Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Wrong! Part 2

April 5, 2008

Bear with this post if it sounds like I’m having higgeldy-piggeldy thoughts and the flow of the writing is bad.  I’ve written worse. (But isn’t higgeldy-piggeldy a great phrase?)

Mistakes are a fact of life. They are probably THE primary (and best) way that we learn what to do, what not to do, how to play nicely with others, how to control our language and emotions, what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Sometimes, others also learn from our mistakes, mostly from watching how much trouble we get into, and/or how we choose to rectify or make amends. Thankfully, mistakes also have a really bright side to them: they are a form of progress, at least as far as music is concerned. If you make enough of them, you’ll eventually run out of ways that don’t work, or you’ll teach yourself to think more critically about what you’re doing earlier in the process, in order to avoid some of them.

Lack of talent is the biggest bunch of hogwash that could possibly be fed to prospective students. The talent, which is present in every single living person and is present from the beginning, began raw and unrefined. Someone has to train it, either the person doing it or a teacher. It really is exactly that simple.  Quite a while back, I watched a documentary on the actor/comedian/writer/philosopher Steve Martin. He said that he wasn’t particularly gifted, didn’t have any talent whatsoever. But he did have two things necessary for success: he said he was focused and he said he was obsessed. In other words, he practiced his craft. A lot. To the point of getting really good at it. (He’s a pretty decent banjo picker too, BTW.) And that is my point here — talent is developed through the process of focus and near-obsession with overcoming mistakes. It then fits the definition that many people have of “talent” because it is developed to a high enough level that you become better at it than someone else.

I mentioned previously that some of the world’s greatest violinists have said in interviews that they wished they could play even better. (I know, hard to believe…) If you were to ask a random bunch of people on the street why a certain sports star (say, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods, for instance) or a famous musician or actor (like Mariah Carey or Harrison Ford) is so good, I would wager that the vast majority of those asked would say, “Because they are talented.” Good businessmen are in a bit different category — take Donald Trump for instance. Or Warren Buffet. Or Steve Jobs. I’m pretty certain, without knowing all that much about them, that they made bad deals or decisions somewhere along the line. Nobody is that lucky. The lessons you learn from making bad business decisions are first, not to make another one like it, and second, to minimize your losses as much as possible.

Optimistic, successful, “talented” people are successful precisely because they take risks and they make an all-out effort to learn the things that made them successful. For musicians, knowing how to practice correctly is the way we learn to not make bad decisions in the first place, as well as the most effective ways of minimizing the losses during incorrect or inattentive practicing. The vast majority of people, young or older, do not have the patience and focus necessary to learn to do this on their own.  Of course it’s possible to learn to play the violin without a teacher. I don’t advocate DIY methods of violin instruction as a good way to learn, for most students. It is too easy to get sucked into the bad habit vortex and get so frustrated that you cannot find a way out. I’m not saying DIY doesn’t work. I’m saying that it requires a person with an superhuman amount of patience and fortitude, and the ability to see the big picture — what it will ideally sound like after you’ve practiced all those little ten minute lessons from the DVDs for a couple of years (not days, probably not even months) — and who doesn’t want to smash the violin into kindling mind practicing the same thing repeatedly until they get it right enough to move on to the next thing.  

Access to a teacher, who can see and hear things that the student can’t, is one of the best investments a beginning violinist can make. One of the really great benefits of studying privately with a teacher of anything is that you get all the benefit of all the mistakes the teacher ever made relating to what s/he is trying to teach you. Mistakes I made as a beginner are still applicable 30-plus years later! And every time I practice I still make mistakes, and I still learn new things all the time. I’m pretty good at what I do, and I don’t think it’s egotistical or arrogant to say that. After all, do you really think I’d have people busting down my door to take lessons from me if I said I was a lousy teacher? But, in the same respect, I don’t really consider myself “talented”. I was, however, very lucky that I got a lot of help and guidance from some really fine teachers who had been down that road I was starting my journey on, and who helped me develop and refine my ability to diagnose and repair violin mistakes.

What are you good at? It might be something other than violin, like stamp collecting or playing the stock market, being a Mommy, or making the world’s best reuben sandwich. Have you ever stopped to think about why you’re good at it? You’re good at what you do for the same reason that everyone else who’s also good at what they do: you did it repeatedly (practice) and you learned to minimize or profit from your mistakes.