I’ve always been one of those people who gets labeled–sometimes euphemistically–as “creative.” My writing is mainly what’s earned me that label, though I have dabbled in other arts. I’m not a bad actress in a “doyenne of the community theater” kind of way, and while I don’t have the kind of visual talent that results in one’s paintings hanging in a gallery, I can draw a cat that looks like a cat. The area of the arts in which I am totally deficient is music.
There is a myth–one that I’ve even heard espoused by some music teachers–that everyone can sing. This is a myth I can easily debunk simply by opening my mouth. When I was a member of my small-town church’s children’s choir (not a high-talent operation, I can tell you), the elderly choir director suggested, “Perhaps it would be best if Julia just moved her lips instead of singing the words.” And so, while the other children chirped “Jesus Loves Me,” I lip synched like world’s tiniest drag queen.
My parents rightly believed I should have some kind of musical background, and since it clearly wasn’t going to be vocal, they opted for instrumental. And so from the ages of eight to fourteen, I burned my way through music teachers like a string of failed marriages. My first was a patient Christian high school student whose Pekingnese snoozed under the piano as I haltingly plinked away, his smoosh-faced doggy snores acting as a metronome.
Once my teen teacher graduated high school, I graduated to studying with a music professor at the college where my dad taught. These lessons were held before school, early in the morning (not my best time of day then or now). The professor would fuss over the length of my fingernails, ask me to remove my rings, and then listen to me sleepily fumble my way through dumbed-down versions of classical pieces. I would joylessly practice these pieces the whole school year in preparation for the spring Piano Guild, where I would play them, sweating profusely and trying not to throw up, in front of a panel of judges. I had worked on the pieces so long by then that I performed them competently, in the same way a chimp forced to type long enough might eventually produce a sentence. I think back on this particular music teacher with pity because I know I was a miserable, lazy student. She must have been miserable, too, because she was used to college students–music majors, no less–not sulky middle schoolers whose lack of talent was exceeded only by their lack of discipline.
Sensing my misery, my parents decided to try another approach to my musical education. Dad suggested a former student of his who performed traditional Appalachian music with her husband and sons might bring more fun and less formality to my experience. She taught in her little house in the country, and I probably learned more on her plinky old upright piano than I had anywhere else. Instead of trying to force me into classical mode, she let me learn the songs I wanted to play, which led to the surreal experience of learning to play “New York, New York” in a house in a holler while–no joke–a fresh-killed groundhog simmered on the stove.
Once I hit high school it became obvious that my interests–and certainly my talents–lay elsewhere, and I dropped piano in favor of writing for the newspaper and acting in plays. I hadn’t really thought about my dubious musical history until a few months ago when my middle schooler expressed an interest in learning how to play. I poked around and found a reasonably priced digital keyboard and a piano textbook for the “older beginner” in hopes that it wouldn’t seem too babyish. I figured six years as a lousy piano student qualified me to get him through the beginner book. If he stayed interested after that, I’d have to outsource.
But first I was going to have to touch the keys again myself. I discovered–somewhat to my surprise–that I can still read music, at least in the way a second grader can read an “early chapter book.” Getting the message to my hands is another issue altogether. My left hand, while perfectly content to tap away at a computer keyboard, resents the implication that it should hit the piano keys the same time as my more cooperative right hand. Thirty minutes at the digital keyboard led me to have two discoveries. The unsurprising one was that I still sucked, but now my suckiness was exacerbated by years of inactivity. The surprising one was that I–perhaps for the first time ever–was having fun playing.
I played all the less degrading pieces in the beginner piano book, then decided I needed some sheet music that fit my woeful skill level but still sounded more adult. Nobody–not family members, not even pets–wants to hear a forty-four-year-old woman hammer out “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” over and over. I got online and typed in “easy piano” and “pop,” and after filtering through loads of Taylor Swift sheet music, I discovered the oeuvre of Dan Coates, a man who apparently makes his fortune by arranging classic rock and pop songs so they can be banged out by musically unremarkable amateurs. I ordered a book Coates developed in collaboration with Rolling Stone magazine and rejoiced that soon instead of sucking at playing “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” I could suck at playing “Iron Man” and “Ode to Billy Joe.”
I know if I continue to play around on the keyboard, I’ll get better. But I also know I’ll never be good. So why spend even a small stretch of my limited leisure time doing something I’ll never excel at? The answer, my friends–and yes, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is in the Dan Coates song book–is because I have given myself permission to suck, and it is liberating.
Whenever kids start an extracurricular activity, whether it’s music or karate or dance, sooner than later the emphasis turns to performance or competition. Even if the kid only started the activity because it looked like fun or because the outfits looked cool, he or she is soon practicing exhaustively for a recital or tournament, being scrutinized, criticized, and evaluated. For the kids who keep up with the dance or violin or whatever into adolescence, the time demands often swell due to membership in a company or a youth orchestra so that there’s no time for anything else but school and homework and–one hopes–sleep.
True, there are some kids with talent and drive who will grow up to be professional gymnasts or dancers or musicians, but for the ones who won’t, extracurricular activities that are too time consuming and performance oriented can lead to stressed out, burned out kids. I explore the subject of pressured gifted kids in my novel Gifted and Talented, but here my concern is for the kids who aren’t prodigies. Isn’t it possible to expose kids to the arts and music just for fun, for the experience of trying something different with their minds and bodies, for maybe making their worlds a little bigger?
There is value in being achievement oriented, but there’s also value in dabbling in something you’re not particularly good at for fun. The key, I think, is in knowing you’re not that good. Being bad and thinking you’re good is another issue entirely. It’s painful to watch tone deaf people audition for “American Idol” thinking they’ll be the next big thing (Don’t these people have family and friends who can talk them down before they humiliate themselves on national TV?). I’ve had students enroll in my creative writing classes confident of a future place on the New York Times’ Bestseller List who can’t write a competent sentence. And maybe–just maybe–a certain ex-President should limit showings of his barely competent paintings of what his feet look like in the bathtub to family and friends.
But private dabbling is fun, and by working on something that doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m stretching my brain a little. Surely it’s better to spend one’s spare moments getting less bad at playing “Ode to Billy Joe” than it is to spend hours getting really good at “Candy Crush.” And so, like Salieri in Amadeus, a merely competent composer driven mad by jealousy of Mozart’s genius, I say “Mediocrities of the world, I absolve you.” And I say this knowing that for me musically, mediocrity is a level to which I can only aspire.