Sunday, December 5, 2010

It's Different Than Guitar Hero

By Greg Shelley

I'm in a lesson with a 10-year-old boy.  He is frustrated that he can't get his guitar to do what he expects.  He is a bright boy but his frame of reference is limited.  His face is all contorted like he might cry as his mother and I try to explain to him--"It's different than Guitar Hero."

This is a true account. I have seen several incidents like this.  The boy explains to me that he is an "expert" on Guitar Hero and proclaims "Yes of course he can play."  But then when he goes to make sound on his new guitar, he is unable to invoke even one clear note.  He presses down on the fretboard for the note "F" on the first string.  But he gets only a clunky dull thud.  Then he shakes his finger to throw off the pain because the string has pushed too deeply in.  He sucks on the aching finger and then blows on it as if to quell the hurt.  His fingers have not calloused yet.  He cannot press hard enough.  Then after a few tries, he starts to get it.

I guide him step by step through the notes on the first string explaining all the while as I go, "Now, Joey (fictitious name) when we really play a guitar it is very different.  We have to actually make the notes without pushing any buttons.  When you play Guitar Hero, you push buttons which help you imitate what we are trying to learn here for real."  "Joey," I look him in the eyes and gently say, "This is real guitar."  The look on his face is one of true amazement at this new discovery.  At 10, the boy should understand this already.

Joey soon got it.  But it took weeks of lessons for him to fully grasp the difference between the game and real guitar.  He soon blossomed into a pretty good guitar player and eventually an excellent guitarist for his age.

Virtual Life

This scenario may seem isolated and unimportant to all of us, except as it relates to Joey.  But it is part of what you could call a growing social norm.  That being--virtual life.  We have people playing video games that mimic life, when they could actually be living it.

Another student of mine recently explained that the music minister at his church could not not understand Guitar Hero.  This minister is reportedly quite an accomplished guitarist.  My student explained that the music minister ranted one day that: "While people are spending all this time and money trying to learn to play a game that lets you pretend to play a song on a guitar, they might have been able to actually learn to play the song on a real guitar."

Does It Matter?

So what does it matter?  It is the 21st century right?  Maybe guitar is obsolete.  Maybe learning to really play a guitar made of wood and steel is dumb.  For that matter, why learn to play any instrument when you can get video games that make it so easy to feel like you are playing?  It all makes sense.  Why drive a car when you can play a car driving game?  Why fly an airplane when they have games so real for that?  Why travel, play tennis, play football, go hunting or join the military?  There are games for everything now.

And then one day, we wake up and realize that the games are playing us.  While we were playing the games in all our spare time, the people who design and build the games, the people who finance and get rich off the games were out REALLY climbing mountains, fishing, hiking, swimming, traveling, and a thousand other things.  They were really learning to play a guitar.  That way, those who make the games could have real experiences to draw upon so that the games they design for the pretenders--the video gamers--would seem more real.

Okay, yes I have played video games.  I don't anymore.  It was 25 years ago and I could rack up millions of points on a game called Stargate and a few others.  I was lost in it for about 2 years.  But somewhere along the way I realized I was not living.  I was pretending to live. 

This is serious.  And it is changing our world.  Because if someone pulls the plug, it's the person who has been really living who will have the best chance at making it through.  It matters because people are losing touch with reality.  It is evident in the skewed ideas of people who set out to learn guitar with a false idea of what music is, that is, what it means to actually create something with one's own hands.  What does it mean to fashion music from a wooden box and 6 metal strings that you must manipulate in real time--and without electronic aids that make you think you are doing it?   What does it mean to get hard fingertips from the pain and abrasion of moving across the steel?

You know, I actually have heard a young music student say, "Yeah, I am a music producer myself."  And when asked what he produced he proclaimed: "I'm producing Led Zepplin right now, and Nirvana and some others."  Turns out, he thought producing music is the same as arranging an ordered playlist on his iPod.  Really!  He could not distinguish between making music for real and re-ordering iPod playlists of famous bands.  I know because I asked him specifically if he actually recorded the original music.  I kid you not, he just looked at me like I was stupid and said: "Yeah, huh?, Of course."  It took a lot of guitar lessons, but he actually came to realize that making music you can record for real is entirely different than making iPod playlists.

And I have heard there is a new guitar video game that has "real strings" so you "really" have to play it.  And I want to stand up and shout: "You are ripping yourself off! JUST GET A GUITAR! !  And maybe take some lessons.  It hurts a little sometimes but eventually you learn real skills that can be applied to real life.  You learn to engineer your own real live music instead of pretending.  And you can even play the acoustics without electricity!"

copyright Ó 2010 Greg Shelley,  all rights reserved

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