Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Guitar Picker Blues and Bringing the Dead Pinky to Life

I bought a klunker guitar from John Proios, my guitar buddy, so I could carry it around without a case and not worry about damage. It’s in the case while my Ramirez Flamenco sits on its little store-stand, just daring me to pick it up every time I walk by. I plan to buy a cardboard box for the klunker and send it to Carla, my ex wife Cheryl’s sister who put me up and gave me TLC while I was in Virginia for my son Robbie’s funeral back in October or whenever. Carla always had a crush on me, and probably still does, but seems to have sworn off men and sworn an oath to celibacy, poor woman. I should have married her instead of her sister way back when, but she was only 12 and I couldn’t wait.

And, I did pick up the Ramirez today, and spent an hour and a half stroking its sonorous strings, the base of which are silver-coated bronze wrapped around a composite fiber core so they don’t lose tuning. They’re new, so I’ve been tweaking them for the past few days, and they sound brilliant.

Speaking of stroking, I feel as though I’ve been hit with a stroke. The little fingers of both hands turn spastic on me when I try to play guitar with them. I’ve neglected most activities with them most of my life, so they are not as flexible and accurate as the others. That means I might as well have been hit with a stroke for all the good they do. I am going through something remotely similar to what a stroke victim goes through, trying to build neural pathways between my thoughts and my pinky fingers.

I once thought I could go a whole lifetime without ever really needing my right pinky, the one I stroke the strings with. Then I ran across the music of Heitor Villa Lobos, a Brazilian composer who died of lung cancer in 1959. Several years before he died, he wrote twelve Etudes, so called because each one demonstrates a different kind of mastery one must achieve in order to play it correctly.

Etude 1 became my challenge when I heard it. I plan to learn it, and I practiced on it today. Basically, it requires a kind of arpeggio plucking pattern while holding chords down with the left hand, and it has a haunting appeal to it.

Most arpeggios require TIMAMI – thumb-index-middle-annular(ring)-middle-index, or something like that, played quickly, and each finger plucks a different string. I can do that fairly easily. Why? Because I’m plucking only 4 stirings.

Etud 1’s arpeggio, however, requires you to pluck all 6 strings, and not in purely sequential order. The pattern: TITMIAMLALMAIMTI. I can’t even say it, let alone play it. And notice the Ls in the sequence? That’s the little finger, the pinky, the one I use only for boogers and ear wax.

The arpeggio calls upon it only twice, and it might as well call upon me to put my pinky toe on the string. I have to look at my pinky finger and will it to move independently of all other fingers, then watch it like it’s a stubborn, recalcitrant child to make sure it lands on that string and plucks it clearly.

A couple of weeks ago I got sick of my fingernails breaking, so I went to the Vietnamese nail salon outside my community and got the nails “wrapped” on my right hand fingers. The little man dipped his brush into a solvent, then into a powder, and daubed it on my fingernails, then smoothed it out. They dried fairly quickly and he sanded them down with his Dremel tool. No, he didn’t paint them. Now I have long, strong nails, particularly the pinky nail. So, now at least I have something on that pinky with which to pluck the string.

After an hour and a half of drudgery, the pinky began to do its job. I figure I’ll have to spend 20 or 30 hours of practice just to play Etude 1 smoothly, and another 20 to 30 hours to play it fast. Imagine spending a solid week, 10 hours a day, learning to play one little tune. Oh, well, it’s a beautiful piece and I’ll be proud of myself if I actually stick to it. We’ll see.

While I was doing all that boring practice, Maria lay quietly on the futon in the other room and watched TV, letting her mind drift to the tones coming from my Ramirez. She loves the sound of that instrument. So do I.

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