Since my college days I’ve wanted to add electric guitar to my music projects. I feel I would be able to express what I want to share with the world best with the colors offered by both instruments: harp and guitar.
For years I’ve had a block about picking it up though. Until recently my excuse was time. In school, I had my engineering studies with my harp on the side. After school I had a career to think about, a new marriage, and harp on the side. When I started a family, I had child rearing, a harp studio, a project or two and a little performance work. A full plate, no time.
When my daughter started preschool I thought, Hey! I have time. Let’s do this, guitar.
My son’s piano teacher lived very close to the preschool and he also taught rock guitar. How convenient. Everything was falling into place. I bought a good instrument and was ready to learn.
Given my history of jumping into music and love of practice, I thought it would be pretty smooth sailing.
Except that it wasn’t.
The good stuff
There are many good things that came out of these lessons. I enjoyed playing guitar. I felt empowered playing as the guitar is so darn useful and convenient. I can take it so many more places than I can with my harp and not worry so much about damage.
With the 12 chords I now know I can accompany any of kids’ songs around the campfire. People love it when you get out your guitar and sing! It’s great!
I got comfortable with those barred chords. I found the joy of playing pop songs from chord charts on the internet and singing them with my kids.
I learned a bit about the history of rock, as well as the blues and learned some of my teacher’s selection of rock standard songs. I memorized a lot of frets.
I gained a better understanding of music as the notes on the guitar are not as easy to see like they are with harp. My ear improved.
Something was really bugging me the whole time. It was getting under my skin and really, really pissing me off. It was also causing me anxiety, bringing out my insecure side. And I was not practicing enough, which is off for me.
I’ve had a really hard time pinning down what was bothering me. What was this thing? I knew it had something to do with the fact I was traveling from super diva feminine harp land and visiting hyper macho guitar land. But, as I was only visiting, (I have no intention of becoming a virtuosic guitarist and dropping harp), what was the big deal?
One day I realized that the lessons were not good for me and I needed to try someone different. This is hard to admit because first of all, learning a musical instrument requires a lot of hard work and it is poor form to leap to the conclusion that your problem is with your lessons. Second of all, I personally liked my teacher. I know my first teacher worked very hard to do a good job teaching me, which I appreciated. But at one point I realized our lessons were unbalanced and something was off.
Throughout the lessons I learned that my teacher did not like harp, and did not like celtic music or folk music. Fine. People come from different perspectives. Sometimes it is extra fun for disparate points of view to come together because we learn new stuff from each other. So I thought that this might not matter. But then I had an assignment in which I was to research my favorite guitarists and their influences. I brought them to him and that is when I realized that he didn’t even like the guitarists I liked. The lesson left me feeling like I picked the wrong guitarists to admire. This was super weird and confusing.
It was this point where I realized that every lesson I would ask him this and that about his projects, work and musical ideas (because that is how I talk to other musicians and I really did want to know), while he had no curiosity at all about how music was going for me. I didn’t realize this trend before that day. I was paying attention to too many other things to notice that things were off. It is a flaw of mine not to notice this kind of stuff for a long time. I just pick a direction and keep going, sometimes for far too long.
So, I switched teachers.
I am sorry that I did not have a discussion about this with my first teacher face to face but it has taken me writing and re-writing this article and talking to some music community savvy girlfriends to sort out my thoughts in the first place. I would be fine having the discussion now.
Anyway, I took lessons from a wonderful woman who teaches classical guitar. I was back in classical land, which was comfy. I learned a lot from her too.
Between the two teachers, I feel I got to know guitar quite well.
What I’m doing now
My daughter started Kindergarten this week – no longer in a far away preschool which was near my guitar teachers – and so my guitar lesson days are over.
Right now, I have some quiet time at home. I feel a call to play music again and I am ready to go back.
First though, I feel it is important to really process these experiences. They were confusing and I don’t want to drag bad feelings around if I can help it.
The best way I’ve found to get through a quagmire of confusing feelings is to woodshed out what I can learn from the experience. This has made me feel better.
Here it is, the rest of the article, what I came up with as having learned:
Make smarter connections in a creative community
Human beings as we are, we all need our tribe, that little group of misfits who accept one another for who they are.
When I meet another musician, I am really excited. It is an opportunity to meet someone who might be dealing with the same issues I am; to make a connection with someone I can learn from and to further cultivate a community of growing ideas in the discipline of art. It is an opportunity to meet a member of my tribe.
These guitar experiences reminded me that not all musicians are members of my tribe. As all healthy friendships go, we must be able to have a curiosity about one another. If one musical party does not find the other’s musical ideas at all interesting, it does not work for me for them to be close tribe-fellows. It is OK; a person not being part of my tribe just means they are professional colleagues, which is still a kind and cordial relationship.
Navigate professional mixed gender friendships in a creative field with more finesse
Coming from many years of a heavy female creative scene (95% ladies), I must make some changes to get along if I am going to share my music outside of the harp community.
I thought I’d learned this lesson already when I was working outside the creative field. I was in engineering for 7 years. I had to learn how to do this appropriately as there are so many more men in engineering than women. However, there are more points to good etiquette when it comes to making healthy friendships in a creative field.
In non-creative work, I found that healthy cross gender friendships were forged if men and women were first professionally polite to one another, concentrated on the job at hand, and did their best work around one another. Then, these friendships grew from common experiences from work itself, usually in humor, (i.e., remember when Bob forgot to turn off the Instron that day and the sample shattered into a zillion pieces and made us all jump out of our skin in the cafeteria?). From there, friendships grew from every day living (i.e., let’s all get lunch at the mall and talk about Bob’s upcoming bike race).
I believe that it is harder to form those bonding moments in a creative field. Many creators find it frightening to come together to interact personally in the first place. In the non-creative space, the work you do has been done for years before by other people. There is no question that your work is needed by your company. They wouldn’t have hired you in the first place if it was not so. However, in the creative space, you are creating something that no one knows humanity wants until all of the blood, sweat and tears have gone into making it and it is presented to the world. And then it is either accepted and celebrated or ignored (at least for the time being). Creators take a lot of risks when it comes to their ego. Because of this, there is a lot of emotion and vulnerability carried by creators.
For creators, the stakes of embarrassment and shame often seem really high as the tie with work and one’s emotions are particularly strong. If someone screws up performing, it isn’t as funny, it can be humiliating. If someone really succeeds, others might experience jealousy because they are having a rough time with their work. The emotion and vulnerability always present in creative work can cause a fearful environment of out of control insecurity. This does not have to be, but it is certainly around in the creative world.
Added to that, men and women are well known for having differences when they process emotion. When you are dealing with strong emotions such as insecurity, vulnerability and shame, you have to be sensitive with one another. When you put men and women into the mix, things get extra sensitive because miscommunication is easier.
In the harp world, I like to be sensitive to my peers’ creative endeavors in a very feminine way. I like to be supportive of my colleagues and really open about that. I love to compliment and discover the creations my friends are creating. I love to encourage friends to just do it! when they ponder aloud if they should take on this or that project. I love to be moved at my friends recitals. I love to celebrate when they finish a recording. I love being a cheerleader. I find it energizing, positive and inspiring to make my own art.
But I don’t think this gushing way of being always works in mixed company. I wonder if in the guitar world, because it is so vast and dominated by men, that the tradition of competition between men makes it difficult for many men musicians to bond with one another. Having a woman try to bond by being super supportive might be an uncomfortable experience for them. The man might be thinking, why is this lady being so nice anyway?
So I am thinking that perhaps the best way to navigate this landscape is to just ask work questions once. Ask once about new projects, ask once about how gigs are going, ask once about release dates. After that, leave lots of space. Just work on my own stuff. If curiosity is meets me halfway, then go from there.
Accepting the guitar history of manliness
When I was working with my first guitar teacher, we had a short discussion about how few women out there of note who play guitar. The more I learned about the great guitarists, the more I noticed that women just weren’t represented playing solo electric guitar. At all!! I felt my heart sink as I realized that if I pursued playing electric guitar, I would be an outsider in this culture. Ugh! I also felt quite silly at not consciously noticing this before.
Going through engineering school in a class of 30 with only 5 women, and my first job of being 1 woman on a floor of 100 men, I’ve been in the outsider environment before. Fine. But, the thing is, it is exhausting to be an outsider. When one doesn’t see others like them represented in a group, they feel they don’t fit in. This usually leads to feeling self conscious and to experiencing stereotype threat, which burns up precious brain time as one fights with one’s self explaining that they are fine, they deserve to be where they are, etc.
By the way, if you don’t have a good understanding of what it means to be an outsider, here is a good article on stereotype threat:
While I have dealt with this before and know I will deal with it again, I just have to say:
I don’t want to. I’m tired of it.
A big part of my creative block comes from realizing that I must deal with stereotype threat when it comes to joining a larger community of music. It isn’t that I am afraid of the threat itself, it is just that I’m afraid that I will run out of energy and burn out before I create some good stuff. I see that I’m only going to get busier as time moves ahead.
But, yes, I will have to put up with the extra crap of being an outsider when meeting other guitarists. Since I still want to play and there is no way around this issue, I’ll just have to deal with it.
Finally, whatever ails me when it comes to making music right now, I know it is important to forge ahead with the art. Why else would I have written four drafts of this post and talked to two girlfriends at nauseam about all this stuff that was bothering me? Thank you to my friends for listening. And thank you to my teachers for teaching, even if we didn’t get along.
When it comes to creating, I am not a fan of a lot of talk, but it has been no fun not playing much over the last few months. So, here’s to hoping this work has smashed up the block and you will be hearing wheedly-wheedly-whee along with some lush harp arrangements from a You Tube near you in the future.