High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Hippydrome: The World's Largest Music Lesson @ OTSFM

So it's been just shy of 50 years since the Old Town School of Folk Music (the actual anniversary is in December) held its first classes. In 1957, Frank Hamilton was the only game in town teaching-wise. Without benefit of even the trusty Old Town School Songbook, he would zip around getting absolute beginners started on the basics and teaching more advanced players new techniques. I've had that very anxiety dream many, many times, but I assume that Mr. Hamilton was not naked the whole time. More surprisingly, yesterday was anxiety free.

So about two months ago notices began to appear about the World's Largest Music Lesson. As many guitar-bearing folk as possible were to gather in Welles Park in an attempt to seize the Guinness World Record for largest music lesson from a bunch of chocolate-making, harmonica-playing pacifist monkeys.

I hadn't been to a Second Half (a great OTSFM tradition wherein everyone gathers in the auditorium after classes and plays together for half an hour, culminating in a "Twin Spin"—two songs chosen by a different teacher each week copied on to a double-sided sheet of paper [greatly embiggening one's collection of music!]) in a long while, because I've been taking mostly ensemble classes, which run off schedule with the core classes and thus with Second Half. However, since I've been volunteering at the resource center on Tuesday nights, and M has his class on Tuesdays, we meet up there. (So for anyone wondering about the strange woman who shows up at Second Half to, apparently, knit: Mystery solved.)

Anyway, they were pushing the music lesson hard at second half, but each time they did, there was some confusion: At first there was a rain date of August 8, then it was the 7th, rain or shine. There was a rumor that those with Tuesday night classes had been prorated for the night of the lesson, then that was quashed. All the while, I kept thinking about the logistics of trying to register and check in 2000 people in the space of an hour, and I worried.

I shouldn't have. It all came off beautifully. The worst thing to say about the whole thing is that it was so horribly hot yesterday, which can hardly be blamed on the dearth of planning skills of a bunch of hippy artists. I got up to Lincoln Square quite early because we were the bad people who drove there, despite admonishments not to do so. It simply wasn't practical for M and I to haul ourselves and 2 guitars from Beverly to Lincoln Square on public transit at rush hour.

So after soaking up some lunch and air conditioning, I grabbed my trusty trunk blanket (see? it's totally a good thing that I haven't gotten around to donating all the crap in my trunk!), both guitars (did you know that resonator guitars are really freaking heavy?), and my laptop bag and settled myself in some shade near the gazebo. I was just on the very edge of the Sulzer Library's free WiFi, so I was able to check in and get some editing work to do, which I then promptly blew off so that I could cast on this sweater in some luscious rowan tapestry.

Being relatively immobile in the shade made the heat bearable. Add in the iPod, and I spent a pretty good few hours oblivious to most of the rest of the world. Around 4 PM, activity started up around me as staff and volunteers got the sound equipment, tables, and so on, set up. I hadn't volunteered for the lesson, because I wasn't sure what our plans would be, and I felt moderately guilty just sitting there while others worked. Not guilty enough to try to move through the swampy air, mind you, but guilty.

Around 5:30, everything seemed, more or less, to be set up. One of the faculty approached me tentatively and asked if he could interview me. Uh oh. He started with, "I think you're the first student I've seen here."

"Uh, maybe . . . " said I, shifty eyed.

"Oh, have you seen others?"

"No," I admitted, "and I've been here since about 3:30 . . . "

"Because you wanted to be the first?"

No, so that I could evilly monopolize the ultra-scarce resource of parking spaces, MWA HA HA HA HA HA! I decided this answer was too dissonant with my hippy dippy skirt and my knitting with all-natural fibers, etc. (I'd already stashed my massive, pimped out MBP.)

"Well, I had some errands to run . . ."

He looked perplexed but seemed to accept this. He asked about my relationship with the school and with music, which led to the articulation of something I've been thinking about for a while.

I've been taking classes at OTSFM for nearly 6 years. I started with voice classes just before road tripping with my pal M and the First Daughter to the nuptials of pals A and B (heh, no seriously, those are their initials!), just before spouse M moved to Chicago, just before I started work at Castle Demented, and just when I was pulling myself (and being pulled) out of a pretty low point. My very first guitar class was September 6, 2001. It goes without saying that my world and The World have changed immeasurably in that time (of course, as usual, I've just said it).

I think I've mentioned before that I have no art brain whatsoever. That matters not even a little bit at Old Town.

I sing. And the world doesn't come to a screeching halt because I'm not very good at it. I'm better at it than I was and I can sing with others (and even, occasionally, by myself in front of others) without dying a little bit each time.

I play. And when I screw up, I pause, catch my breath, and jump back in. (And when I practice, I get better, but sssssshhh! Don't tell my lazy!brain, which likes to think in terms of "There is no try, there is only rock!")

I listen. And I hear new things every single time a song I've been listening to for decades comes on. When I hear something and tingle, I know better how they're doing it. And I can learn how to do it if I want to. I pick out harmonies. I add my own.

And, being me, I write. I have words for the things that move me that I didn't have before, and I can fix thrilling moments in my memory and on the page.

No, I didn't go all drippy on the poor guy and go into all that. I gave him the Reader's Digest Condensed version, which is no less true or important:
I learn. Teaching, as I do, mostly introductory classes, it's easy to get frustrated with students' struggles with what, to me, is incredibly basic information.

I have no musical ability whatsoever. Every class I take is a struggle (granted, an incredibly low-pressure, low-stakes struggle). It takes work (and practice, but again, we're not telling lazy!brain). I forget things. I fight against my tendency to translate everything by way of piano. I mess up. But I go back every week, and it's not just because I also have fun (and I have an unconscionable amount of fun there): I hope it makes me a better teacher—and I think it does.

In addition to just the struggle to be a student, though, I think Old Town makes me a better teacher, because I get to watch so many good teachers in action. And they were in fine form last night. The park filled up so gradually it was really hard to guess how many people were there. Once M showed up, I finally went over and checked in, which took a matter of 2 minutes (and I don't think anyone had any more trouble than that).

Before the lesson started, they announced that the number of checked in participants had topped 1250. A second announcement put us at 1350. The final tally was 1377—more than twice the previous record. Woot!

The two songs on tap were "Jambalaya," because, thank you Hank Williams, a song containing only D and A7 gives everyone a chance to be a rock star, and "This Land is Your Land." Steve Levitt was, more or less, the MC for the evening. He was my third guitar teacher and the one who pulled me back from the edge of giving up at Guitar 1-Rep.

In classic Old Town style, he started with the beginners and gave everyone a lightning-fast, easy-to-understand tour of their own hands and their guitars. In a matter of 15 minutes, the substantial portion of the crowd that had never before picked up a guitar knew how to make the chord shapes for D and A7, to transition easily between the two, to count out the measures, and when to strum.

For level-2 players, Andrea Bunch and Cathy Norden introduced the tried and true "Johnny Cash" bass/strum-alternate bass/strum pattern (credit should probably go to the Carter family, but I understand the need to command the authority of the Man in Black before such a crowd), and fancied that up with some Sus2s.

Dan Fulkerson helped level-3 players out with some mini-barre chords on the 5th, 10th, and 12th frets that made for more than passable solos (because you've gotta have your "Jambalaya" solos ready to rock for your encore, you know). Tossing things back to Steve, the level-3 folks were also briefly instructed in jazzing up the regular old verses and chorus with a reggae strum pattern. After each level's lesson, we played a verse and chorus putting the m@d 5k1llz to use, and then we played the whole darn thing. And we rocked, dammit.

The road to "Jambalaya" was a great distillation of the Core Guitar program. "This Land is Your Land," was more representative of how things go in the Second Half. One of the teachers picks a song to lead, and everybody jumps in at their own level. If you can only strum on the 1, then by god, you strum on the 1 and those who are further along pick up the slack. If you want to do crazy barre chords and totally mash on the trembolo and work those squeadlies, then power to the people.

The Different Strummer was raffling off a guitar to one of the first 1000 registrants. After the drawing, the crowd started—slowly and reluctantly—to thin as the faculty lead us all in "Give Peace a Chance" (because ya just gotta under the circumstances). We'd all been invited back to the auditorium for a big Second Half.

M repaired to the soccer club for a mini-class (next week is their graduation, so they at least needed to plan that out), and I headed for BEER. I hadn't realized just how hot it was until I stepped into the air conditioning. Still, I was so full of peace, love, and hippy happiness that I did not, in fact, bust a cap in Charles Kim's ass when he cut in front of me in line at the cafe. (Kidding. Mostly. I was turned away when he got into the line, so I suppose my beer need was not immediately obvious.)

The auditorium only holds about 600 people, so fortunately not all 1400 came back for the embiggened Second Half. Still, it was quite full. Mary Peterson shook us down and forced us to admit that most of us knew more than the 2 chords we'd just learned, and we went into midnight special. Every teacher who'd made it led some song or another, and even the new executive director (whom I've now seen an infinite percentage [division by zero, dontchaknow] more than I ever saw the old ed) led one.

Good times. Rock on.

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