Life would be much easier if we could skip corners and become great at anything we put our hands to without having the tedious experience of disciplined learning and practice.
With a very cheeky grin I used to tell people I could count to one hundred. They would ask me to count and I would rhyme to them, “1, 2, skip a few, 99, 100.” We all learned to do this as children. It was far easier than actually having to sit there counting. You didn’t actually have to write all the numbers down or say them all in order. It was quick and efficient, starting with 1 and ending with 100.
That was probably the first time that I remembered short cuts as far easier than going the long way around. When I was nine I took my one and only year of piano lessons. I remember sitting down at the piano and loving the practice and then sitting down in front of my books and nearly crying over the difficulty of doing the theory. The worst was when I had to play the scales and play the rhythms as they were intended to be played. I got it wrong a lot and had to do them repeatedly until it was right. The music lessons ceased until I was 12 and played flute for our grade 7 band. In grade 8 I was finally able to choose my own instrument – the alto saxophone. The theory base I had picked up in piano kept on building with each instrument I played. My saxophone was traded in for a guitar when I moved to Ireland. After a few years, my guitar was gifted to a deserving young lad in Belarus. For the first time in my life, I was without a musical instrument.
Five years on and I have finally remedied the situation. Wanting to learn an Irish instrument, I borrowed and then bought a bodhrán off a friend at church. I could feel rhythms in me that I wanted to contribute to the music of this city. I picked up the bodhrán expecting those rhythms to just explode into beautifully choreographed beats on the drum. Instead I found myself barely being able to handle the two-sided drumstick with any coordination at all. Searching and finding some decent lessons on YouTube meant that I could finally learn to do more than just bang away on the thing. It has been slow going and I am repeatedly feeling like my 9 year old self sitting at the piano bench thinking that I will never be able to properly hit each note for the length that I am supposed to. My hands are not behaving. If you listened outside my door you might just hear me count, “1 and a two and a three and a four trip-e-let.” You might also hear me saying, “bacon and eggs, bacon and eggs, bacon and eggs,” which I learned as a simple rhythm from the daughter of a bodhrán maker. It is back to basic theory (whether formal or informal) and practice with a bucket load of patience in hopes of one day sounding half decent.
Theory and practice are an obvious combination that need balancing when learning to play an instrument properly. Playing well depends on the discipline of practicing correctly. I remember being on the basketball team in school and being repeatedly told that practice does not make perfect. You can practice something incorrectly and you will never get better. Perfect practice makes perfect. Somehow I feel that being an adult should give me a free pass. I should be able to practice something any which way that I like and get it right without having to feel the humility of a child just learning. Unfortunately, the passing of time alone does not make me proficient at anything. In fact, if I’m not diligent in maintaining standards, I can learn some really sloppy habits. When that happens it is back to the level one theory books to re-apply the basics again.
There are no short cuts to being good or great at anything. “Skip a few” wont be good enough for very long. Theory and the practicing of that theory in every new setting is so important for getting it right – learning to grow in our knowledge and then apply it appropriately. Suddenly improvising and composing will flow naturally. This is the same for music as it is for the rest of life. You name it: to become good at it takes a lot of intentional work.
Now, where is my bodhrán.