I started running from my body as soon as I hit puberty. That’s when the startlingly vivid dreams about kissing girls began. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, utterly confused and completely terrified. For a whole host of Catholic, suburban reasons, I started to second-guess every physical move I made—from my facial expressions to my gait too, even the way I looked at my own hands. (There was a classic myth circulating in my middle school that if somebody asked you to “check your fingernails” and your instinct was to hold your open palm facing outward, like a nail polish model, you liked men; and if you bent your fingers towards you at the knuckles, you liked women. Guess which one I did… I never made that mistake again.) I started regarding my natural reflexes as perverse compulsions. The result was a body that was tense, jumpy, and constantly on edge; and a mind running interference, bracing itself to make self-protective corrections at a moment’s notice. I wasn’t sure how to conduct even the simplest movements sometimes—so I’d choose quiet stillness instead. It was a huge departure from my prepubescent self, who had somehow had no problem shredding Blink-182’s “Dammit” at the fifth-grade talent show just a few years before. (I think the program said “Darn It.”) It’s not that I didn’t want to make noise—in fact, I wanted that more than ever—but it just didn’t feel safe or comfortable anymore.
I became fundamentally disinterested in activities that made me aware of my own physicality—and, aside from walking through the middle school hallways holding my boyfriend’s hand, nothing triggered the alarm bells for me quite like guitar lessons did. By the age of 13, I had “graduated” from my first guitar teacher, who was a local gym teacher by day and Elvis impersonator by night, to his teacher, a sweet but painfully awkward speed metalhead named Dan who had very long hair but also was totally bald on top. That man could play so fast. It was dizzying. As I watched the blur of his fingers, I’d think about how good it must have felt for him to be that in tune with his own body—to play without hesitation or fear. It seemed like his brain communicated with his hands almost instantly… while mine was still running on dial-up. I just couldn’t comprehend it. And so I just wouldn’t practice my scales, and I’d play along to Bright Eyes or Tegan and Sara or Paramore instead. It just felt more right to me. I didn’t have the words to explain that to Dan, though. I’d watch his frustration grow as I fumbled around the scales he’d taught me the week before, and he’d ask me “Don’t you want to be good?” He’d tell me that he used to spend every waking hour of his youth practicing his scales in front of the TV and that I could be so good if I’d just do the same. What I didn’t know how to say at the time was: “It’s not that I don’t want to be good. I just don’t want to be good like that. I want to learn to play in textures that make me feel like me.”
We all experience emotion and physicality differently; and that means we all approach music-making differently, too. But that isn’t something most young guitarists learn. And so they decide they’re not “good,” forsake their own musical instincts, and/or give up completely… or they do what I did. They play alone in their bedrooms, where nobody can criticize their unorthodox picking patterns or hand shapes. They get rid of the scales and the rock standards—and they just write their own songs instead. When I turned 14, my dad bought me a little eight tracker and I started recording all of the things I wrote. I was able to start turning my vast inner life into a lasting reality, and I think that’s one of the main reasons I still had hope when I graduated high school. That’s how I came to love my body again. I started to listen to what my physicality was asking of me. As I daydreamed in the safety of my own bedroom, I took risks, explored my own limits, and wrote a new language for expressing myself. I discovered the effervescently validating, self-actualizing joy that accompanies the writing of a really “good” riff—one that feels natural and exciting to play. I found that I could compensate for my weak pinky by sliding around with my stronger ring finger, consolidate melodies to one string since my fingers could intuitively jump from fret to fret better than they could replicate any scales, and use a capo all over the guitar instead of playing the bar chords that my short index finger rendered impossible. By making these little changes, I was able to bring my emotional life and musical life into the same physical universe. I no longer felt like a fractured mess of identities and masks, dreams and realities.
To this day, solo ~shredding~ remains my number one meditative practice. No rules, no restrictions, no judgments from teachers or collaborators or audiences—just pure, unmitigated expression and personhood. It’s nice to remember that I’m a growing subject and that mistakes can be fruitful and exciting and that my purpose extends far beyond how much I’m able to produce or how many people want to buy what I’m selling (even though, quite humbly, I think it’s pretty “good”). Musical aptitude, for me, has come to be a very flexible and contingent ideal. It’s not as much about technical virtuosity as it is about affect. What I mean by this, I think, has to do with something Gertrude Stein once wrote: “I myself think [writing] is much more interesting when it seems ugly, because you see in it the element of the fight.” It’s the same sentiment that Carrie Brownstein expressed to Pitchfork in 2015 when she said, “I like beautiful things. I like the aesthetically harmonious. But I am much more attracted to something that is off-kilter. It is a truer reflection of not only nature, but the human spirit—the state of the world.” I have come to value the fact that my own music-making is tinged with that same spirit of uncanny unpredictability. It’s the same way I have learned to navigate the world. When I play my own soaring, single-string riffs, I hear myself amplified back as I am: loudly queer, sometimes awkward, enthusiastically fallible, and always changing. I can’t imagine conveying myself musically in any other way.
Photos by Madeleine Peters