To most, it’s obvious how musical instruments are meant to be played. You sit before the piano and let your fingers dance over the keys. You cradle the violin between your cheek and shoulder and slide up and down with a bow. You perch yourself on a high stool with a strapped guitar, a hand nailing the chords and the other strumming the nylon strings.
But that’s not the case for everyone. Born completely blind, Steady Goh didn’t know how the guitar was played, or how it was even held when the gentle waves of acoustics first met his eardrums. Whatever the riff that was, it must have been a doozie; it inspired him to pick up the instrument and seemed to have forgotten about his disability.
Growing up in the 80’s when music cafés were a common sight, Steady admired the way performers were able to sing and play the guitar onstage. He was constantly wowed by their abilities and aspired to be just like them.
He recalls his first experience with a ukulele. “I was at my grandparents’ house [and there was a ukulele]. I know how I wanted the thing to sound, but I didn’t know how to make it. So I was thinking, ‘Wow, you strum this and, there [are] tuning gears… how do people manage to strum and turn that thing so fast?’ That was – that was what I thought. So I [tuned the guitar strings] into the chord I want[ed] and then I strum[med]… Then, when I wanted the next chord, I [tuned] it again. So that was how I played the guitar initially. I tuned all four strings to the sound I want[ed] and then I strum[med]. Yeah, I didn’t know that [the strings were meant to be] pressed.”
He explains that this is the reason why some visually-impaired guitarists play the guitar flat on the floor, while some play it sitting on their laps. They run on their imagination. It’s the same for Steady in the way he did his chord transitions initially. Needless to say, he had broken many guitar strings before he was finally taught the correct way to play the guitar back in Secondary 2, when he learnt his first two chords: C and A minor. For the next five years, he played only these two chords, until he decided to step up his guitar skills.
And so he did. He began by taking up classical guitar lessons, though he preferred the style of pop songs. During this time, a singer friend of his introduced him to country music. She lent him cassette tapes which verbally described the chords, skills and techniques needed to play the guitar, and Steady relied on these cassette tapes as his training wheels.
The years went by. In 1997, he joined a band and started performing for the first time. He participated in a songwriting competition and made it to the finals. He got that big break he wanted. He performed regularly in the next decade, singing and playing the guitar in lounges for one to three times a week; he still performs nowadays, albeit not as regularly. Throughout his music career, he met many professional musicians who helped open his eyes to the art of performing.
And then, the student becomes the teacher himself. Steady started getting enquiries if he teaches guitar. He had really grown into his name thus far, from the days when he only knew two chords right up to his sure-footed public performances. But fresh doubts dragged him back down to square one. Could he teach?
His first trial student was a friend who had some basic guitar knowledge. However, it didn’t work out, as Steady had developed no few bad habits and wrong techniques over the years due to his inability to observe the good players and get visual feedback.
During the first lesson, Steady taught his friend the wrong strumming pattern. “I remember that I taught him one strumming pattern, and […] after that, he checked the internet, told me it sounded okay, but my strumming stroke was wrong. Wrong. It’s not right. […] I quickly realised that if I really wanted to teach, I [couldn’t] teach like that. I have to know how to teach.”
He felt that luck found a way to his side. With the evolution of technology, Steady had greater access to the internet. He took up guitar lessons online and began “over-correcting” himself, as he puts it. Not only did he fix his shortcomings from online tutorials, Steady also borrowed the way the tutorials taught and described ideas.
When teaching students, Steady doesn’t follow a fixed syllabus. He customises the guitar lessons to each of his students’ preferences. He’d first learn the songs that his students want to learn and teach them that. To him, people often give up learning a musical instrument because they lose interest in it – which is why Steady tries to make his lessons more interesting and flexible.
That was how Steady came to become a freelance guitar instructor; but in what is perhaps the more fulfilling outcome, he once again found a way to beat his disability.
“The [only] thing I can’t do is, I can’t teach them how to read scores. […] I focus a lot on ear training, but that doesn’t mean that reading scores is not important,” says Steady. He hopes that one day, his students will be able to just pull out a guitar and play a song by ear when they hear their favourite songs.
Apart from being a guitar instructor, Steady is an avid runner. He holds a tether between him and his guide – the way visually-impaired people run. Given the number of half-marathons he’s completed – including the recent Camel Muar Run in Malaysia – one would never expect to hear him say that “running is something that I hate”.
Although Steady used to be very active as a child, he gradually became less active during his teenage years. As much as he had wanted to take part in Physical Education classes, he hadn’t been able to, due to safety restrictions by the teachers at his secondary school.
He stopped exercising altogether, until soundball – tennis for the blind – came into existence in Singapore. He then started to run as a form of cross-training, and even after he had stopped tennis, Steady continues to forge ahead like the fighter that he is. Partially, though, he sees it as a form of social activity where he gets the opportunity to bond with his friends and perhaps, reinforces his belief that he can go about his business just like the rest of them.
Although Steady never had the chance — and maybe never will — to see his friends, to see a guitar, to see the colours the world has to offer, his visual disability had certainly not stopped him from achieving his aspirations to be a guitarist, nor has it stopped him from accomplishing great feats like completing half-marathons. It goes to show that despite the black hole of negativity we so easily succumb to at the slightest hurdle, the power of positivity to live life on one’s own terms is just as unlimited.
Interested in customisable guitar lessons?
Email Steady at Steadyguitar@gmail.com