Monday, July 25, 2005

An expert beginner

A dear friend told me something very insightful which really got me thinking. She said that she admired that I wasn't afraid of being a beginner in things; I wasn't afraid to start something new. It's weird because I am someone who doesn't like change but since I do love learning I am definitely more than willing to try something new. I've dabbled at a lot of things in my life so far and I usually start them with at least some degree of confidence. However, I tend to burn out long before the finish line and never quite make it to the top levels in any activity. This, I realize, was what had been bothering me about two years ago right before I finally made a turn for the better. Back then, however, I couldn't quite articulate what it was that was bothering me. I simply knew that I was dissatisfied with myself. Now I know that I was tired of not being really good at anything.

I danced ballet for 13 years and modern dance/jazz for about 5. I was decent enough to pass a musical theatre audition my first year in college. But I don't think I was ever very good. I'd say I was probably average. I was naturally flexible and had strong legs, which helped. But my weak, double-jointed ankles made it very difficult to do much on toe shoes. I also believe I lacked in subtle areas like grace and expression. But, hey, I can dance a mean merengue!

I've done martial arts on an off since 1990. I think I was pretty darn good at it (better than at dancing).

Yet I never achieved the highest goal there: black belt. Maybe some day.

Here at work it's more of the same thing. I manage to scrape by because whenever I want to I can force myself to think quickly and make up for time spent on other things (*cough cough*). So they haven't quite caught on to the fact that I could be SO much better at this than I am. At least here I don't really care to be the best since I don't like what I do.

The thing I had always been the best at was school. My life was turned around when I was unable to keep up with the competition undergrad. I was used to being the proverbial big fish in a small pond. That was all over when I entered Columbia in 1992. Within a year my faulty study methods did me in and I was demoted to the level of "average". It has taken all these years for me to get over the wound to my self-esteem. My current success in this postbacc program has helped a lot in this regard. Let's just hope I can keep it up this year.

Anyway, where I am going with this is that now I see why school was always in the back of my mind all these years. My Type A-ness would not allow me to settle for not being good at anything even though I was living a pretty comfortable life. That's why I've always felt the pull towards graduate studies and the "doctor" title. I would have finally "won" at something. It's been quite frustrating to be sort of good at a lot of things and not really good at anything. I'm not ashamed to admit that I had been thinking that way because now I feel that I am motivated by things other than prestige. Maybe that's why it is now that I can finally commit to something. Prestige alone won't get you through the long training.

Of all areas of my life music is the one most afflicted by my eternal beginner phenomenon. At age 7 my mom took me to guitar lessons for a few weeks. I keep forgetting that. I told her I was bored because all we did was the same thing (an E major chord). So she took me out of the class. I just wanted to do more chords! Oh well. Then at age 9 (4th grade) I picked up the recorder. I don't remember how this happened or who the teacher was. I believe it was some sort of after school program. I played recorder for about a year or two and then the program ended I think. Either that or I became more involved in dance recitals. At age 14 or so I started those informal piano lessons. I had a wonderful time chatting with my teacher, an elegant middle-aged lady who I looked up to. I did learn a few pieces but I was not a pianist by any stretch of the imagination. When I started college I did mean to pick up an instrument seriously. But I didn't realize they didn't take on beginners. And I was in for another shock when the kids my age were already playing like pros. I took a few keyboard courses that were required for my major and it was also at this time that I started playing the electric bass by ear at church. I don't play much better now than I did back then when I started. Well, the only difference is that I no longer have to write the notes down for myself since I can follow the chords by ear. Woohoo! Ok how many instruments am I bad at at this point? Four. In 1996 I decided the saxophone will be it. I will finally be good at something! I started off well. For two years I attended weekly lessons and practiced almost daily. In hindsight it was again an average effort but compared to what I had done before I felt like I was really going hard. I improved a lot and reached a level of "chops" unknown to me previously. But I was restless to start playing in an ensemble and rather than continue concentrating on my chops I started playing in merengue groups. It was difficult at first but with time I learned to just practice my repertoire really well and I got great at faking it. I was starting to impress other musicians but little did they know that I ONLY knew how to play the songs I had practiced. Yes the merengue scene did change for the worse but I suspect that at least part of the reason that I stopped playing was that I was fed up with the faking. I wanted to be good at the instrument not just happen to be able to play x number of songs.

It wasn't until I had started feeling better about myself in other areas of my life (school and weight) that I was able to open up to music again. This time I knew things were different. I had finally admitted to myself that music is my first love. And I was finally mature enough to commit myself to serious practice. I knew that I would have to work hard to reach my goals; there would be no short cuts this time around. Of course by now my life was quite complicated which meant that my hours of practice would be limited. But I knew that I could now do what I couldn't do before. And so I decided I would go for it even if it took me 20 years.

I will never reach the highest levels in music, I am well aware of that. But I will aim for it regardless and take my training very seriously. Aiming for the very top will get me as far as possible. I *will* be a good oboist some day, darn it!!


dulciana said...

Sounds like you're really committed this time around! I tend to be good at starting things and not finishing them, too. I just get interested in so many diverse things, and then later realize that I just can't keep up with them all.

Hilda said...

That's my problem too. I like a lot of stuff. But I've come to think that three is the magic number. For now I'll have school and oboe and then we can add a baby to the mix down the line.