Tuesday, August 20, 2013

playing badly

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. I was probably around eight or ten. I don't remember much about them. I don't even remember why I wanted to take them in the first place. My parents were gentle and indulgent when it came to hobbies, and they encouraged my sister and me to try everything that we wanted to, as long as we liked it enough to take it seriously. I studied ballet, gymnastics, and horseback riding. I took lessons in drawing and writing. I read thick books filled with pictures of birds and commandeered my parents' bed as a base from which I could spend hours identifying various versions of the common sparrow.

I was not a musical child. My dad played the piano, so we always had a piano in the house, but he rarely touched it. We listened to music--classical music and oldies--and my mom would sometimes play the guitar and sing (my mom has a lovely voice), but my innate musical talent amounted to just about nothing. I took piano lessons for a little while, failed to become good at making music, failed to care enough to struggle through the discomfort of being bad at something, and stopped.

I used to dislike doing things I was bad at. They made me feel uncomfortable and stupid and conspicuously mortified, like a clown taking a pratfall with a whole neon world blinking in pity. I have always had a fear of looking stupid. It is one of my most annoying faults, the thing that will make me nod my head when I haven't the foggiest idea and sit glum on the sidelines while everyone else slides around in the mud.

I am bad at music. I have no talent or instinct for it. I have the dullest of ears and no sensitivity to the beautiful, mathematical landscapes of rhythm. Consciously remembering a melody is a struggle. I love music, am fascinated and moved and riled up by it, but I am, frankly, terrible at it.

In January, I started taking piano lessons. Once a week, I go to the Community Music Center in the Mission and am bad at playing the piano. It makes me incredibly happy. It is an enormous and alien pleasure to honestly take pleasure in the study of something I'm bad at. I have no real hope of becoming musical; my brain doesn't seem to be the right shape for it and my ideas don't speak music as a native language. When I want to say something, it never occurs to me to hum a tune. But, I love the way it feels to crawl toward minimal comprehension of a subject so enormously wonderful that it gets to stroll beloved through life. It reminds me of learning to read. Here, again, are the weird moments when a mark on a page becomes a recognizable object, then a symbol, then a block of symbols, then a magical, moveable strand of fluency. Here is a reminder that turning a page was once an awkward movement and not an invisible transition.

I get the dual thrills of struggling with the ideas and struggling with the fine motor control that underlie something that I adore, but have absolutely no stake in being good at. No one cares whether I become competent at making music or remain comically confused (except, maybe, my piano teacher, who is pure, delightful, Eastern European fanaticism). I am allowed the happiness of a slow motion plod toward small sparks of understanding, which somehow feel like little anvils falling on my head and bright little birds circling around, singing a stupidly cheerful tune.