Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Teaching The Blues

Mississippi John Hurt
I currently instruct one student in the art of guitar.  True, enrollment is a bit lean but I live in the second most sparsely populated county in Pennsylvania.  The local economy, once agrarian based, is now dominated by service sector employment with a smatterring of government positions and health care careers.  The average annual income for a family of four is a scant $33,600.  This leaves little in the way of trickle down revenue for private instruction in the arts.  

My classes are never advertised.  I rely solely on word of mouth.  My entrance requirements have been criticized by some, but I find them most effective in culling out the serious students from those of only passing interest. I insist all would be pupils fashion a hand made guitar from self harvested ash, maple or hickory and construct an instrument without the aid of 20th century technology.  If the guitar meets my strict requirements for resonance, pitch and tone, I then grant an audition.  A single performance of a selected composition is evaluated and entrance accepted or denied.  All decisions are final. 

Arkansas Mike came to me through the recommendation of a respected associate.  Gracious and articulate with the smooth oratory style of our former President Clinton, I invited him to my studio for a visit.  I liked Arkansas immediately.  A keen wit, clear eye and respectful demeanor presented itself, so when he pulled a crisp Jackson from his wallet and humbly requested an hour of instruction, I decided to waive the standard entrance requirements and pocket the twenty.

It has been almost a year since Arkansas Mike became a beneficiary of my weekly tutelage.  His progress has been outstanding as he is in possession of a very fine mind.  Also, without sounding too boastful, my inter-disciplinary approach to arts education has heightened his ability to absorb and process a far greater spectrum of musical styles and techniques due in part to the Renaissance under pinnings of our mentor/pupil relationship.

Coinsider this morning's exchange.  An email arrived expressing Arkansas' concern over the difficulty of mastering the rhythmic picking style of the Delta Blues.  His note also contained reference to a rather difficult encounter with his girlfriend Giggles.   The emotions stimulated by the confluence of Giggles and Arkansas Mike's personalities seemed like an excellent starting point for the week's music lesson.  Consider my approach:

The Student Inquiry

On Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 10:22 AM, Arkansas Mike > wrote:

Giggles got drunk at Arlo's and I had to re-group and think about the "Simple Life"!!*   I got close to getting mad!!!  So, its bye-bye Giggles!!!!   I do not have the blues, but I would like to work on the song, "Fallin' Down Blues." ** I just have a problem with the blues.  I can't get the rhythm or something down. 

Simple Life 

Arkansas Mike
Susquehanna County

* Simple Life refers to the lessening of material and emotional attachements inorder to reduce human suffering. 

** Fallin' Down Blues:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRhg4TXA2Ak
The Instructor's Response:

From: Ron Boyd
Date: Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 2:24 PM
Subject: Re: The Blues
To: Arkansas Mike

Rhythm problems?  Ah, the white man's burden!  You must tap into your "dark side" Arkansas Mike.  Funnel your repressed anger, your disappointments, your frustration, into twelve bars of repetitive melody;  give it a place to go.  

Have you ever asked yourself why the American slave sang the blues?  Well, if he expressed his anger, frustration or disappointment, if he actually stepped up and punched that big, fat, white overseer right in his bulbous red nose, he would have undoubtably been boiled like a potato  whipped like cream, stomped like grapes or shredded like wheat!  If by chance he survived, he would then have found himself bound in chains and headed for the auction block in the malaria infested swamps of the Mississipi Delta.  

So slaves learned to FUNNEL their anger.  They learned to hold on to it until they got to a secluded corner of the cabin where they could sit down on the dirt floor and just start rockin' back and forth, hugging their knees hard, swayin' side to side, rollin' their eyes and holding those powerful guns at bay.  Yeah, and they would feel that anger like it was molten rock sloshin' around in the earth's core, down where Satan swims.  They would feel those scalding gastric juices churning up in their bellies. They would feel swollen with sulfurous gas and taste the bitter bile of diminishment and insult.  Then, when they felt all the meanness and hate and earthly injustice they had endured about to explode inside them, they would throw back their heads, part their lips and with a glorious smile, let that poisonous geyser rip; let it blow right over their vocal cords like ink black smoke gushing from the stack of a steaming locomotive... and out it would come...like a boil lanced:  The Blues!

Try singing these words, then make up a few of your own.
Well Jesus walked on water
Across the River Jordan
You can smell the beans and bacon
And the bones of evil breakin'

Giggles she been drinkin'
From dah fountain of dee Satan
Now she howlin' at dah Moon
Like a dog dat treed a coon

You see, you just have to let it come out.  You can't think about it.  You have got to feel it.  Embrace the pain.  Make friends with the pain.  Then you gotta sing the pain... dance the pain... love the pain... because the pain is the path to glory.  It is the way to God's SALVATION.

Okay, there is one other way to play the blues.  Its the Lennon/McCarthy approach.  A structured course of practice consisting of a minimum of 10,000 hours*.  That works too.

*see "Outliers" Chapter 2. by Malcolm Gladwell    

Good luck Ark!

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