Women, rock on.

You will feel pain. But keep at it. It is so worth it.

Girls, it’s going to hurt. Sometimes you won’t be able to do it for more than an hour at first. The tips of your fingers will sting. And when you start playing the barre chords, your arms will ache. You will feel pain. We are not like guys, who build muscle more quickly, have more natural strength. It will be a struggle.

But keep at it. It is so worth it. There’s no greater confidence builder, no matter what age you start. When you can stand in front of people, and you can rock out, the power surge is amazing. You will feel invincible. When you’re not playing, you’ll wonder, is that really me? Can I really do that?

I remember my first time in front of an audience. I had learned “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, and had drilled it at home, crying out my heart into the mic and accompanying myself on rhythm guitar to a backing track.

At rock band class
Playing Nirvana at the beginning rock band class

That song had become my anthem during a truly horrific time in my life, when sudden ruptures in both my working and personal lives had coincided like a biorhythmic triple critical. It brought me to my knees, plummeted me into an identity crisis, and made me understand in a visceral way what the self-loathing inherent in grunge was all about.

I listened to Nirvana for two months straight.

Like a phoenix struggling to reinvent myself from the ashes, I took a music performance class at the local community college called “Beginning Rock Band.”

On the fourth or fifth Saturday of the class, I stood with my guitar in front of a microphone with the makeshift rock band assembled by the instructor from the other younger-than-me beginning musicians. My stomach clenched as the drummer counted into the song. I launched into the dissonant power chords, belting out Kurt Cobain’s disaffected lyrics like my life depended on it.

I think it actually did. The power of performing with a band backing me surged through me like godfire.

I don’t know what would have happened if the effort had failed, but it didn’t.

At the end of the song, the rest of the class didn’t just applaud, they cheered.

It was an amazing feeling. I think my pain from all those months of darkness came through.

Life only got better from then, filled with music, new friends and experiences.

Rock had saved me, once more.

When you’re up there playing, and the music is flowing through you, and your soul is in it, then you will understand why it looks like the guys are making love to their guitars. Despite society’s oppression of women, this will give you the same power as the men. You will be their equal — and not only in the eyes of the audience, but in your own mind.

Playing guitar might be the single most important cure for a girl’s low self esteem.

Women, rock on.

Girls don’t play sax

Music had always created a yearning in me. When I went to grade school, music and art were taught right along side of reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. Like some kind of throwback to the Victorian age in which a person had to be well rounded, no one doubted that music and art were valuable pursuits.

I found out in the fourth grade that I had the option of learning an instrument. I don’t remember if it was through a handout that was sent home with me, or if it was announced in class.

“Do you want to play an instrument?” asked my mom. When I said I did, my parents took me to a small music store where I had my choice: flute, clarinet, saxophone.

“I want to play saxophone.” I don’t even remember why. Whether it was the color or the shape. Seriously, I doubt I knew what it sounded like.

My mom said, “The saxophone is a boy’s instrument. You should play clarinet.” Of course I believed her. So the clarinet it was.

And with a small group of kids in the basement of Seiberling Elementary School, I learned to read music and play clarinet. I carried that thing to school once or twice a week, and for a little 7-year-old, it felt pretty heavy, in its hard plastic case. It felt like my arm was going to fall off by the time I got to school.

At night, I practiced a lot in my room, the music on a stand my janitor grandpa had nicked from the high school he worked at. I didn’t clean the clarinet’s innards as often as I should, and I didn’t change the reed until it was bitten and ragged at the top. Musical instruments didn’t come with instructions, and there was no one to guide me. My parents weren’t musicians. Disgusting yellow sludge grew on the inside, and became crusty until even I became disgusted and bothered to wash it. It’s a wonder I didn’t contract some awful bacterial disease – but in fact, it probably helped me build up my resistance.

At ages 8 through 10, I doubt if I was very good. But I did enjoy playing it. And I learned how not to make it squeak. And I was able to play with thicker reeds as I got better at it, and my mouth and lungs grew stronger and I developed more control.

The songs were easy concert pieces like “Clair de Lune” and “Londonderry Air.”

But what I really wanted to play was rock and roll.

I wish I had the first song I ever wrote. It was called “Bum, bum, My Baby” which was the first two lines in the chorus. It also had a few verses, and I had worked out the melody on the clarinet. I can still vaguely hear that repeated line in my head. “Bum, bum, my baby. Bum, bum, my baby.”

The tragedy, of course, is that I couldn’t play it on the clarinet and sing it at the same time. So I attempted to enlist my neighbor Debbie to do the vocals.

Debbie was a year older than me, and the coolest girl on the block, for a sixth grader. She was the new girl at school who became popular very fast, because she wore great clothes, was a band majorette, and had a bedroom that was entirely done up in black and white, with a shaggy black bedspread that felt good to lay on. Besides that, she smoked cigarettes, and you couldn’t get cooler than that.

Debbie was game to try singing my song with me accompanying her on the clarinet, but the effort didn’t last very long. It just sounded goofy. Clarinets weren’t really made for rock and roll – although punk priestess Patti Smith proved that assumption wrong in 1979.

If only I had been allowed to play sax.

On aesthetics

A rare experience on the drive to work

This morning I had an aesthetic moment. It doesn’t happen often. Driving to work, “What’s Up” — that girl band song from the ’90s that starts out “25 years and my life is still trying to get up that great big hill” — came up on my playlist.

Cheesy, but I love that song. I play it on guitar and sing it. I used to play it with my girl band Neko. This time, there was no guitar. It was my 7 a.m. drive to work, an unusually clear freeway ahead, my foot heavy on the gas, and me, singing at the top of my lungs.

It happens rarely. You hit the notes (or think you do). You remember all the words. Your timing is down pat.

It was transformative. It was exhilarating.

It was a perfect storm. For a change, I’d had enough sleep. I got to my boring day job charged up and happy

I’m not a morning person, so this was rare.

I learned about aesthetics in the first philosophy class I ever took in college, called by the same name. My professor, Dr. Dyal at Kent State University, fit the image of a philosopher. Bearded, stocky, a slight Texas drawl, sort of like Hemingway.

I remember he used to say the word “paradigm” a lot, and that’s when I learned what it meant. This served me well in the ’90s when everyone in corporate was dropping the buzzphrase, “paradigm shift.”