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RIP Bobby Cairns
I just heard the incredibly sad news that Bobby Edward Cairns , one of Canada’s greatest guitar players and the man who taught me practically everything I know about the guitar passed away over the weekend.
I remember hearing strange rumours about the enigmatic guitar program head at Grant MacEwan while I was still living and playing around Calgary. I had just started getting seriously into Jazz and was considering pursuing some type of career in the music industry, whenever I brought up the idea of music school to anyone in the know they’d all have the same reaction: a brief pause, a quick glance over their shoulder and in a careful, hushed tone they would whisper “have you heard about Bobby Cairns?”. Bobby had this strange effect on people, his monstrous talent as a musician combined with his incredible life story gave him an almost mythic quality among the musicians in the scene around him. Former students at MacEwan would tell me: “this one time, I heard he…” and “did you ever here about the time that…”, Bobby had developed a reputation as a ruthless slave-driver who would accept nothing less than perfection from all those around him, especially his students. Needless to say by the time I finally met him I was completely terrified of the man…
That first time meeting Bobby was a warm, friendly and utterly confusing experience. I remember thinking: how could it be that this kind, friendly and encouraging man is the same supernatural creature I have heard so many frightening stories about? He would joke around with his students and other musicians in the program, always welcomed us to ask questions and never once made anyone feel stupid or incompetent for making a mistake. One of my favourite things studying under him was when he would subtly let you know you didn’t get something past him. “The D you played on beat 3 of bar 47 should have been a D# and was rushed”, or “You had no idea what the chords were at bars 17+18 did you?”. I was a completely self-taught guitarist when I was accepted into the guitar program at Grant MacEwan and as such had several, shall we say “quirks” to my playing. I will never forget one of the first things he ever said to me, regarding my technique on the instrument: “I have no idea how you are able to do the things you are doing by playing so incorrectly”. That comment alone made me buckle down and spend hours a day re-learning how to use my hands on the instrument.
In hindsight I can see now that this is where the mythical aspects of his reputation came from. Bobby was a teacher in the truest, most traditional sense: a true teacher doesn’t tell you what to do or how to think but instead shows you where you are weak. Your motivation to improve comes from knowing that by disappointing him you are really only disappointing yourself. Art is an incredibly personal medium of expression and not everyone is capable of handling that kind of self-reflection, however if you can survive it the lessons you learn are monumental and leave you with a lifelong desire to become the best musician you can possibly be.
These concepts along with many others that I learned from Bobby Cairns have never left me, those lessons still inspire me and I still try to convey them all my fellow musicians and students. Rest in peace Bobby.