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.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...


Dear Megan,

I loved what you had to say about playing badly. Also I think you should be proud of yourself. We seem these days to live in a world here people feel ashamed of not being a virtuoso. If I took up painting I wouldn’t have the same problem. I would not end up feeling utterly awkward and almost guilty just because I was not as good as Michaelangelo, and my friends would probably enjoy my pictures for what they were without secretly comparing my efforts with the greatest geniuses of painting. It does not feel like that in the world of music making, at least not in the world of classical music making. I belong to a group of people who get together to play something/anything to each other. Each one of us insists that it is all for fun and there is no judgement involved. But you notice that the least skilful players quietly stop coming and that the standard of playing gets ever higher.

Why can’t we just enjoy it without feeling awkward about not being the best? If we could go back a couple of hundred years we would find ourselves in a world where very few people had ever heard the best performers, indeed very few would have ever heard more complex music and very few would have ever heard music produced upon a good instrument. For the vast majority music was simply songs and dance music probably played on a rather poor quality piano by someone who really did not care too much whether their performance was brilliant or not. In such a world there would have been a lot of spontaneity.

That’s the thing we have lost – spontaneity. We study and practise painstakingly and relentlessly, all the time worrying about the rules and often fearfully preparing for the next exam. It is as if music making has become something that you only admit to doing if you can demonstrate that you are of near professional standard or better.

Like you, I love playing my piano. I am not musical and I struggle. The language of music evades me. I feel like someone in another country listening to everyone around me talking and chatting and exchanging views and discussing issues and I can’t understand any of it but I am aware that they are enjoying exercising a skill that has become so innate that they no longer need to think about it – they are free to enjoy what they can do with that language. Many years ago I got a job in Germany. I had a few words of German but I couldn’t really talk in German. I wasn’t qualified for the job either and I look back and am astounded that I got the job or that I took it. But I did and I found myself in an office surrounded by people speaking in German and expecting me to carry out the job I had come to do as part of their team and to do it in German. It was a miserable experience. I can’t help feeling that for many learning to play the piano is a bit like that. No wonder they don’t keep it up. Where’s the fun? the pleasure? Does the problem lie in how music is taught?

Anyway, you should be proud of yourself and I hope you can keep going. Even more, I hope you get more and more enjoyment out of playing.

Best wishes, Elizabeth

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Atavist said...

I understand the feeling of people standing in judgment of ability, or criticising the manner of your expression be it either abstract and foreign to their own ideas, or not up to their standard of acceptability, for whatever reason. I myself was near diametrically apposite to this particular phenomenon. I was the go to fool, I was the one that made people see that they were less awkward than someone else, and there was proof! If it was more intentional it would be less sad. Still it did let me realise how to make light of things, and I never was worried about trying to be the great before I was terrible. I had to pratfall before I walked.
I am extremely envious of you remembering learning to read. I recall no such passage. It seemed as if I can see when the pictures had transcriptions beneath them, unknowable runes of knowledge I desperately wanted to know, but just as suddenly I knew them. My father would read me these stories and somewhere I knew how to pick them out of the pages, to sound out and write them. I wish I remembered the thrill of learning the ABCs, of sounding out words, nothing has as much reassurance as the right word at the right time, yet the process of acquisition has eluded me.
As always you make the words sing, so I do believe you have a special type of musical talent.