A Teachable Moment

A curious thing happens when you announce to the world that you are learning to play a new musical instrument.

Nobody (or almost nobody) asks the more practical questions: "Where are you taking lessons? Private or group? Did you have to buy your own instrument, or were you able to rent? What was the first thing you had to learn?  What is it like?  How is it different from other instruments you already play?  Do you have to read music?  What inspired you to want to learn to play?"

Rather, almost immediately, family, friends, and acquaintances begin to regale you with one of three things:
  1. Tales of their own experience learning (or not learning) to play your musical instrument;
  2. Lists of expert musicians who play the instrument you are just starting to learn;
  3. Lists of other people whom they know who play the same instrument and whom they expect that you would like to meet.
Well-meant as they are, am I the only one who finds these kinds of things hard to hear?*  No. 1 is easier: I sense the need to share an experience, particularly a stressful one, although sometimes people start telling me about how much they enjoy playing.  This is nice, I am happy to hear that they have enjoyed playing.  But lists of experts at the instrument?  Tales about how well others whom they know play?  I'm finding it hard even saying how hard I find hearing such encomia.

Not that I'm envious exactly.  That would be even more idiotic than I managed to be yesterday at the tournament.  I'm not envious, I'm just a beginner.  I know that there are others out there who play this instrument better than I can ever dream of doing.  But that doesn't mean that the first thing I want to hear is how amazing it was hearing them in concert.  Or how complicated the music was that they played.  I know that the fiddle is a wonderful instrument--that's why I'm learning to play it.  I've already heard songs that I like.  Why would I be learning to play this instrument otherwise?

Breathe.  They mean well, they really do, everyone who has given me names of great fiddlers to look out for.  And maybe I will (look out for some of them, that is).  But it is going to be years and years and years before I can even contemplate playing something that others might actually want to hear.  I will most probably never be on anybody's list of "Fiddlers To Listen To."  Reminding me of this, even indirectly, is not going to inspire me.  It's like reading a first-grader's report on "What I Did Last Summer" and telling her she might enjoy reading Moby Dick.  (Is Moby Dick set in the summer? I can't remember; it was just the first prose masterpiece that popped into my head.)  No, she wouldn't.  Not now, not when the best she can do is, "We went to grandma's house and made cookies."  Yes, it is helpful to give students models to which they can aspire--but the models, like the exercises, need to be appropriate.  It does no good whatsoever--and, frankly (teachers take note), is a little bit mean--setting the bar so high that only experts could leap over it, and then only after decades of practice and training.

Which is why I love the teacher that we have for our fiddle class.   He is so patient with us, everything we do is fine.  He spent two weeks teaching us simply how to tune our fiddles, and he still checks our tuning at the beginning of every class.  In the first six weeks, he has taught us to play two songs, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Shortenin' Bread," and he has done so in a way that makes us feel that these two songs are the only songs in the world that we might want to play.  (Okay, I exaggerate, but only a little.)  First he plays them for us, then he guides us to play as a group, then he goes round the class and we each play a phrase while the others listen.  We all make mistakes and he corrects us.  We try again, and again, and again.  Every so often, we take a break to ask him a question, and sometimes he answers by playing us an example of something that we haven't learned yet, just to show us where we are going.  For example, "Shortenin' Bread" with the shuffle, which we are still playing (or were in our last lesson, I missed Saturday's class because I was at the tournament) as single notes (I think that is the way you would describe it).  But then he takes us back to the song that we've been practicing, one stroke at a time.  And little by little, we learn to play.  Not because he has told us about other fiddle players (although he does this sometimes, too, usually as a way of telling us how many different ways we might learn to play, once we get the basics down); but rather because he has listened to us.

Sure, it's inspiring to listen to great fiddle music, but if I wanted to share that with you, I wouldn't be trying to learn to play the fiddle myself.  I'd be recommending recordings of great fiddle players. When I tell you that I am learning to play the fiddle (or fence or write or paint or program a computer) I am telling you something about me.  So, yes, I will take what you say in response personally--that's the whole point.  Just as you would if you told me something about you.  Nor do I think you would find it all that inspiring if the next thing I said had to do more with what others have done than about your experience as such.  You would want me to be thinking about you and what you have told me about yourself.  Just as our fiddle teacher listens to each one of us play and then responds to what we, individually, have played, without making our playing about him or his fiddle-playing friends (of which he has many, we know, but again, only because he uses them as examples to help us feel better about learning to play).

So, here's the teachable moment: the next time someone tells you that he or she is learning a new instrument (skill, craft, discipline), what are you going to say?

*I read the above list of responses out to my son just now, who was able to hear them somewhat more charitably than I.  He says, "People are just trying to share your experience by relating it to something that they know about the instrument."  Which I am sure is right, but that is why this is a teachable moment: there are better ways, I think, to share, and the first is to listen to what others have to say before leaping in to add our experience.


  1. This is exactly the reason why I never talk about my work with my mother... She picks up something remotely related to her work from my first or second sentence, and then there is no stopping her.

    Thank you for the post. It made me think.


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