Playing it by Ear
“Play it by ear.” You hear that a lot these days. “Let’s play it by ear.” Sounds so easy. Not much planning or research or thinking about it. You just go for it and do it. That sounds easy doesn't it? Hear it all the time. In fact, I heard someone say that just today.
It reminded me that I have been meaning to tell you about how I got this mangled up right ear. I know you have noticed it. I have seen you looking at it, and probably wondering, maybe for a second or two, what happened to it to make it that way. You probably guessed it might have been bitten off in a fist fight or something when I was younger. Well, it was not that.
On one hand, I kind of wish you were right, it lends a little macho flavor. But on the other hand, being the more sensitive, sensible person that I am, I've always tried to avoid those kinds of physical contest situations, leaning more toward being the gentler, kinder, more thoughtful kind of person. Following the more creative passions of life, like music for example.
I have always loved music, since my cradle days, lying awake at night, hearing the faint muffled sounds of the jukebox coming from the beer joint down the street. Hearing my oldest sister hum and sing away quietly while she was ironing at the ironing board in the corner of the room. Patsy Cline, Hank Williams. the creaking of the old wooden ironing board adding to the rhythm. The low train whistle in the far distance, a lonesome coyote in the fields on the edge of town calling out for company, a lonely trucker down-shifting on the final long downhill stretch towards home… but I digress..
Back to the music. I have always been moved by music and often thought that maybe someday I would try to make some of it myself.
So, one day I decided to just give it a shot. I saved up some money till I had enough down payment to buy a cheap little steel string guitar. They let me make payments. I would plink around on it, but never could quite figure out how to make music come together sounding right.
One Oklahoma Saturday afternoon I was sitting and talking with my older friend Martin. Martin had been around a bit and I usually respected his advice and opinions. I told him about my frustrations with learning to play my new guitar.
Martin listened carefully, and then said “You just need to take some lessons then then you can do it There's plenty of music teachers around. You are bright. They can probably have you playing in no time.”
I said “wow” and then thought about it a minute. “How much do those lessons cost? I don't have much extra money. In fact, I'm still paying for the darn thing.”
Martin took a long sip of wine. “Well, most of them charge by the hour or lesson, and they make good money I guess.”
“Well I guess that lets me out. I sure would like to be playing that thing, but I don't know what to do next. Maybe more wine will help.” I poured us both some more wine.
Martin’s face lit up. “Say, well maybe you could learn to play by ear!” He smiled and said “I hear that's the way a lot of them ole boys did it back in the past. Some of the best of them never had a lesson in their life, and now they make a living doing it! You hear a lot of them radio, just a playin’ up a storm!”
“Thanks Martin, I’ll try that! How about some more of this wine?”
I let the thoughts of what he had told me soak into through another glass or two.
After Martin left, I opened another bottle of wine and poured myself a big glass fully full, drank several gulps and then I reached out for my guitar. I was determined. I took the plastic pick that came with the guitar out of the strings and put it over on the coffee table. “I am through with that!” I said to myself.
Excited to try Martin’s suggestion that I should learn to play by ear, I took another long drink from the wine glass, picked up the guitar with my left hand on the neck and strings, and the other holding the body. I turned it facing me and held it up against my right ear then started strumming the strings with my ear by raising and lowering the guitar in small increments, pushing harder and harder to get different sounds.
My ear got real sore real fast, and the harder and longer I practiced, the more it hurt. The wine ran out and I kept practicing. The music never seemed to get any better.
Then, suddenly, a stabbing pain in my ear, and in a reflexive move, I tried to put the guitar down and away but could not do it. My ear was stuck between a couple of those strings. The pain got worse as I tried harder to pull the guitar away from my head. Blood started dripping on my shoulder. I panicked and, still holding the guitar body with my right hand, I headed out the door to go to the emergency room.
It is difficult to get into a car holding a guitar to your head, but it can be done.
Driving while holding a guitar against your head is even more difficult, but still doable when you are drunk and scared.
Pulling into the emergency room parking lot, my left-hand lost grip on the steering wheel for a second and I ran into the curb, bringing the car to an abrupt stop, but not me or the guitar. We went forward quickly, and the neck of the guitar jammed into the windshield, releasing the instrument forcefully from most of my right ear, taking with it a sizable chunk of grizzly tissue.
Leaving the bloody guitar behind I headed into the ER with my right hand now covering a mangled ear.
The doctor sat me down on the table and looked at my bloody misshapen ear. “So, tell me about this ear. Have you just been in a fist fight with someone and they bit part of it off?”
“No, no… “I was embarrassed to tell him exactly what occurred.
The Doc said, “Well it looks like it. You have been drinking, and I have seen these kinds of injuries in bar fights. Tell me what did happen?”
“It got it tangled in some steel wires.”
“What kind of steel wires?”
“Well… Guitar strings.”
“Guitar strings! Are you musician?”
I thought for a minute. “Doesn't look like it.” I said.
So, after that little episode, I decided that I must not be destined to play the guitar, and I quit trying.
I quit, leaving myself with six more guitar payments, a doctor bill and a screwed-up ear.
Now whenever someone says they want to just “play it by ear”, I always just say “Good luck with that!”