Friday, March 2, 2012


“First, let’s review the chords,” I say, and I move across the arched row of students, my own guitar strapped to my midsection, my eyes scanning the necks of their guitars.  I stop occasionally to correct misguided fingers, then twist the placement of my instrument to show them how I’ve positioned my thumb on the back of the neck.  As soon as I’m sure they have a good sense of the chord patterns I congratulate them, then call out: “OK, now… strum!”

In a sweet acoustic chorus we pump our arms; up and down, up and down, sometimes hitting the strings, sometimes not.

Rule number 1 of rhythm guitar: You must keep the beat.

Driving across Midwestern America, and especially in the vast desolate fields of Texas, I remember being intrigued by the eternal pumping arms of the oil rigs working their way through the hours, never ceasing: Saluting robots that never tire.  I tell my students that their arms are those pumps and they must never break the beat.  Sometimes they will strike the strings; sometimes not, but the arm always moves.  Even if the left hand doesn’t quite get to the chord fast enough, the strumming arm just keeps on pumping.  It’s the foundation of the rhythm instrument to keep the beat.

It’s always easier for them if, 1.)  they know the song; and 2.) they like the song.  This can be a challenge when the students in your classes range between 12 and somewhere above retirement age.

I sat today holding my youngest grandchild in my arms, feeding him a bottle of his mother’s milk and pondering what I would teach in my guitar classes this evening. I’ve been focused on strumming patterns for the beginner classes, and the two songs I was considering teaching the advanced class both had complicated rhythm patterns. So I sat there in my old painted oak rocker, my own heart beat playing against the rhythmic sucking of my little one and the steady beat of the rocking chair playing against the tick tock of the pendulum on the clock on the wall. I began to notice the pacing of my breathing, the steady pat-pat-pat of my hand against Calvin’s back. And then I started to sing.  All those steady beats begged for a melody.

 Blessed by the sitting down moment this baby afforded me, I drifted to the place of unforced thinking….pondered all of the rhythms of life; the beat of my own heart against the chorus of my life. Sometimes the pacing is identical, though that is very rare and probably only happens when I am in a deep sleep. Life, usually…no, almost always… is syncopated. Like jazz music.(See this simple explanation as it refers to Jazz music: ) It’s the unexpected accents between the beats that make jazz music fresh and innovative and alive. 

 There are certain steady, dependable downbeats in my life. We need those prominent and consistent beats: the certainty of eating, of cleansing, of sleep and movement; of inhaling and exhaling.  But, just as surely, the beat needs to rise, and we are kept alive and alert by the rising beat; the things we ask ourselves to do.  These sometimes become as steady in our lives as the downbeat of breathing, but in reality we choose them.  We may choose them over and over again, but that does not change the fact that we still get to choose them.  Loading the dishwasher…over and over.  Exercising on the treadmill.  The way we set the dishes on the dinner table.  The rhythmic scraping of the snow shovel on the driveway. The spinning of the washing machine at the end of the cycle. The pulsing ring of the telephone, the repeated pattern of brushing the coat on a winter horse…all up- beats against our steady downs.

 What makes our life-songs so compelling, however, are the unexpected accents that play against the steadies.  The call that comes from Christine in Paris, wondering how we are all doing,  rubbing the luster back on a treasure trove of memories just by hearing the lilt of her voice as it remembers how to speak English .  The pouncing of soft puppy paws across the kitchen floor as they chase the morning sunlight. The faint scent of aftershave when you’ve slept in a bit and the man you love bends over the bed to kiss you goodbye.  The salty taste of sunflower seeds at midnight somewhere in the middle of Nowhere Nevada when you’re on your way to Somewhere and Someone you love is in the seat next to you, their head cradled in a down pillow smashed against the passenger window. The steady prancing of teenage hands against piano keys in the living room, or medium heavy picks against guitar strings in basement bedrooms.  The sweet soprano voice of a five year old composing a soundtrack to their child-play.  The deeply familiar way my oldest sister Sherry pats baby Quincey's back, a pattern of beats that mimics the heart, so familiar to me because I believe that's how she lulled me to sleep when I was a baby and she was my 14 year old sister.

The accents are not always sweet. The music they make winds up heavy on the minor chords, or sometimes even in complete discord: The hollow groan that rises from the belly with the news of profound loss; or the throbbing pain reiterating from an ingrown toenail.  The swirling words of misunderstanding tossed across the bedroom, the sobbing of a child hearing it from their own room.

These are the unexpected accents; the syncopation, that give the music variety and contrast, compelling us to play on.

And sometimes, it seems, the music stops.  Stops completely for a time: like it did for my friend recently when her husband weaned himself from medication too quickly.  Stopped with no hope of starting again for him. Their house lays silent, except for the throbbing of their aching hearts.

But they do throb, thankfully.  And we pray with time and trust they will recognize the steady downbeat, then find the upbeat somewhere.  Sometime.  Someday, when she is folding the laundry and thinks she smells his aftershave.  She’ll think she smells it and yet she will find that she is still breathing, and her hands are still moving as she lays the cloth against the folding table.  And then she’ll move on and she will begin to notice the clock ticking and the phone ringing and she will hear the timer tell her dinner is done and then there will be music again.

All set against the rhythm of life.
Whether we notice it or not, we are pulsing through this realm. 
Steady and dependable, there is an underlying beat we do not control

But the upbeats; we have some say in that.
And the accents? They are all our own.
 Play on.

1 comment:

  1. Oh do you do this? It is a gift and we are grateful to be the recipients. Thank you!!