by Author nicbriggs

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The value of always gaining new skills: As a woodwind player, why I’ve started to learn the guitar by Katie Stevens (Shadow Artist on Quench Arts’ Wavelength project)

Why have I started learning the guitar? The answer to this is multifaceted so I’ll first answer why I ‘didn’t’ play the guitar before, what made me start learning and what benefits I have seen which I did not expect.


Firstly, I come from a classical background and play a single line melody instrument; harmony and rhythm have been somewhat absent in my musical life. Although I know that I have a good ear, my training meant that I developed a skill for hearing the very top line but not much underneath. In fact, thinking about harmony and texture made me feel considerably out of my depth and for those reasons, and for a very long while, I considered the guitar to be something that other people played and not me; an assumption based on my inability. Yet this barrier contained my inability and this in turn could only enhance such an inadequacy in my mind! What a Catch 22!


Playing the guitar has seemed more and more important in my work on projects such as Musical Connections and Wavelength (both run by Quench Arts). Even playing one chord on a guitar can spark the basis of a song and it has the potential to ignite instantly. So, when I was given the task to lead a one-to-one session, I HAD to use the guitar. I bought a guitar and started to learn and what a mistake it was not to have shed my useless inhibitions sooner!  I’m by no means a guitar virtuoso yet, but I have the basics and I am happily improving with every day. Meanwhile, it is feeding and enhancing so much of my musical life.


Despite having never expressed my own emotions in song format before, I have now begun songwriting and I’m overjoyed to find a new musical voice which I didn’t ever expect to have. This in turn has informed my work as a community musician immeasurably.  I am now much more able to support participants in constructing their songs – a harmony instrument opens up colours and textures which I could never find before.       


Learning the guitar has also given me a platform for writing my own song lyrics; over the years I have helped many other people writing lyrics yet never created my own. Expressing myself in this way has been entirely terrifying and suddenly I can see this from the songwriter’s side! In songwriting sessions I have uttered many sentiments such as, ‘it doesn’t matter what you put down on the paper’ or,  ‘don’t be so hard on yourself about your lyrics’ and now I am really having to say these words to myself! I may feel a need to be poetic or radically different, make intelligent observations or at least sometimes follow a rhyme scheme but in actual fact, songs can have their own free life too. It has also taught me to be freer with my words. Sometimes I write something down and allow myself to treat this as a temporary lyric, thinking, ‘I’ll come back and change this’. Occasionally I do think of something better but at other times the original word/phrase becomes embedded and I come to peace with it having been the right one all along.


Aside from this, learning the guitar has enabled me to understand harmony and chord structure in a much more comprehensive way. Whereas my previous understanding of chords was what I had learned from a book or from a whiteboard, I now understand them for their own emotional colour. How does a chord make me feel? What happens when one chord sits next to another and how does this tension or release elicit an emotional response? How does altering the root note change the entire impression of a chord?  The practical nature of hearing chords rather than reading about them has allowed me the insight which I believed I could never have. Although I recognise that we all learn in different ways, for me ‘doing’ is learning and I feel that it is important to keep this learning style present in my mind when working with the young people on Wavelength. 


Aside from this, my experience of starting out on my guitar journey has allowed me a greater insight into the vulnerability, which comes with creating one’s own work. As a confident performer on the clarinet with 20 years of performance experience, it has been humbling to play the guitar at an open mic night with my hands and lips shaking whilst I have watched the young people on the Wavelength project confidently singing out at our final concerts. For me, my new performance experiences have really been ‘a first’ and have allowed me to greater appreciate the nerves and anticipation of someone who may be coming to a project with less or no experience in performance. I have been fortunate enough to play in very caring and friendly environments and feel that this is crucial at this stage of my guitar development. It is through having a space that permits vulnerability that I have been empowered and this is something that I hope to continue being aware of in all of my community music work.  The Wavelength project is very good at keeping this present at all times; whether it has been in a group situation or one to ones , the atmosphere is safe and inviting.


To publicly play my own songs has been a challenge and a reward. Expressing ourselves is difficult, opening up to others is hard, allowing words to be public which encapsulate our deepest fears or sensitivities is a true exposition of the soul. I hope that my new musical journey will allow for greater sensitivity, sharing, expression and understanding of myself and others.