One of the kids who lives in a house behind mine is learning to play the trumpet. Yesterday, while I was outside painting the fence, weeding the garden beds and conducting general yard mayhem, I could hear him working on his scales. The sounds that emanated from his horn were pushing the limit of what even a mother could love.
He sounded horrible.
His practice session took me back to my own memories of lugging a violin case to elementary school every day. My first instrument… and the screeching sound of two cats being beaten together.
After a year, I gave up on the violin but switched to the flute. Lighter, less horrific, and a longer walk to middle school with a smaller case were all factors in my decision to jump ship from the strings section and head over to the woodwinds section of the band. Plus, I could sit in the front row right by the music teacher. For a nearsighted girl who didn’t know she needed glasses yet, this was a big benefit.
I remember my music teacher, a thin tough trombone playing guy who didn’t mince words. He would tell us stories about his own musical adventures in the hopes of motivating us to take our practice commitments to new levels of dedication. Because, let’s be honest here, unless you’re listening to the music recitals at Julliard those public school music programs are akin to Chinese water torture.
One story stuck with me all these years, even now, 4 decades after I picked up my first instrument.
My music teacher spoke of his mother and how she would comment on his practice sessions. Some days he would play and play and play, and his mother would say, “Oh, baby, you sounded wonderful!” to which my young future instructor would swear under his breath and go back to practice some more.
On other days, he would emerge to his mother’s exasperated voice, “What were you doing in your room? That sounded horrible!” And on these days, he would smile and kiss her on the cheek then run outside to hang with his friends.
Because we were young with little life experience, or common sense, or maybe because we were avoiding a difficult musical phrase, someone would raise a hand and ask, “Why were you happy when your mother told you the practice was bad?”
“On the days I sounded good, I wasn’t pushing myself. I wasn’t learning anything new. I was lazy and coasting. On the days my mom complained, I was trying the harder parts and only by being bad could I improve and be a better musician.”
It seems as though we are too afraid to make mistakes these days. We expect excellence of ourselves out of the gates without realizing that everyone has to start as a beginner. It’s only by falling down AND bouncing back up that we learn, improve, and grow.
Peyton Manning wasn’t always a fabulous quarterback. Monet wasn’t always a master painter. Alexander wasn’t always great. And the first pyramids didn’t look as good as the last pyramids.
So the next time someone tells you that an old dog can’t learn new tricks, take that as a reflection of their own limitations. You can’t find peace by avoiding life. Make mistakes, try, try again, try a third time… and keep trying until the day you die. Giving up on the things that are important to you is just a mental form of death.
It’s better to die with memories than die with dreams. ~Maria Beaulieu
And on those hard days when it feels like all you’re doing is brutalizing your “practice” keep this in mind:
On particularly rough days when I’m sure I can’t possibly endure, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days so far is 100%. And that’s pretty good. ~Unknown
For me, my 10 year anniversary is in less than a month, and another failure in my life as divorce papers will come soon after. But I’ve practiced and learned valuable lessons and will get back up. Because I will do it over and over and over again until I get it right.
I will always learn new tricks.
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