Strings attached

Small guitar
When I was a child, I wanted to play the piano. My father was a fairly good pianist (he also played the accordion in a morris side when I was very small) and I was encouraged to take piano lessons as soon as my hands were big enough to manage the keys. I kept trying, I kept getting a little way and no further. The lessons continued for years, but despite all the encouragement I could wish for, all my genuine desire to play, all the practice that I put in and all that the music-teachers could do for me, I was unable to master the instrument. I would get reasonably fluent with one piece of music, and then have to start again, from scratch, with the next one. It was utterly, utterly frustrating. Everyone assumed that I simply wasn’t trying or didn’t really want to get anywhere – phrases which I heard in many classes at school: sport, dancing, anything involving much writing. I was told these things so often that I assumed that they were true and that I really must be lazy.

By the time I’d been in secondary school for a few years, I was starting to see some patterns in the things I couldn’t do. (Spotting patterns and grasping systems is something I’ve always been good at.) I could tell that I wasn’t ever going to win with the piano, but I had some hopes for being able to do a bit better with a guitar. It was less ‘two-handed’. I’d recently managed crochet although I’d totally failed with knitting, and I felt that the difference between the guitar and the piano was rather similar. My parents didn’t want to waste money on a guitar, thinking that I’d give up on it soon after I got it. So I borrowed a ukulele from my best friend’s brother, and struck a deal with Mum and Dad: if I could manage to get a few tunes out of it before my birthday, they’d buy me a guitar as a present. I did, they did, and the nylon-strung, student-size guitar became a huge part of my life and a good friend for the next thirty years.

Now, I don’t want you imagining that I was ever much of a guitarist. I was not. I quite soon hit a plateau and stayed there, but I was happy. Meanwhile I’d finally been allowed to give up those endless frustrating piano lessons. Oh the relief! And I’d also proved something important to myself about my odd limitations, even if I didn’t understand what caused them. Whatever it was, I was sure that it wasn’t ‘just laziness’ or a lack of interest.

When I got to the age for driving lessons, soon afterwards, I didn’t even bother to start learning. I already knew that I’d be in for more tears and frustration and could never drive without the same constant, intense concentration I needed for writing. I would never be safe in traffic: a distraction would render me helpless. People nagged me about not driving, too, especially after the family moved to the country, away from frequent buses and trains, but I wasn’t going to waste money finding out something I was already convinced of.

For some reason (possibly not unrelated to buying a word processor – which turned writing from a slow, painful chore into a newly discovered joy), I stopped playing the guitar regularly in the late Eighties. And twelve years ago I realised how rarely I’d touched the strings since then, realised that there were enough other things in my life now: things that I could do better, could even do well, and gave the battered old thing to a charity shop. End of guitar playing. End of an era.

Except that, recently, I’ve too often felt the lack of something to strum when I’m thinking about tunes, or I have wanted a bit of backing when I’ve been sitting here singing to myself. (Be glad it is just singing to myself – my singing is even worse than my guitar playing. But it makes me feel good to sing, and I live with songs and tunes constantly twirling around in my head, wanting out.) So last weekend I gazed into the window of the nearest music shop and saw something calling out to me. A tiny guitar, a guitar so small that it looks more like an overfed ukulele, but with the proper number of strings. So small that it is almost too small for my fingers, but not quite. So small that it has a quiet voice, a good thing for a flat in a shared block with poor sound insulation. So small that its price tag was within my reach. The last kitten in the rock shop, it looked at me, I looked at it, and I knew that it would follow me home.

I have a guitar again. In the meantime I’ve learnt a new word. The word is ‘dyspraxia’. I first heard it a couple of years ago. If I had any suspicions that I had really been that lazy child who wouldn’t do anything that she wasn’t interested in, if I had still harboured any lingering thoughts that maybe I just didn’t try hard enough to learn tasks, the new word wiped them away. I already knew the way I differed by then, I clearly recognised my inability to automate tasks that most people find easy, but I had never had a simple name for the difference, never had a name to use to explain it to others. Learning the word ‘dyspraxia’ was another moment of sudden and very deep relief.

Reading this back, I hope I haven’t made you think that I am angry about not having my dyspraxia spotted when I was young. (It still rankles a little: the evidence seems clear to me now, and I wonder if my school teachers were not too eager to help because I was so often ahead of the rest of the class in those things that didn’t involve writing or other coordination tasks.) I can’t help wondering what turns my life would have taken had I been given some help – or at least some understanding. But there are no counterfactuals in this life. The person I am now is a product of all that I have been through, good and bad. I like being me, so how can I complain about how I got here? Besides, I’ve had to find my own ways to do things, often found ways to do them quite well. I might never have tried so hard if I’d known that I couldn’t be expected to do them. (I even managed to knit, slowly, when I worked out a method based on the German way of holding the yarn. I’m wearing one of my hand-knitted jumpers as I write this.)

Here I am with sore fingertips again, gradually recalling all those chords left unplayed for over a decade, getting the old red song book out from under the bed (an ancient, battered notebook which lost its red cover in the sixties), working my way through things left unsung for many’s the year (perhaps wisely in some cases) and smiling. Oh yeah!

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9 Responses to “Strings attached”

  1. dear sue

    what a beautifully written life story and an inspirational one too. it reads like a bob dylan song and has echoes of my own experiences as a sapling, young tree and now an ancient forest giant. i can sympathise with many of your frustrations and i commend you for returning to your miusical roots

    music is the language of ‘god” and it is one of the purest forms of communication. i have enough instruments in my house to start an acuastic folk band, but i dont play anu of them!

    i know im very “different” and im drifting away from shropshire community, as it has changed diection and i no longer fit in. a butterfly cant swim in the shropshire pool it seems.

    thanks for sharing this story and good luck with those knashers at the dentist today!

    your alien freind (home planet of pandora)

    danny

  2. suetortoise Says:

    Thanks Danny.

    It took me a long time to find where to start writing this post, but it’s a subject that I’ve wanted to put down in words for a long time. You and I are not exactly in the same boat, but we are at least on the same ocean.

    Don’t worry about drifting away from SC a little, but don’t get completely out of touch with the group – a good bunch of folk who really appreciate your photography.

  3. David Turner Says:

    A very interesting discourse, Sue. I only heard of dyspraxia last year, so reading your experiences has been illuminating. And your seeing the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain last week has even greater relevance. Keep up the good work!

  4. That was fascinating. I hope you enjoy your new small guitar and that it gives you many hours of pleasure.

    Re the dyspraxia, I only heard of it around 10 years ago and I’m a teacher. Admittedly I teach adults, many of whom had undiagnosed dyslexia and/or dyspraxia because these conditions were only recognised relatively recently and even now not all teachers are familiar with the conditions and symptoms.

  5. suetortoise Says:

    As it becomes better known, I hope there will be fewer children going through school wrongly labelled as lazy or careless. And the world in general less puzzled when people like me explain that we simply can’t do certain things, or only do them very slowly and when not distracted.

  6. Manny Lorenzo Says:

    Sue,

    What a beautiful story! You write extremely well, and you bring many other gifts to the table as well.

    Saludos,

    Manny

  7. Last Wednesday I spotted two small guitars in the toy dept. a local gift and New Age knick-knack shop for less than £20 and having heard yours I went in to have a go, three-quarters decided to bring it home to join the ukes. Alas it reminded me that the neck is too teeny-tiny for my fat fingers.
    One of the virtues of the uke is precisely that it does throw more emphasis on your voice in the mix, so you get the necessary flying-hours singing to develop some confidence – or lose some self-consciousness? – in your voice.
    It was a pleasure on your visit to see you actually smiling as you sang, Sue. Don’t know if you noticed. Hope you remember to when you’re being your own juke-box!

  8. “… the toy dept. *of* a local… shop” [Ed.]

    • suetortoise Says:

      Editor remarks: You can edit your own posts, you know! See that tiny ‘e’ on the end of the orange line under your name?]

      Yesterday I saw some very similar small guitars in Home Bargains for £13-odd. (But they were boxed up, so no trying-out.) As for size, the neck is a wee bit crowded, even for my medium-sized fingers, to be honest. But I think I am far more likely to upgrade to a student-size eventually rather than go in for a uke. Feel free to keep ukevangelising -you never know. I like the sound of those lower strings too much!

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