When Miss Dee joined her primary school band, many of the kids had never played an instrument before. In Miss Dee’s case, whilst she had learned a little bit of piano, she had never played the flute before.
Why the flute? It turns out most school bands don’t have keyboard players. “Would she like to play the trombone?” The band coordinator asked me. An image of Miss Dee completely concealed by her instrument flashed in my head. I laughed, “I think the trombone would be way too big for her” I said, still in giggles. “Oh”,” she said nonplussed. “What about the flute? So the flute it was.
Six weeks later we attended our first concert. Sixty parents sat attentively as the kids half murdered the next four pieces. At the end of it, we all applauded and went home happily they had at least managed to play together.
Three months later, we attended our second concert. The kids played their pieces. There was the briefest of pauses at the end before we burst into applause. Not only did the kids learn new pieces, but they played them beautifully. Many of us were stunned. How did the conductor manage to get them from nothing to this in such a short time?
We watched the transformation over the years, their senior and concert bands won many awards at school competitions and the three conductors who took them through each stage all did an amazing job. But it was that first conductor (thank you, Jock), who I take my hat off to because he patiently taught the kids to love music.
That love was to be tested in high school, where the band did not live up to the expectations the primary school band had set. Miss Dee decided to quit the band in her second year. She kept the flute playing for a little longer, but when her teacher moved away, we couldn’t find another good one and the playing slowly faded away.
She went back to piano and took a few lessons but, unfortunately for us, that teacher stopped private teaching to take up a full time position at the Conservatorium. And that’s when Miss Dee took matters into her own hands. She began to increase her practice and suddenly she was playing a couple of hours every day. Her skill improved dramatically and her enjoyment blossomed. She has found some modern piano composers she likes and learns their pieces much to our delight. For Christmas last year, all she wanted was some sheet music.
And this is why the photo was lost on me. Why would you focus on the failures as you learn? We all start not knowing, but I think as we get older our sense of the ridicule grows to the point where we are frightened to learn something new. We don’t appreciate that a wrong note is a step closer to the right note. We don’t want others to see that we cannot do something. It’s easier to say: “I’m not good at such and such, so I won’t do it.” Kids have more permission to get it wrong, but even then our expectations are sometimes unreasonable.
Yes, sure, it’s true that the older I get, the longer the learning curve can be (particularly if I have developed bad habits). It takes me weeks to learn a piece that Miss Dee can learn in days, but it doesn’t matter. I enjoy the process. It also has additional side benefits. My continuing to try teaches Miss Dee that there is no such a thing as not possible, that perfection is not the aim, but competence is. It has also encouraged some of my friends to go back and practice too. They tell me they had forgotten how much fun it was.
I commented on that photo and said, “And then you come home to beautifully played music and it was all worth it.”
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing. George Bernard Shaw.