FORT WAYNE – Before Al Wheeler’s thin fingers reach for the dark-stained Harmony acoustic guitar leaning against a wall, before he strums the opening C chord to Sweet Caroline, he must first push aside the long oxygen tube he has worn since he had a heart attack 15 years ago.
Let’s see, the 83-year-old says as he tries to position his fingers across the guitar’s neck, I can’t get my hands to work right.
With a downward strum, beginning with the bass E string, the black pick in Wheeler’s right hand plucks the A and D, G, B strings, and finally the high E, and the six-note blend fills the small room in his home where he practices in a straight-backed chair. He leans slightly at the waist, peers over the music stand, and strains to see the tablature – hand-copied in inch-high letters to assist him, since he is legally blind. And with a sculptor’s exactitude, he watches his fingers form an F chord. Then he strums again.
I want to learn three songs, Wheeler says with great certainty, still attached to a tank of oxygen. Amazing Grace,’ Sweet Caroline’ and My Woman, My Woman, My Wife’; those three songs.
He wants to play Amazing Grace and Marty Robbins’ 1970 Grammy-winning tune, My Woman, My Woman, My Wife because those are his favorites. I love Amazing Grace,’ Wheeler says. They usually play that for you when you’re dead. But I do like it. I love it. It’s a great song.
And Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline is for his wife of 60 years. Her name, of course, is Caroline, the mother of her and Al’s seven boys, and the dear one who drives her husband to his weekly lessons at the Sweetwater Academy of Music. Aided by a two-wheel cart, she also loads and unloads the guitar and wheels it into the studio. Then she sits patiently during the hour session, of which he has had 10.
I asked, Can you teach a blind man, 83 years old?’ Wheeler says of his first lesson. And he said, Yeah, we can do that.’
It was John Forbing who said, Yeah. He is Wheeler’s instructor who teaches instruments such as guitar, piano, bass, banjo and violin. In his own right, Forbing is an accomplished musician, often called upon to play bass guitar with national touring bands.
He’s a great guy, Forbing says of Wheeler. Eighty-three years old, and he’s dragging that oxygen around with him. He straps his guitar on a hand truck, and his wife comes in. It’s the coolest thing ever. Everybody smiles when they see him walk in.
Al Wheeler is certainly the oldest of the estimated 350 to 400 students who attend the Sweetwater academy on a weekly basis. Most of the students, according to the academy’s director Kevin Christenson, range from ages 11 to 18. That seems to be the time when kids get in school bands and want to play an instrument.
Christenson, who was in charge of the Heritage High School bands from 2002 to 2012 and was an assistant at Snider last year, says guitar is the most popular lesson given at Sweetwater. Piano is next, then drums and voice.
Ideally, as long as the focus is there, the younger the student, the easier it is to learn and begin to learn music from a reading level, Christenson says. To learn to read music is like learning to read another language. We’re most apt to learn new languages at a younger age, because the brain is able to accept new languages quickly. As we get older, it’s hard to learn a foreign language. It’s not that you can’t do it, though.
Not every student filled with hope who walks into Sweetwater or through the doors of other establishments where music is taught becomes proficient at their chosen instrument. Some become frustrated and bag it after a few lessons. Others go for a month or two before calling it quits. It’s the nature of the beast that is music.
What was the great Tom Hanks line in the baseball film, A League of Their Own? It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard’ is what makes it great.
It’s the same learning an instrument.
The biggest pitfall is they hear someone or see someone on TV or the radio, and they want to sound like that person, Christenson says. They come in and take lessons, and after four lessons, they don’t sound like they think they should sound. But they’re forgetting how much time and energy and effort and talent went into what they hear on that CD, or what they saw on that live show. People are famous for a reason, and I think we forget that.
We’re in a society of instant gratification, and you can’t get instant gratification taking music lessons. It’s a skill. It’s a process. A lot of people don’t want to hear that, but it’s the truth. But those who are passionate about it leave the lessons energized to practice. When you go to a lesson that’s tailored just for you, and you’re working on what you want to work on, you’re going to go home and play that. You’re going to go home and learn that.
So with his guitar across his lap, his oxygen tube pushed to the side, Al Wheeler sits inside the den of his comfortable northeast home and tries to find the F chord for Sweet Caroline.
To his right, top of the bookcase, that’s him in the picture, shaking the hand of President Ronald Reagan. He is 30 years younger; when he could breathe easily; when he was taller and straighter, and his hair was dark and thick.
He was busy then, the 83-year-old man explains, as a union representative with a local company. On the road a lot, in meetings. But today’s Al Wheeler talked about coming up over a rise on the Iowa-Illinois border, around the Quad Cities area as he drove back home, and he recalled the time he heard Marty Robbins sing, My Woman, My Woman, My Wife, and oh, how he adored that song.
Hands that are strong but wrinkled/
Doing work that never gets done/
Hair that’s lost some of the beauty/
By too many hours in the sun/
Eyes that show some disappointment/
And there’s been quite a lot in her life/
She’s the foundation I lean on/
My woman, my woman, my wife.
Now that his own work is done, the gentle man’s days are open so he can learn the song and to play it for his sweet Caroline.
It’s something I want to prove I can do, he says. I’ve never failed. I think I’m failing in this. It breaks my heart.
I called Kevin the other day and said, Kevin, I want to suspend my lessons and restart in September.’ He said that’s all right. I told him to tell John that I’ll practice every day. I’ve got the music. I’ve got the chords pretty good, but I can’t get my hands to move without looking, you know. That’s what I have to do. I wasn’t practicing enough. I think I can get it done.