Back in May I went to see my faves, Mortals, and before their set I was talking to guitarist Elizabeth, and she made a provocative statement: "Honestly," she sighed, "I think all girls are self-taught."
I'm a mostly self-taught guitarist, because as Elizabeth and I discussed, it's hard, as a 12 year old girl, to find a guitar teacher. Most of them are men, and most of them are young-ish guys who know a lot about playing the guitar, but don't know much about how to interact with a shy student. I explained it to Elizabeth as she folded and arranged Mortals t-shirts, "I didn't think I'd be able to find a teacher that wasn't some douchebag with a ponytail who doesn't want to play anything but Metallica...." "Ugh, and they're really all like that," she said, shaking her head and piling up a set of medium tees.
While I admit that my process of learning how to play the guitar by ear and out of books had many pitfalls, I've always been nothing but proud of all the time and effort I put into teaching myself. Or I was, until I saw my co-teacher at work during Rock Camp this year.
My feelings crystallized in one very specific moment. Rebecca, my co-teacher, had our students pair up, and had them work together on playing rhythm and leads. The rhythm guitarist was the play 12 bar blues, and the lead guitarist was to play the appropriate pentatonic scale over it. This way everyone got to learn more about 12 bar blues, and everyone got to improvise, and everyone got to play in front of everyone else.
As we went around the room, I felt relieved at how well it was going, and how enthusiastic the girls seemed about it. I watched Rebecca as she lead the activity, and it occurred to me that she's probably done the same activity in her guitar classes. I took a single guitar class in college, and we never did anything like this. I stood there, wondering: So is this how you're supposed to learn how to play lead?
In that moment, I didn't feel proud of how I'd taught myself to play. Instead I felt ashamed of everything I don't know yet about the guitar. And I felt annoyed, at how I'd missed out on taking lessons when I was younger just because I was scared. The established modes and methods of guitar instruction didn't work for me then, and unfortunately, even my parents, who were very supportive, didn't know how to help me find a teacher who would help me. (Though this was partly because I couldn't articulate what I was afraid of to them. I couldn't even entirely articulate it to myself.)
Being "self-taught" isn't a bad thing, and in a sense, all musicians are self-taught in that they have to be self-motivated when it comes to really getting good at playing, maintaining your skills, and most of all when it comes to developing your own sound and/or style. But "self-taught" becomes a problem as a matter of principle. No girl, or other intimidated student, should have to teach herself. And not every girl has the resources to do so. I was able to come home from school every day and play my guitar for three hours before doing my homework when I was 13. I learned all my open chords, my 7s and 9ths, from learning Beatle and Oasis songs. But how many girls haven't learned to play because they didn't have the time for that? I also had my father, who taught me my first chords, and he was some help to me. How many girls want to play the guitar, but don't have a relative or friend to help them get into it?
Fortunately, it seems that things are changing. None of the girls in our guitar class at camp were "self-taught". Some of them shared with us that they had trouble finding that right guitar teacher, and told us that they'd been intimidated, nervous, and even scared at first of taking lessons. But they all managed to get over it, and after a few years, now they're all fantastic young musicians.
It's important for girls to go forth into this frightening territory. We need insiders, like our students, and like Rebecca, to open up doors for us into schools of music both big and small. It's the only way we'll achieve parity, by proving to ourselves and to our teachers that we're capable. It's also the only way we'll be able to influence how music is taught, and the only way we'll be able to start accomodating any student who wants to learn in new and different ways.