A Guitar Lesson for President-Elect Trump

At my guitar lesson this morning I became thoroughly confused. It felt fantastic.

I have strummed guitars off and on for more than 50 years, but this fall I got serious and signed up for weekly lessons with a teacher here in Cambridge named Sam Davis.

Sam has taught me how to play Landslide and Blackbird. I practice an hour every day except Sunday. Darlene says my playing sounds a lot better than it used to. I like the sound of it, too.

The real payoff comes when Sam tries to teach me music theory. I bring a three-ring notebook to his home each Monday, and each lesson he adds a few pages of instruction. He’s a charismatic and eccentric man, a few years younger than I am. He usually teaches in his pajamas, sitting in a high-backed chair that looks like a throne.

Today he scribbled out two pages titled “X-Axis Intensive Absolutistic Modal Flatitude!” As he marked finger positions on a schematic of the guitar’s neck, I tried to figure out the difference between modes and notes, or maybe scales and something else. It was all a blur. I’d get flickers of understanding, moments when I thought I knew what he was talking about. I’d try explaining it. Usually I was so wrong his face showed signs of physical pain.

I very much want to understand what Sam is teaching me. I feel as if I am in kindergarten, learning to read. Those marks on the page, they mean something, right? They form patterns, and people like Mom and Dad can say out loud what they mean. When will I be able to read?

I can only imagine my long-ago passage into the world of words. I’m sure it was similar to what I go through as I gaze dumbly at the pages Sam creates for my notebook.

One of his earliest pages is titled “Modal Relativity: Modes Relative to the ‘Template’ C Major Scale.” There are seven rows comprising sequences of letters and numbers. The rows are labeled Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. It sounds Greek to me, and in this case I’m right. These relationships among notes have been known for millennia.

The reason it felt fantastic to be confused this morning in Sam’s music room has to do with President-Elect Trump.

For the past six days, I have been reading and talking and listening, trying to figure out what happened on November 8. I don’t know where to stand: bravely girded to defend a threatened republic? Calm and savvy, helping others to not freak out? Pissed off and full of snark? I don’t know what I think, so it’s tough to get my emotions right. It’s a mess.

My confusion about Modal Relativity this morning was similar but totally different, because I have nothing to be afraid of when I’m playing my guitar. Not so with what’s ahead for the nation. The stakes are high for all of us.

I believe that if I practice my guitar daily and continue my lessons with Sam Davis, I will figure out what the marks on his music sheets mean. I will hear the difference between a 7th and a Major 7th. My fingers and ears will touch the same harmonies. It’s going to be fantastic.

One day, looking back at November of 2016, I will get this Donald Trump business. For now it is dark, unfamiliar national noise that I hear. It arrives in vague vibrations and discord. Harmony? Not yet.

I will keep practicing.

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