this before. It was the first post I ever made on this blog. We were at least in Facebook contact at that point, but after that post, it seems, it was really over. I would say that it hurt her, but I wouldn’t say I knew anything about Amy anymore by then.

This past quarter, I taught creative non-fiction for the first time, and we talked a lot about the stories you aren’t ready to write. We’d listened to a This American Life piece on “Petty Tyrants,” which, unsurprisingly, generated a lot of what is called “revenge prose” from students, as they wrote their own pieces. “Revenge prose” is when, no matter what the author says is the emotional core of the piece, the reader can tell that the real goal of the piece is to get back at someone, to make them look bad and their own selves look better. “If you feel like you’re trying to defend something or prove something,” I said, one day, “you’re probably not ready to write it.”

I said it because I’d been thinking about the Amy piece, how I hadn’t been trying to get back at her, but how I had been trying both to defend myself and to prove something to myself. I’d been trying to defend myself from my own need for the conversation that never happened after she told us we weren’t best friends anymore. She felt there was nothing more to say—she’d just wanted to say it and seemed ok continuing our friendship in a different form, although she would no longer be pointing at ME during “Never Let Me Down.” So, I wrote a piece in lieu of that conversation. I didn’t even ever think she’d read it. I don’t think it’s mean—I still think what is most clear in that piece is that I still don’t feel clear, that I still don’t understand why we couldn’t talk to each other anymore. But there I go—proving something again. Trying to prove that I tried: to understand, to communicate, but the attempt was clumsy, incomplete, unchoreographed and out of sync.

The charming guy at the show was there with his own best friend, it turns out. “I can’t tell you how much I love that guy,” he shouted during “Enjoy the Silence.” Yes, I remember that: the wordless sense of belonging with your best friend, the way your very bodies would turn in unison towards the same lights and dance the same steps. I have a weird medallion from the Songs of Faith and Devotion show—it’s metal, with the astronaut from one of their videos on it. I keep it in a box with other broken things I don’t seem to want to let go of. Maybe I’ll give it to him and accept that while I may not enjoy it, this story is always going to end in silence.

Practice Rooms: The Bands He Couldn’t Quit

It’s two weeks after E. and I start dating, and I am at Folklife, watching a 60-something-year-old drum majorette twirl her baton, hilariously, while sitting down. He is a few rows behind her, the only trumpet player under 60. It’s a good gag: the Ballard Sedentary Sousa Marching Band.

I go to all their shows.

I also go to many of the shows of E.’s other band, the one we call his “Bro Band” because it is full of guys he would never hang out with—nice enough, but married and living in suburbs so far away that it takes one of them an hour to get to practice. They play covers of radio hits we don’t listen to. The summer I am in England, co-leading a study abroad trip, they tease him about possibly having killed me. “Oh, Bryn’s ‘still in Europe’? Yeah, right, E.—it’s always the quiet ones.” He likes it when they tease him—it makes him feel like he belongs.

E. often doesn’t—in either band. He comes home from Bro Band one night, humiliated that he tried to make a joke about something and failed. He wouldn’t tell me what. He hates that they are learning a Maroon Five song. He gets tired of playing Sousa at the Leif Erikson Hall or the Ballard Locks, and complains about losing Saturdays to their gigs. “Why do you stay in?” I ask, as we walk to the car with his trumpet, waving goodbye to those who notice we’re leaving. “Oh, it’s kind of nice to keep my chops up. It can be fun.” He IS adorable in the old-school band uniform they give him to wear. He stays in the Bro Band because the lead singer is a friend of a friend.

I don’t mind being a band girlfriend, though I am considered the performer of the couple. I like watching him enjoy himself, know how much he loves playing trumpet, no matter his lukewarm commitment to either band.

But E. thinks I mind. He thinks I mind it when he leaves to go practice. Here’s the thing: that’s not what I mind. I mind that we have been together three and a half years, and he still sees his apartment, where he never sleeps, which seems to have become a very expensive underpants storage unit, as the place where he gets to do the things he likes. I mind that when I ask him why he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about getting married or moving in together, he can’t come up with an answer. I mind that when I ask him why he stays with me, then, that being in love and having fun don’t seem like good answers to him because he still feels like he’s losing himself, that I am the star, and he struggles to be heard.

But most of all, I mind that I see myself becoming part of his pattern: as our couples therapist will say near the end, “E. doesn’t say ‘no,’ but he relies on you hearing ‘maybe.'” He stays with his high school girlfriend (“we were just friends at first”) until late in college, when he begins what will be an eleven-year relationship with another woman (another friendship that become more). He stays and stays; even when he’s stopped being in love, he stays for two more years. And now there’s me. But I thought I was different because he had fallen in love with me from the start. I was thinking, I realize, like the star: never surprised by the groupies at the door, never considering that they might not ever feel like your equal, even if they got to know you.

When I hand him the paper bag with the remaining items left at my house (a hand-blender, a shirt, a small fox I’d given him, some sheet music), I ask him why he doesn’t want our life, one more time, again. “I always felt there was a tension,” he says, averting his eyes. I hear: “I never felt like I belonged.”

He has his Saturdays back now, and the late nights to work on editing photos—another activity he felt I kept him from. It was a habit he’d developed when he wasn’t in love anymore with the long-term girlfriend—working late into the night on projects, instead of lying in bed with her. He works and works, late into the night and never leaves the bedroom. His trumpet case sits on the floor with the music he needs to learn but doesn’t really like. He knows he will practice it, though. You have to know your part if you want to belong.

Practice Rooms (A Musical History of Why We Failed): Jason and “Big Love”

“But Bryn,” some might say, “isn’t that what the whole blog is about?”

No. The whole blog is about music and intimacy.

But it occurred to me, as I was explaining to someone why I might be willing to give Fleetwood Mac a try, that I had the musical answers to some romantic questions raised by almost every boyfriend I’ve had. No need to tell me I’ll find love again, blah blah—I’m not just practicing what I preach. I’m watching how they practice. Because I’ve realized that the way they practice music is the sonorous foreshadowing of the problems we might have—the Hitchcock-like ominous violins building, just before the shower curtain is pulled back, and a vulnerable body is stabbed through the heart, among other places.

Let’s review:

Jason and “Big Love”

While I have never loved Fleetwood Mac, Jason did, and he converted me to at least really appreciating “Big Love.” Jason could belt it out like nobody’s business, but the Lindsay Buckingham guitar part is, by Jason’s own admission, a bitch. Fast, hard, and ever-changing in its rhythmic emphasis, the guitar murmurs intensely, a schizophrenic muttering on the bus, before it bursts, an intricate attack, and the chorus promises to leave your Stevie Nicks ass in search of REAL love. Big Love.

When Jason first saw Buckingham play that song live, he thought, “I’ll never be able to play that song.”

When Jason first met me, he was 19, and I was his 29 year-old grad assistant professor. When Jason and I fell in love, 11 years later, he was a wreck—a single father with a chronic illness, an addiction to multiple kinds of smoking, living at home, and still suffering, clearly, from the PTSD of his last, unhappy relationship with a narcissistic make-up artist. But we both (foolishly) thought, “But why can’t we be in love? We’ll just take it day by day.”

“But then I thought: Why can’t I learn how to play that song?” Jason told me, as he sat strumming it on my couch. “If I at least start practicing it, a little bit every day, I’ve got to be able to do it at some point, right?”

I loved him on that couch. I loved him everywhere.

We tried to date, despite the fact that he worked from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. and I worked among the living. I tried hard to accept that his smoking and his preference for Red Bull to real food were not deal-breakers. He tried to believe me when I said I believed in him.

After practicing the song for over year, Jason could still only play about halfway through. He could play it really well, really beautifully, but at some point, he’d have to stop, shaking out his cramping hand. “My arm gets tired,” he’d say to me, sheepishly putting down the guitar. “I just don’t have the strength.”

We fell in love so hard. “I can’t stop thinking about you as my wife,” he said one night at a party, pulling me aside and holding my face. Behind him, I saw a green flash—like a giant green light from the universe telling us “GO.” I later found out it was a meteorite. I saw both it and his face, lit up with its own celestial energy. He saw only me, his back to the cosmos.

Within a month, he’d stopped speaking to me, finding excuses not to come over, to leave my birthday party after two hours. At first, he blamed me. I’d said something cruel and cold that reminded him of the narcissist. I’d said it in response to a cruel and cold statement of his own. But eventually, when we broke up for good, he said it was not because we had been foolish but because our love had been real. “It’s TOO real,” he said. “And I’m not ready.”

The last time I heard him practice “Big Love,” Jason realized he had been playing the whole thing too fast–that, if he’d slowed it down, he was actually pretty good. “But it’ll still be awhile before I can play the whole thing,” he said.

Yes. I think it probably will.

Check back later this week for “Eli and the Bands He Couldn’t Quit.”