chapter  13
An autoethnography of strings: an experiment in materialising learning
ByELAINE LALLY
Pages 15

In 2010 I decided to learn to play the guitar. As a teenager, I had pestered my parents to get me one and had learned half-a-dozen basic chords. At that age, however, I lacked the patience or the motivation to persevere past the point of sore fingertips, jerky changes between chords and the need to memorise the structure of songs. I had put it aside, making it available to facilitate the more successful musical explorations of my younger brothers, who both played in bands with friends at school and who have continued to be active amateur musicians throughout their adult lives. I regretted my youthful lack of commitment on many occasions over the years. My ambitions to be able to play the guitar as a leisure pursuit were reawakened after I was commissioned in 2007 to undertake qualitative research into a seniors’ choir, which involved several weeks of active participation in singing workshops (Lally 2009). By the end of the project I had decided to join a choir, and soon began to want to move beyond the smattering of guitar chords I remembered so that I could accompany myself singing. Better late than never, I reasoned, since the academic literatures I’d encountered when researching the seniors choir suggest that there are significant benefits in pursuing creative challenges as we age (Cohen 2006; Hays and Minichiello 2005). Where to start, however, as a mature beginner learning a musical instrument? While it is intensely pleasurable to play music collaboratively with others in the same time and place, opportunities in contemporary life to do this are few and far between for the older amateur musician, particularly as a relative beginner. Traditions of vernacular musicality in public and domestic contexts – which long provided collaborative contexts for cultural pedagogies – all but disappeared over the course of the twentieth century with the rise of the ‘popular music system’, as Baxendale (1995: 142) details, in the wake of ‘the growth of corporate cultural industries operating within an international market; the introduction of new technologies of mass reproduction; and the globalisation of musical culture’. Although some level of music learning for children is almost universal in contemporary western educational systems, most people lose interest beyond school age (Green 2002: 2). While the internet has expanded the possibilities for acquiring all kinds of skills and knowledge, adults who play a musical instrument for leisure have generally played since childhood, and for the most part their skills have developed through self-directed learning and immersive practice, on their own or with others. My youthful lack of commitment suggested that a fairly formal and structured programme might help to keep me on track with my guitarlearning goals, rather than trying to teach myself from books and online tutorials. The option of joining a band and learning through immersive playing with others seemed out of the question at my age and level of

experience (though Bayton (1998) notes that this is the most common form of apprenticeship for young women who become group-based rock musicians). I therefore began having weekly half-hour lessons with a guitar teacher at a local music school, where the majority of the students are school-aged, although there is a significant minority of mature learners who, like me, are pursuing an interest neglected since their youth. I have continued to take weekly lessons with the same teacher ever since.1