Thursday, February 18, 2016

In Praise of Doing Things You're Terrible at (But Love)

Last night my husband made us a lovely dinner, which we ate in the living room, by the fire, with Dave Brubeck in the background and the children out of earshot downstairs.

After dinner, he put the kids to bed and I relaxed and finished my wine, then I wandered over to the piano and began to play.


I’ve never taken a piano lesson in my life, and although I am fairly musical, my technique would make any legitimate pianist break down in tears. And my increasing arthritis in my right hand makes my fingering creative, to say the least. When asked if I play the piano, my response is generally, “Yes, badly, but with great enthusiasm.” I get most of the notes right, but there are often long pauses in the middle of a phrase as I struggle to find the right chord, or double check the key signature, or strain to reach that high E. My tempo tends to be too slow if it’s marked allegro or too fast if it’s marked largo. I have been known to play what a former conductor referred to as “approximaturas” of difficult (and occasionally, not that difficult) passages.

I don’t care.

Naturally, I would love to be able to play a note-perfect, up-to-tempo, emotional, flawless rendition of The Minute Waltz or The Moonlight Sonata or anything by Mendelssohn. I’d love to be able to immerse myself in the music and let it flow out of my fingers without having to think about the technical aspects of it while I’m playing. But that’s just not going to happen. Ever.

But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it.

I understand that anyone within hearing distance probably isn’t enjoying it as much as I am. There may be cringing involved, and plugging up of ears. But I don’t play for other people’s enjoyment; I play for my own.

I think it’s healthy to do things you’re not very good at. For me, it reminds me that I don’t need external validation for everything I do. I tend to be the kind of person who seeks outside approval. I like – no, I need – to be told that I’m doing things well. I got satisfaction in school not from knowing the material, but from seeing a GPA that proved to others that I knew the material. At work, I gained more satisfaction from being told I was doing a good job than from getting a raise or a bonus (although those were both very nice, too). It makes me happier when my husband and kids tell me they enjoyed a meal that I made than when I enjoy it myself. So I think it’s healthy for me to do something where my satisfaction does not come from the opinion or judgment of others.

Also, it gives me something to strive at. At my age in life, I’m not often trying a lot of new things. I’ve figured out a system that works for me in terms of my day-to-day housekeeping chores; I’ve mastered most of the cooking skills that I’ll ever use; I’ve established a parenting and discipline strategy that seems to work well for my kids. But improving my piano skills is something I can do whenever I want, with no deadlines or timelines. I can drop it for a while, then come back when I’m in the mood and see if I can bump up that tempo just a hair, or hit that chord with a bit less hesitation, or figure out how to manage that page turn, or even memorize a passage or two.

And finally, it exercises my imagination. Because in my imagination, this is what I hear:

Even if everyone else hears this:

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