I do not quite remember how ‘learn to play an instrument’ made it to my list of new things I wanted to try out while living in Chicago. It got there along with a few other items I had never been exposed to and which because of that, sparked my interest. I also put down ‘learn how to knit’, but my husband clearly articulated his lack of interest in any wool socks, hats or scarfs, hence that idea did not make it to my final plan.
Playing an instrument was something that we both felt could be nicely incorporated into our lifestyle and so the idea was born that this is what I would pursue a bit further. I could not picture myself beating drums, playing harp or blowing into a trumpet. Of all conceivable instruments, piano and acoustic guitar seemed to be what I was mostly able to imagine myself with.
I envisioned playing with either one of them, realized that I did not want a bulky piano to be standing in our living room catching dust, and felt pity for our neighbors having to put up with me practicing (I know how it is). Playing guitar appeared much more practical, flexible and easy on the ear.
With this decision taken, I had to find a music school. This was quite a complex task, because in Chicago, there seems to be at least one on every block. Of course, I did extensive online research (as on anything else), screened a bunch of reviews, compared prices, studied pictures and went to a few (sometimes free, sometimes not) trial lessons in order to find out more about some of the locations. I visited rather filthy places that had not seen fresh paint in decades, met instructors who reminded me of Axel Rose and walked into schools where I seemed to be the oldest student by far.
After I had almost given up on my research, I finally found my music school. Only five minutes from where we live is an amazingly cool place called Altered Stage, nicely located in the windowless basement of a modern yellow brick office building. For the first time, I did not feel like a student when entering, I felt like an artist (I initially thought I had to look for another door that said something like ‘student entrance’, not realizing I had just passed the actual entrance to the school).
It has a lovely area to hang out together, numerous guitars to practice with at any time, drinks in the fridge, a big room for fellow gigs and jams once a certain confidence level is reached and the most important thing: an incredibly patient instructor named Jerry. That was my school and I signed up immediately. It is a place where you become part of a music-loving community the minute you walk in the door.
Jerry and I met a few times and practiced with guitars from the school, before I felt ready to buy my own guitar. Never having owned an instrument before, this was a task not to be underestimated. It felt a bit like wanting to buy a car without knowing how to drive. Jerry equipped me with everything I needed to know in terms of tips and tricks, and with my husband in tow I made my way to Chicago’s largest and iconic store for guitars. Even if you do not intend to buy anything, it is a place worth visiting when in town.
There is a hall dedicated to just acoustic guitars, which is equally stunning and intimidating for any new player. You will find guitars from as cheap as 200 Dollars to as expensive as 15.000 Dollars and you better know what you want, as massive as this collection is. Another even bigger hall is home to all electric guitars, which frankly speaking look a tiny bit cooler than acoustic guitars with all their different shapes and colors.
Warmly greeted as usual, I get asked what I am here for today, but the only thing I am able to remember from the mental list that Jerry and I jointly developed, is the fact that it had to be a guitar for a beginner (obviously), with a cost of no less than 500 Dollars (instructors kept talking about this magic threshold).
I am presented several guitars and get to try them out as well. Not yet able to strike even a single chord, there is not really much playing going on for me, though. Unlike the people around me, who seem to be picking out just another guitar for their already large collection, my fiddling around sounds anything but melodic, and this has nothing to do with the guitar.
I eventually find one where my right arm rests comfortably on the guitar’s body (an aspect worth paying attention to) and which is affordable and nicely looking (that is all I can judge at this stage). You might agree that with this limited of a grasp of what I need, there is no point in buying something which I might regret later.
The next time Jerry and I meet, I ask him again all the questions I had already asked, and he patiently and passionately explains everything one more time, as if we never talked about this before. This time however, I do take notes very meticulously, so nothing would escape my memory again.
On the following Saturday, my husband and I head to the same store again, just to realize that what feels like the whole of the city had the exact same idea. There are people over people, strumming and playing each in their own rhythm and melody. It is so noisy, there is no way I can buy a guitar like that. To the dismay of my husband and my own frustration, we leave again, empty-handed.
We agree to come back on Sunday and this time, it just must work out. We drive there as early as possible, are luckily one of the first customers, stumble across a nice guy from the store to assist me with every possible question I have (becoming more and more comfortable in pretending I know what I am talking about) and finally, I can call a new guitar my own. It turns out I had already been presented this guitar the first time I was there, but as we know, all good things come in threes.
My cute little Yamaha guitar came with a padded bag, a starter set including tuner, picks, a black strap that I replaced with a more colorful one, a mini humidifier as dryness is the death to all guitars and a capo. It has got its dedicated spot in a corner of our study and is being picked up as often as my sore fingertips allow. This should get better over time, I learned. Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is the first song I decided I want to be playing in full, currently studying all the chords for it of minor and major notes I have no idea what they mean. Jerry says that there are people who become great players without learning a single note. They play by just listening and replicating what they hear on their guitar. That is very encouraging to hear, as I might just become one of them.