Stairway to Heaven | Tales From The Vale

A young girl grows

Among the students to whom I teach the guitar is a 10 year old called Laura. She is an utter delight.

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Laura is serious, hugely determined, she listens to what I say (unlike some of my students), she practices hard (unlike some of my students) and every week I see amazing progress (unlike etc etc). She is one of my favourites, and when she and her dad arrive in our drive 20 minutes before the lesson starts – which I told them to do – we all play guitar and have a laugh before the lesson. My weekend could not start in a better way. Laura’s dad, Damian, is himself a guitarist and he twiddles away on my other guitars, pedals and amplifiers while I teach.
I see progress to the extent that when Laura started she couldn’t play a single chord – and now, with some prompting, she has written her first two songs. ‘We’re going to write a song today,’ I announced. ‘How do you write songs?’ she asked. ‘We choose someone or something you feel really strongly about, say, your brother, and we write about how lovely he is to you and how much you love him.’
That, apparently, wasn’t a contender so we’ve ended up with two masterpieces; ‘Pixie, You Rock,’ (her dog) and ‘Strawberry Lollipop’. With my greatest respect to Laura, I don’t think Taylor Swift should be too worried about being toppled from her throne as yet, but that day will come.

Stairway to Heaven

But we had a problem. When Laura first came to the Studio for lessons she was so nervous that she visibly trembled and couldn’t speak. I really felt for her but I had a solution. Her dad is obviously in the Studio,
so I said to Laura, ‘You and I are Team Laura and we’ll have a competition with Dad.’ Much happy nodding, as it took the pressure off her.
And for a few weeks the competition would be me playing parts of famous songs, for example the intro of Stairway
to Heaven or Smells Like Team Spirit. Damian would pretend he didn’t know the answer. I’d give Laura the answer on a scrap of paper and she’d turn to her dad and say, with the utmost indignity (which I always admire) ‘Dad, everyone knows that’s Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin’, and she and I would shake our heads sadly at her dad’s ignorance of classic rock music. Damian would look defeated and Laura beams in triumph. And Laura would be relaxed enough to sink in some guitar magic.

…my weekly telling off

And so the lessons delightfully progressed. And it appears that Laura has got over her nerves. I know this because no lesson is complete now without her telling me off. The sheer incongruity of it makes me smile. Recent indignant accusations include: Laura: Andy, you’re wearing odd socks!!! Me: I’m a man – it’s what we do. Laura: Well, it’s wrong!!

And then we had: Laura (even more indignant than normal, and that’s saying something): Andy, there’s a big cobweb under the table! Me: Can’t be, I hoovered the Studio yesterday. Laura: Look, it’s there (points at what does turn out to be a large cobweb, give the girl her due). Me: I left that one on purpose because I like cobwebs.
Laura gives me a suspicious glare and shakes her head pityingly.

And then it was: Laura (with a curious mixture of delight and indignation, I don’t know how she pulls that off, but she does): Andy, you’ve got nail varnish on your toenails!

Varnishing – the truth

And yes, I had varnish on my toenails. Midnight Blue by Rimmel (I rather liked it). I explained that while dozing off in front of the telly my wife saw fit to apply the varnish to my right foot (not both feet – she’s not a weirdo).

And I told her and Damian that in a suddy (is there such a word?) (There is now – Ed) bath. I got the shock of my life. I saw what I took to be a small black mouse or huge spider skim across the surface of the water and I jerked upright in terror, sloshing water over the floor.
False alarm: the ‘mouse’ or ‘spider’ turned out to be my Midnight Blue (by Rimmel) toenails which I’d forgotten about.
Last word goes to Laura. I asked her why she wanted to learn guitar not piano. She said, ‘because guitars are cool.’
And there, we are in agreement. Guitars are cool. Saxophones aren’t – and if any reader says they are, I’ll just imitate Laura and shake my head pityingly. You can learn from children.

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Bloody Cliff Richard!

My method of teaching is not to get students to learn chords by rote as it’s boring. I get them to tell me three songs they’d like to play: it tells me a lot about them, plus I work out the best way to play them and we go through the chords. Then they can start impressing their mates by playing an actual song, plus build up a repertoire of chords which relate to actual songs, so they remember them, and they begin to see how chords work together. With another student, Paulo, at our first meeting in the Studio

I asked what song he’d like to learn. He answered, ‘The Young Ones by Cliff Richard.‘

Unfortunately we were both drinking coffee at the time, so after I’d wiped my splurted-out coffee off my Fender Stratocaster (USA-built Custom Shop, sunburst, I’ll have you know), I said, ‘Good one! But really, what do you want to learn.’

And rather hurt, Paulo repeated, ‘The Young Ones by Cliff Richard.’ ‘Great song,’ I gabbled (there’s a place in life for white lies,) ‘it goes like this,’ and I played the intro riff. Think I got away with it.

And, over the years, we’ve gone through a veritable smorgasbord (why are smorgasbords always ‘veritable’?) of 60s and early 70s songs. You name it, we’ve done it: I Saw Her Standing There, Black Magic Woman, Dock of the Bay, Honky Tonk Woman, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Have I The Right, Dock of the Bay, Need Your Love So Bad, Pretty Woman, Dock of the Bay (he likes this song, you’ll note) and Waterloo Sunset are a fraction of what we’ve done. And we’ve done the Otis Redding song.
And a remarkable transition has come over me. I’ve come to like stuff from the 60s that I’d always considered below my ‘cool factor’. I’m rather ashamed at my former arrogance; there’s a reason why these songs are still popular. They’re bloody good. They’re well-written, they tell a story and they’re played well. Dock of the Bay is good.
And it’s all thanks to Paulo – teaching isn’t all one-way. As a footnote I’ll add that it’s an idea to Youtube Cliff singing the Young Ones. Not only is he absurdly handsome – so reminds me of me when I was 20 (I pay you to be accurate – Ed) – but the girls in the audience, all absolutely adoring Cliff, are dressed like our grannies. Unsurprisingly, the boys in the audience view Cliff with sullen resentment!

95 million songs?

There’s a common misconception about guitar teachers; students think that they can mention any song – literally any song – and the teacher immediately knows how to play it. I usually point out that there are 95 million recorded songs (figure from EMI) and oddly enough I don’t know every one. A bit of a lapse in my work ethic, you might think (‘don’t you take teaching seriously?’).
No matter, I still get questions like, ‘how does Ritchie Blackmore play the opening riff in Mistreated?’ Well, I have no idea, I say (I do really, but I want to make a point) but perhaps send me a mail before the lesson rather than spring that on me. Another student asked ‘do you know ‘To Sir, With Love’, by Lulu?’

‘No,’ I said emphatically, ‘It was a massive hit in 1967,’ she said, as if that would jog my memory. I replied, ‘I was seven years old and more interested in where the next biscuit was coming from…’

by Andy Palmer

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