The value of learning new things

I’ve been trying to learn to play guitar for about the last 6 years. For the first 5, I focused on folk/country and basic chords on a steel string acoustic guitar. Townes van Zandt, Neil Young, and Merle Haggard were some of my main sources of inspiration. I really enjoyed it and got to the point where I managed a decent version of Pancho and Lefty and Old Man. I especially love finger picking but couldn’t do it the way that Townes played Pancho and Lefty and could never even imagine figuring out how to do more complicated pieces.

After reading what I could find on finger-style guitar, I decided to buy a used classical nylon string guitar, because these are built with wider fret boards and are generally easier to do finger picking. I loved the sound and feel but really had no idea what I was doing with it. Having no clue, I took the next “logical” step and tried to play a guitar transcription of the Prelude of the first Bach cello suite, one of the most beautiful (and challenging!) pieces of music ever written. After struggling to decipher the notes and fingering notation, I contacted Prof. Daniel Bolshoy, a guitar professor at UGA to see if I could get a little help.

To my great surprise, Daniel was willing to spend time teaching me! I showed up the first day knowing that I wanted to learn to play Bach but not knowing the first thing about even how to hold my instrument. I had studied trumpet throughout childhood and learned how to read music, which did help. Needless to say, Daniel is extremely patient and also a gifted teacher. He started me off with some very basic exercises and simple etudes that help separate right hand (picking) and left hand (fretting) techniques.

I have been studying with Daniel for a bit more than a year now, and I have actually managed to get through the Prelude of the first Bach cello suite (though it is still rough enough that I’m deliberately not yet posting a video of me playing it—that will come later). Yesterday, Daniel started me on the Villa-Lobos Prelude #1, and that was the first that I’ve heard that piece of music, though I’m already loving it!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why Bach and Villa-Lobos are less popular than Merle Haggard and Neil Young. Not only is “classical” music less popular than “popular” music, there is also perception that it is “elitist”, and this is especially confusing and troubling to me. Bach was composing in the 1700s but his music can sound remarkably fresh and new. The unaccompanied cello, violin, and lute music is simply amazing.

My mom was a professional cellist who played for the Utah Symphony during my entire childhood, so that clearly is the source of love that I have for classical music. I asked her recently why Bach is less popular that Merle Haggard, and her answer was simple: Children don’t learn classical music. I think she is right.

I am a scientist who studies very beautiful things like the behavior of small worms and the function of biological molecules. Most people don’t get the same sense of joy as I do when they think of small worms that need to be studied under a microscope, but they really are beautiful to watch. They also make good leather work subjects. I’m convinced that anyone can learn to enjoy science, but it takes effort to learn before it makes sense and before the beauty becomes apparent.

Panagrellus redivivus worms in a microscope. These are about 1 mm long.

I also love to draw, because I learned how to do it while I was an art student at the University of Utah. Drawing takes practice, just like playing guitar, making a saddle, or doing science. It also helps to have someone teach you how to see when you are learning to draw. I enjoy taking a sketch book with me when I visit museums in my travels. Taking the time to sketch something really adds to the experience because it forces you to really see the object rather than just walk by.

Sketch of The Thinker I made while visiting the Rodin Museum in Paris a few years ago.

I will never be a great guitar player or a skilled artist. But my life is much richer because I’ve learned something about these things. Now, when I hear a great classical guitar player, I can appreciate what I’m hearing much more than I could a year ago before I started studying classical guitar. By learning new things, they become less “elite” and much more human. I can appreciate the skill and beauty of Bach, Villa-Lobos, and Rodin in ways that I couldn’t before learning something about them and their art.

Maybe learning new things is one of the ways that we can learn more about people with different backgrounds, upbringing, and political leanings. It can make life richer for all of us and help us to understand and appreciate new things.

Let me know what you are planning on learning this year!

Happy New Year!

Author: edisonleatherworks

I'm a biochemistry professor and leatherworker who likes bicycles, travel, art, education, and music. Walking is my favorite form of transportation, and I regularly practice Tai Chi.

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