Part 2: What I Did On My Work Holiday (or, Music Is The Devil of Details)

I learned a new instrument.

Again, “learned” is rather overestimating the degree to which I’ve been successful. But that’s not the point. I’m not a great drummer by any stretch of the imagination. I can keep a beat if it’s one of the carefully chosen ones that tickle my fancy, or is a rif on one already made for me by those who have gone before, but I will never be featured as an artist on an album not of my own design (more to come on that later) or revered by the adoring masses. But I do love to play.

I’d always wanted to try something fresh and challenging, musically. Guitar was never that exciting to me, but I’ve owned several guitars over the years with which to fiddle. Bass was so much more appealing due to the frequency range and the traditionally rhythmic aspect of the instrument. I’ve also owned basses; indeed, one of my favourite possessions is a four string fretless neck-through Ibanez Soundgear bass that I bought because it was just beautiful to behold.

I really wanted something that wasn’t just another bass, guitar, drum, or ethnic instrument of whose originating cultural experience I was most likely ignorant. There had to be something to tease the lusts of the technological mind. Something to open up the world of the rhythmic and melodic without falling to the lure of the more “usual” “unusual” instruments. I certainly didn’t want to find myself steeping awkwardly in a cultural melange only to look a complete fool for not understanding the why of an instrument before the how.

The answer came to me in one of those roundabout ways that strike you at mid-day on a Sunday: OF COURSE! I’D ALWAYS WANTED ONE OF THOSE! My recent re-kindling of a love affair with the music of King Crimson (in all its many iterations and reKriminations) reminded me of my fascination with the Chapman Stick.

And so, I bought a Stick

If you’ve never heard of the Chapman Stick, you’re not alone. It is a custom designed stringed instrument created decades ago, and still made, by former jazz guitarist-turned-stickist Emmett Chapman that resembles a guitar without the body that, while not played in the same manner, is something not so far away from the concept of a guitar as to be insanely foreign. The Stick is a tapped, fretted instrument which allows the player to use all of their fingers on both hands to create chordal structures more aligned with the piano than the guitar. One does not strum the Stick, one taps one’s fingers on the fretboard to allow the string to ring out. With standard setups of 10 or 12 strings, the Stick has a lot of room for creativity.

Again, I’ve never been a melodic instrument guy. I had a few years of piano lessons in my youth and, as some do, I hated the experience. Not so much because of the instrument but because of the manner in which I was taught. I’d dabbled in other instruments throughout the years (cello, flute, ukulele, guitar, bass, etc., and most recently the Kyrgyz lute known as the komuz), but always rushed back to percussion. Here I had a very expensive, very complex, very niche instrument and a lot of fingers to coordinate.

When I received my brand new, hand made Chapman Stick, I created a couple of videos documenting my initial experience. These were not only to test my ability to edit together clips of myself in front of a camera, but to provide me a safe outlet for my anxiety at learning something so… foreign. What would happen the moment I strapped it on? How would my giant fingers feel as they tried to find any sensible sound or logical structure with all those strings stretched silently along the massive fretboard literally hanging from my belt and strapped around my neck. I was terrified. And I still am. It’s not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for the novice string instrument dabbler.

But what it does represent is an action taken.

What I learned: I really suck at the Chapman Stick. There are some things in life that do come naturally for me: visualization of complex systems, the ability to detect sarcasm in direct interpersonal communication, puns. There are things that do not come naturally to me: playing the Chapman Stick. That understanding took about seventeen minutes to dawn on me and about four days to settle in. Surprisingly enough, it was a bit devastating at first. I’d thought, “Hey, how hard can it be to find the right place to put my fingers to make some neato sounds”? How I wish I’d listened to my painting experiences before allowing my poor deluded mind to settle on that little rocky ledge for a rest. After having my ego knocked over that ledge by a really big reality boulder (to continue the metaphor), I came to an inescapable conclusion (with some help from my long-suffering therapist): it’s okay to suck at learning a complex new instrument. I had to allow myself to be a beginner; to give myself permission to not be really great at something; to take the time to want to progress and see what I learn not only about the instrument but about myself in the process.

My Chapman Stick now represents something very important to me: my own growth while grappling with the willingness to fail at something the first thousand times. Every time I hit the wrong note or mis-fret something, or just plain foul things up, that sound will only last as long as I hold it in my consciousness. It’s been worth every second to be alone with a project at which I’m just not great.


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