The practice of practicing

From a series where GOOD Magazine asked four grownups what they’d always wanted to learn to do, then sent them to lessons.

Two major ambitions defined my childhood. One was to become what I imagined headlines would refer to as “the first kid in space.” The second, which seemed more reasonable, was to become a great pianist. I realized when I was very small that I wasn’t like most people: I was double-jointed. I could bend the top joints of my fingers forward at will to create a sharp right angle, and pull my thumb all the way forward or backward to touch my wrist. This would, I thought, give me abilities at the keyboard that no other pianist could boast. I could only imagine the wild flourishes and the daring arpeggios I would master. I had a natural advantage, and I intended to use it.I was also a bit of what you might call a quitter back in those days. So when my mother took me down to the music Conservatory and the stern woman in charge told me I would have to learn the recorder—that fat, beige, orthopedic-looking thing—I walked away in disgust.

I nurtured no lack of rock-star fantasies and concert pianist daydreams over the next couple of decades, but I never touched another instrument—until now, at the probably-too-late age of 31. Maya, my enthusiastic and very patient teacher, begins the process by explaining the basics of music theory: tones, pitches, harmonics, chords, rhythm. I’m also learning how to read music, a completely different challenge than the instrument itself. Getting from this theoretical stage to actually playing a song feels like learning to dance by studying the properties of gravity. How do you turn these concepts and rules into something beautiful?

Well, for one, you play a lot of scales. I play them until my hands ache. I feel like every sullen adolescent forced to practice by well-meaning parents. When was the last time I actually had to practice something, anyway? I’m out of practice at practicing.


from “Old Dogs, New Tricks: Built to Scale,” by Mark Slutsky, GOOD, 11 September 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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