The first thing I needed to do – predictably perhaps – was clip my fingernails. However, before taking that drastic step, I needed to document the fact that I had any fingernails to clip in the first place.
Weren’t they lovely? I thought so too. Even in length, contoured to a gentle slope around the curving edge of my fingers, and glossy in the light. Possibly the best set of fingernails I have ever had, and I had to cut them.
This occasioned some grieving. My fingernails have been a lifelong source of insecurity : in high school, it was almost a badge of deep personal merit for a girl to have long, beautiful fingernails. My short, stumpy nails, at the tips of short, stumpy fingers, made me want to hide my hands in shame. As if the lack of glossy, perfectly shaped fingernails made me somehow less of a girl; indeed, less of a person altogether. Whenever they have managed to grow out past the barely visible white horizon beyond the quick, I have felt like celebrating. I’ve painted them purple, vermillion, black, silver; have filed them to a point or a breathtakingly arched perfect curve; have scratched more than one back in friendship or pleasure. Because let’s just get this on the table right now : long fingernails make a girl feel sexy. Short, stubby (= string player’s) fingernails, on the other hand, make a girl feel, well, stubby, more Irish-washer-womanly than womanly. So I have gone back and forth between a desperate desire to wave beautifully manicured hands with a flourish, and the equally strong though conflicted desire to cut my nails and not care, cut them to the quick and be the kind of ruddy-faced country peasant who I imagine would not care about such trivial matters as keratin protrusions. If I didn’t type all the time and love creating music with my hands, I would seriously consider becoming a vocalist. At one point I owned a perfect rainbow of nail-polish colors, everything from deep metallic purple to demure pale peach. At another point, trying to reconcile myself to the stubby nail-less-ness of my hand profile, I threw it all out.
So I cut my nails when Guitar Month began, every last one. Then I cut them again, ruthlessly removing even the narrowest sliver of white extending beyond the peach color of skin at the fingertips. I sighed deeply, and picked up the guitar. For a few weeks there, I had really beautiful fingernails.
Throughout the centuries, people have suffered for their art.
But oh, there is no feeling on earth that compares to the feeling of a fingertip flush against a guitar string. The way the first note expands to fill the air around you, the air itself vibrating within a sonority that lies somewhere between metal and breath, the hum that sings before it fades, singing and fading, like the filament of crimson in a sunset gone to indigo as night falls. And then : the way the fingers lift up, hours having passed within an instant, fingers lifting up dented, shaded in charcoal and aching with triumph. The way the sound of the guitar lingers in the dark of an empty room, playing off the corners and against the glass of darkened windows, night pressing in closer to listen.
Unlike any other instrument I know, the guitar speaks the language of darkness, its contours and its shadowed hues, as if the instrument draws its notes right out of the river of time between dusk and dawn. Those hours, indigo-grey and brick-purple, shot through with streaks of silver or gold luminosity, the gentle silk of moonlight and the flash of a streetlamp’s lamé gleam through fog – those hours hold the weight of hope and grief, like the endless arms of a heavy bowl or the lapping succour of an ocean.
The first night, I merely played. And I do mean “play,” in the strictest etymological sense of the term : letting go of goals, letting go of guilt, even releasing a bit the tight grip of expectation and perfectionism that continue to haunt me, I unleashed my unknowingness into a reckless, joyful shout and just had fun. I knew three chords automatically and by heart; I played them, and made up words to go with their progression. Other chords came back to me as I played, so I added them. The progression might have gone something like : G – C – D – A – E – Emin – Amin – ohyeahDsus – andohyeahC7 – G. It sounded weird and promising. The D chord always seems too high when played in first position, but I don’t know any other positions at this point, so I shrugged and played it. Fabulous. The A sounded tinny. I shrugged again. Meh. Overhigh D, tinny A, wonky Emin, strained C7 … it didn’t matter. The only important thing was getting notes into the air. They rang out and seeped into the hardwood. I let them go and played other ones. It was wonderful.
After an hour of playing, my fingertips were swollen and tight from the pressure, and a groove marked each fingerprint like a gutter. I thought of chords like rain, falling into the gulf between street and sidewalk, the channels along rooftops, the worn paths down hillsides where rivulets have formed mineral patterns. This is what guitar music does to the body : it forms deposits that become a part of your physical being. You wear your callouses like a badge, fingertips peeling until they don’t, the harder callouses underneath strengthening so you can slide, and extend, and hammer on, and pick, and strum.
I put the guitar down until the following day, when I pulled out actual sheet music and a tab guide and a book of my grandfather’s on how to play classical guitar. It occurred to me only some seventy-two hours later that, in the thrill of playing, I had not thought about my discarded fingernails once. Not a single time.
My goals for Guitar Month are threefold :
- 1. Learn to read sheet music for guitar and identify where the notes are positioned on the strings. You would think that, as I’ve been reading music since I was four or five years old, this goal would be a minor challenge. You would be mistaken. I learned to play guitar the way many folk guitarists have learned, which is to say, by imitating someone else’s hand position and knowing only a smattering of the actual names of chords. Giving names to the lines and spaces on the staff, and understanding how each finger corresponds to a line or space on each string, requires a kind of mental calisthenics that so far has me feeling breathless, as if I’d just jumped rope for an hour or slammed my solar plexus into the lower of two uneven parallel bars.
- 2. Increase my knowledge of chords and perfect at least one harmonic progression. Yes, that includes bar-chords and things like F, Bb, and Bmin, and means learning a much better technique for hitting the frets at just the right place and developing the confidence to play a progression without staring at my left hand or halting in between parts of a song. So yes, Guitar Month will also feature some singing. I’m nervous about this, and excited too. I’d like to learn to play some things out of first position, too. Explore the upper frets more than I have done up to now, and let their resonances ring out.
- 3. Learn to play Matteo Carcassi’s Étude III, Opus 60. This is my classical goal for Guitar Month. I have loved this étude – might even call it my favorite guitar piece, though that’s quite a tall order for such an amazing repertoire – since my friend Joaquim gave me a CD of Rita Honti playing guitar favorites as a goodbye present when I left Boston for my first faculty job. In the back of my mind, I want to play this for Joaquim. So he knows how his gift has touched and inspired me. And that means I have to play it really well, if not perfectly, because the piece was the reason he chose that CD to give me in the first place.
These may be tall orders, but I prefer to think of them as honorable ambitions. And already, after one week, the guitar has become a close friend all over again, filling my days with the kind of yearning that a deep friendship creates : I can’t wait to get back to it when my working day is done, can’t wait to get home so I can bruise and groove and blister my fingertips. I find comfort in the company of these breathy chords, and the ways they reach and lift and breathe into the room, this room, this ordinary living room, transforming it into a breathing chamber full of the light and logic of music.