By: Lauren Hodges
G, C major, G, C major. I’m fumbling with my dad’s rarely-played guitar, cringing at the untuned strings. The neck feels too big for my fingers and the body has a thin coating of dust, but the chord shapes come naturally enough. They are pressed into my memory, after all, from endless hours of practice that never quite managed to make perfect. At 21 years old I haven’t picked up a guitar, or any other instrument for that matter, in what seems like a century. I feel like I’m back in a childhood guitar lesson, memorizing the chords and daydreaming about playing them onstage with my favorite punk bands. I’m forming the constellations with my increasingly sore fingers, over and over, until my dad gets home and I can’t stand to let anyone hear me play just yet.
I pick at the E string, falling in love with the deep, echoing sound. I am waiting for my first guitar lesson ever, relishing the feeling of the child-sized instrument in my hands. I’ve endured a year of torturous scales at Ms. Marin’s piano, finally mastering enough to convince my parents that I’m ready to take on the guitar. Justin, my teacher, is an engineering student my mom must have found on a Xeroxed flyer at a coffee shop. He looks like Jason Mraz, which makes him seem all the more legit, as Jason Mraz is still a pretty big deal at this point. By the end of our lesson he’s jotted down simple chord progressions in a spiral notebook that I will wear down to shreds over the next year. I will sit in my bedroom for hours that night, perfecting my C,G and E minor, jotting down the occasional idea for a lyric and fantasizing about starting my own all-girl Black Flag cover band.
D minor, F, B flat. The chord progression marches through my head as I wait in line to sign up for the fifth grade talent show. I’m bouncing on my toes, full of nervous energy. This isn’t the kind of talent show you see in cheesy movie-musicals about performing arts high schools or anything- this is 30 nervous pre-teens stumbling through awkward dance routines and G-rated skits in the cafeteria after school. It’s my first time playing the guitar outside of my living room, though. I can perform Jack Johnson’s “Flake” pretty well- it’s no Jay Reatard, but it’ll do. My friend Katherine is behind me, signing up to play “My Heart Will Go On” on the piano, something we considered doing as a duet, seeing as both our piano teachers forced us to become fluent in Celine Dion this month. At least three other intermediate pianists seem to have the same idea, and I can’t help but feel a little proud of myself for standing out from the crowd. There are a couple of guitar players too, boys I recognize from the group classes Justin occasionally teaches. My confidence dips when I remember our last group session- how well my friend Daniel imitated his favorite country singers; how Luke and his older brother could play Beatles songs like Lennon and McCartney themselves. And although I can’t quite name it at the time, I know that I’m doubting myself because, in our group lessons, I was always the only girl in the room. When it’s finally my turn at the signup sheet, I tell myself over and over that I’ll have the courage to write Lauren H., Guitar, “Flake,” but I scribble down Lauren H., Piano, “My Heart Will Go On,” and quickly walk back to my lunch table, with my face in flames.
B string, 6th fret. G, 8. D, 10- and repeat. I am plucking out a solo while Justin strums in the background- I think it’s a Weezer song- but I’m not all that into it. My arms are sore from a grueling tennis practice and my fingers are itching to get back to the after-school storm of cryptic away messages and landline phone calls about the latest gossip As a middle-schooler, I want nothing more than to fit in with my all-too-stereotypical clique of identically-dressed girlfriends. My friends play tennis and volleyball; they most certainly do not listen to Green Day. My hours of practice a day are now more like minutes of practice a week as I invest most of my time into worrying about who’s mad at who and trying to be a passable enough athlete to make the girls’ A-team with all my friends. In a way, I’m burnt out on scales, theory, and learning Justin’s favorite sadboy songs of the 90’s. But if I’m being honest, I just want to do what’s normal- and for a 13 year old girl in a suffocatingly single-minded small town, what’s normal isn’t pursuing music but pursuing the same boys, clothes, sports, and cotillion classes as everyone else. So when Justin graduates and moves away, I don’t ask my mom to find me a new teacher.
The escalating twang of strings being tuned is the only sound left in the room. I am half-asleep, exhausted from a long night at the restaurant where I work. It’s early for a Thursday, but here I am, wrapped in a comforter burrito and ready to pass out. My boyfriend of so few months you could count them on one hand is still up. He settles in next to me, weatherbeaten old guitar in hand. As if to calm us both, he plays slowly through Iron and Wine’s “The Trapeze Swinger.” He’s self-taught, but you could never tell, as he plays so fluidly and flawlessly you’d swear he had years of lessons under his belt. In the morning, I tell him how much I enjoyed hearing him play before nodding off and he bends down to kiss me on the cheek, offering to teach me anytime. He’s said it before, when I mentioned my stunted musical education that ended so many years ago. I think this time I might take him up on it.
F, A sharp, a plea for more margaritas. Day drunk and stuffed with obscenely delicious queso fries, I sweat tequila while wedged between an amp and a crowd much too big for this tiny space. Normally I don’t really care about elbowing my way to the front at packed venues like this one, but today is different. My favorite band, Hinds, is here from halfway around the world to play at this matchbox-sized restaurant and I can’t hold my massive smile back as they wrap up their sound check. Hinds is made up of four women, two of whom have only been playing music for a few years and all of whom play with the kind of passion and excitement that would make my old punk favorites proud. There’s something powerful about seeing people who look like me playing music that I can relate to. When I look around, I see that every single person in the front row is a woman. When I go home later, for a dinner break between shows and homework and stressing about money and trying to figure out what on Earth I’ll do with myself next, I’ll be sure to pick up my guitar for a few minutes, rehearsing my slowly expanding repertoire of chords and song fragments. There’s a good chance I’ll never play for anyone but my boyfriend and my roommates and my dad (in exchange for letting me keep the guitar, of course), but that’s more than okay with me. After all, I’m playing for myself now.