Adriana covering Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town”

Have you ever tried to pat your head while rubbing your belly at the same time? I quickly learned that is sort of what it feels like trying to sing while playing an instrument. I likely bit off more than I could chew, when I decided to learn how to play the ukulele. You see, I have always been described as tenacious, which is not necessarily a good thing, especially when you tend to be a bit of a perfectionist. There I was, five days before my performance, asking Google for the easiest tabs to play Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town.” I found some beginner tabs which only had four chords. So, it could not be too hard, right? 

Pressing my fingertips on the strings brought me back to my childhood. I never thought about it, but I could read music before I could read in English. Granted, I only remember how to do one of those things now. My memory issues should be addressed: they are symptoms of a disorder I have. If memory is linear, and we scroll back to my childhood, it is mostly blank. I do know, however, that I started playing guitar when I was around five years old. Growing up, a family friend used to live with us. I do not remember the first time I held a guitar, but I know he was the one who handed it to me. That first night I picked up the ukulele and started strumming, it felt like my body could remember things I could not.

The tips of my index, middle and ring finger turned red as I slid and pressed them along the fretboard. Although sometimes sounding muddy, I was able to play all the chords. I found it strange, I felt my body knew what to do. It was like I was back in guitar lessons. I could almost hear an instructor trying to get six year old me to keep my thumb behind the neck of the ukulele, below the C string, and pointing towards its head, with my elbow out. Not certain if that is the correct form, or an accurate depiction of my past guitar lessons, but I feel that is what my body remembers. My sore fingers, in a way, caused something to happen that took me by surprise. As I tapped and glided them across the strings, I think I had an actual memory from my childhood emerge. For some reason, I told myself to put chalk on my fingers. It could have just been some random thought, but it felt different. I feel like I remember putting chalk on my fingertips, in lessons as I was learning guitar. I did not have any chalk though, would flour work? Well, for me, no. As you probably can tell, I do not cook. I learned what happens when water, or sweat, mixes with flour. I washed my hands, and a few hours later, my fingertips were numb but I knew how to play the song, although not well.

I woke up the next morning with some beautiful blisters on my three fingers I had been abusing with the ukulele’s help. It was confusing, I was not sure where I had gone wrong. It is a freaking ukulele, with skinny little nylon strings. I am pretty sure I should not have blisters. My little fingers used to run across thick steel guitar strings, but I know having not really played in almost twenty years they’ve softened just as much as they have grown. 

Well, I still wanted to play, and it takes a lot more than a few blisters to stop me from doing what I want. Most of the advice I could find recommended I take a break and let them heal. But luckily some other, likely too tenacious, people say they have attempted playing with coats of superglue on their damaged fingertips, and lived to write about it on Reddit. 

Blindly, taking the advice of internet strangers, where many are trolls, I began to coat my fingertips up. Layering glue on, I watched vocal warm-up videos on youtube. With my three fingers up in front of my lips, careful not to superglue my hand to my face, I pushed air out of my lungs trying to make the noises instructed. Hoping each noise I exhaled was helping my fingertips dry faster and loosening up my vocal chords. Once my fingertips were hardened, I pressed them down onto the strings and quickly realized the glue was not enough for new blisters. So, grabbing some tape I methodically wrapped them in a way where I could still fit my swollen fingers on a single fret so I could hit that darn D chord. With some adjustment to how I place my fingers, and after getting used to playing without being able to feel any strings I was able to play “Sugar Town,” although still not well.

I must have been about seven years old when I performed for my younger brother’s preschool class. I want to say that I can clearly remember the guitar strapped to my little body as I sang and played “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but I would be lying. I am not sure I sang that song, and I think I can visualize child-me strapped to a guitar because I have seen pictures. I think I performed a few songs for his class, although I am not sure how they went. Having this memory and, in a way, going back to it through this performance felt very precious. I have a feeling my performance at the preschool was a bit more polished and professional than the performance reliving it, but my callused little fingers had been playing for years at that point.

Perfectionism, I am finding now, has become a huge obstacle in my life. You see, as I was trying to record myself singing “Sugar Town,” as each hour passed I grew more frustrated. Each time my body was not doing what I wanted, how I wanted it done, I stopped recording. 

Then, maybe, I thought to myself, “What would Mister Rogers do?” And remembered something my professor asked me to do during my Master Class, where I practiced performing in front of the entire class. She asked me to think about what my body wants to do while singing. Mister Rogers was comfortable making mistakes in front of others, and I have a feeling child-me was like that too. 

I likely did make mistakes during the performance at my brother’s school, but I also have a feeling that child-me kept smiling, playing and singing through them. That is what I changed my aim to capture, I wanted to forget about what I wanted my body to do while performing, and focus on what my body wants to do. My professor, Mister Rogers, and child-me helped me realize what this experience was supposed to be about. For me, this experience was supposed to connect me back to my childhood, where I still was tenacious, but instead of worrying about perfection I was focused on having fun doing what my body wanted to do.   

Rubbing my belly and patting my head is not easy for me, but singing while playing a guitar was something I knew I could do in the past. I am impressed with what I was able to accomplish in five days, and in planning the performance, I did not think it would connect me to my past in the way that it did. In a way, it has allowed me to explore my childhood, and possibly has reconnected me with lost memories. Singing while playing an instrument is not easy. Maybe one day I will be back to the place where I was able to play and sing almost like second nature. Until then, I plan to keep practicing, and to keep my newly formed calluses hard.