As mentioned before, when I was a young girl, I could not be near a piano without wanting to play it. For me, that meant picking out one-finger melodies and trying to add the harmony and chords that sounded right to my ear. When I was 13, my father bought a used upright piano and put it in my bedroom. He bought a piano-tuning kit and tuned it himself. The kit consisted of a socket wrench, a pick, two rubber wedges, and a pitch pipe. It did not take me long to learn how to do the job myself, because I already had an “ear.”
I spent hours playing that piano. I worked out amateur arrangements of traditional songs and even some classics from memory. We had a Methodist Hymnal at home, and I learned to play the four-part harmony of the hymns that I had heard and recognized. And having heard them was a requirement for me, because only then could I know if I was playing them correctly. On rare occasions I would try to work out a hymn that I had never heard because I liked the words, but then I would have to start with a one-finger melody line. I never learned to be comfortable playing in keys with two or more sharps, and for me, it was easier to transpose them to keys with two or more flats. As for proper finger placement, I let them fall into the most natural positions on the keyboard. It is no wonder, then, that when a minister’s wife who had taught piano heard and saw me play for the first time, remarked, “I would hate to have to make you unlearn all that you have taught yourself to teach you the right way.”
It was already too late for me to take piano lessons. If you want to learn to do something “correctly”, you must start before you have any self-taught skills, because you will always want to do it your way, whether it is playing the piano, typing (another of my less than perfect skills), or building furniture.
Much later, I got my first guitar and learned a few basic chords and strums–just enough to play the songs I liked and the ones I had begun writing in the current folk style. That is still all I know about playing the guitar, even though I later bought a better instrument, some instruction books, and even took a few private lessons. I can’t remember where the notes are because there are too many ways to produce the same note on a guitar, and only one on a piano! Yes, too late for guitar lessons!
I tried to learn horsemanship as a middle-aged adult. (Some of you are smiling, no doubt.) We used English saddles and learned to “post” when the horse trotted. I learned to shift my weight forward and use my heels to command the horse to move forward. I got as far as the canter in gait, but never tried to gallop, and never will. Why? Because I never felt a real relationship to that horse or any other horse, no matter how gentle or well-trained. Sitting atop a horse, five feet off the ground, I had no feeling of being in command of the animal, possibly because he was alive, unlike my car, which is a machine with no desires or feelings of its own. I was awarded a blue ribbon in dressage, but I think it must have been because the others were worse than I was. It should have gone to the horse, who by that time, knew what he was supposed to do, even if I didn’t.
A baby, on the other hand, who rides in front of his father or mother in the saddle, has no fear of falling, and soon picks up the rhythm of adapting to the horse’s motion. He can be a good rider by the time he is seven or eight. How about necessity, you might ask? Yes, necessity is a powerful teacher! It can force out of your mind any pre-conceived notions, objections, or fears when something must be attempted for the first time, with your survival in the balance. You might not succeed. If you are thrown into a swimming pool with no idea how to stay afloat or propel yourself towards something you can grip, you might drown. People do not learn this as easily as porpoises do at birth (possibly because normally, we don’t have to.) We don’t live in the ocean and we don’t have blowholes in the tops of our heads and 90% oxygen-conversion efficiency in our lungs.
There is the story of a professor who journeyed to visit a holy man in Tibet. “Why have you come?” the holy man asked.
The professor expected the holy man to stop, but he did not. Finally, the professor said, “Stop! The cup is full!”
“Yes,” replied the holy man, “your cup is already full. Unless you empty it, I cannot fill it. Your mind also is already full. Unless you empty it, I cannot teach you.”
This is a lot easier said than done. It takes a powerful, passionate, and enduring desire to learn a new skill in mid-life, to be able to endure the months or years of rooting out the misconceptions, opinions, and fears one may already have. But if you are fortunate, as I was, you may develop a unique style of doing your work that others will admire, and you will be allowed to do it “your way.”
Too late for guitar lessons, but maybe next time around, I can start earlier, before I have learned too much to be teachable.
*Note: Thanks to all of you who are still reading this post. I still welcome your comments.