A Beginner Again

The Teacher’s Turn to Struggle

January 29, 2006

I recently started fooling around with a keyboard. I say “fooling around” because it would not be accurate to say that I am playing music (at least by earthly standards) except when I deftly push the demo button and crank out selections from “Ave Maria” to “Camptown Races” with the greatest of ease. I started with the keyboard because I have this notion that it would be nice to play the piano someday. So far I have learned how far away someday is. Like the golfers I see daily, I am a beginner again, and it makes me remember how difficult it can be to learn a new skill.

The pressure was on to start using my keyboard because of my personal rule when it comes to material possessions, the One Year Rule. If I do not use one of my possessions for a year, I have to give it away. (This does not apply to the rack of putters and woods in my basement because those are classified as emergency items). Since I was given the keyboard for Christmas last year, the recent holidays meant I had to let my nimble fingers tickle the dust off the old ivories, or else pass the keyboard off to someone who lost theirs in the storm-stricken Gulf States.

I am glad I did not donate my keyboard; somebody would have thought it was a cruel joke. There is something wrong with the thing. That keyboard produces the most discordant and mismatched noises. And even though playing percussion on the kitchen sink is the extent of my musical career so far, I am quite sure I have a good ear and a set of magic phalanges.

And yet, when I sit at the keyboard with my hands and elbows and posture just so, like the beginner tutorial showed me, I seem to play with all the subtlety of a wounded wildebeest. And that might be the best way to describe the sound too. I have not seen my cat in three weeks. The plants are growing away from the keyboard. I am thinking maybe I could copyright this stuff and sell it to the Defense Department; there has got to be some practical use in the War on Terror, and it is slightly less messy than chemical weapons.

Actually, it is not that bad. I cannot play the notes fast enough to sound bad. When I venture into the tangled jungle of chords, I have to hold the first one for half of eternity while my brain figures out where my fingers are going next. It is like a geriatric footrace or a made-for-television movie with too many commercials. Will that guy ever make it to the next chord? Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion of G major.

But the truth is that I love it. It is not bad being a beginner again. Now I sit in church and try to see how the written music in the hymnbook matches what the organist and the voices are doing; which, of course, I cannot do. That would be like carrying on an adult conversation in Spanish when all you know is “hola” and “cerveza”.

But I am learning. Slowly. Chaos theory predicts that a monkey pounding on a piano will eventually play Beethoven. I think the monkey will get there before me. But that is all right. I have learned that it is as much about the journey as the destination. And in the meantime, there are no rodents or pests within nine blocks of my house.

So, I am a beginner again. It makes me appreciate what my students, many of whom are just taking up golf, go through. I think of people like my client Rebecca, who seemed hesitant about taking up golf, especially after experiencing the typical early struggles of a beginner. I think she really was doing it just because her husband Jim and kids were getting involved. But she persevered, stuck with her lessons, and as she improved, the day came when golf ranked right there with scuba diving as one of her favorite family pastimes. Years later the kids were heading to college and golf became the perfect escape for Rebecca, whose colorful golf bag reminds me of the Partridge Family bus, and Jim, who is likely to show up on the tee wearing a cabbie hat and knickers. They are a pair of friendly empty-nesters who have found that the eventual rewards of playing golf far outweigh the early tribulations.

Learning golf is a definite challenge. Hitting that stupid ball anywhere near a target, or in the air for that matter, is hard to do. We look foolish when we get started. It hurts our pride, and our hands, and our backs. It strips us of our delusions of supernatural athleticism. It can be expensive. And time consuming. There are so many reasons to not even bother; and yet so many reasons to suck it up and get the journey started.

As a teaching professional in something as tricky as golf, I would be a hypocrite if I did not understand the importance of getting help with my piano playing. I just need to find the time, and the extra money. And maybe I will practice for a year, so it seems like I am a natural when I start my lessons. Maybe two years.

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