Last week my friend and fellow tubist Mark came through town with his band Lost in the Trees. The band is an orchestral pop/folk band, employing the violin, cello, horn, and tuba as well as drums and guitar. As you might guess, they have a really unique style and are a creative wellspring to listen to. As Mark and I were talking and hashing out the details of his stop in Philadelphia, I was surprised to learn that for this show, the band was playing as a more traditional rock/pop band. They were just guitar, keyboards, drums, and Mark on bass guitar. I had seen him play bass a few times before, so I knew he could, but it was still surprising to see him without his tuba for the whole show.
After the show we were talking about his learning this other instrument. He was talking about how he had been playing bass for about three years and was relaying some of the fundamental information he had picked up along the way. For instance, you apparently have to mute the other strings while you’re playing or else they just resonate the whole time. This came as a revelation for me, because I too am trying to learn to play the bass.
A few years back a friend of mine was clearing out a few instruments he had in storage, and I picked up his bass and bass amplifier. Stringed instruments in general have never been my forte, but I figured if I had it around the house I might take the time to get to know it better. This, despite the fact that I always looked at the bass as the easy way out and the tuba as a true and noble instrument. Hey, everyone plays the bass, but how many rock tuba players do you know?
Many of you have surely picked up the flaw in that last paragraph. The part about figuring that if it was there, I would learn it. Certainly having it in my house is an important prerequisite to learning it, but the effort doesn’t stop there. I need to actually make the time to work with the instrument, develop a method for organizing the content to learn, and follow through with both. Yes, once again I have traversed into the continent of Obviousia. Why wouldn’t I think that type of commitment is necessary?
The problem for me is that I can pick many things up pretty quickly. If there’s a tricky line to learn on the tuba or accordion, within an hour or two I can usually work it up to sound good or at least passable. My job entails learning software quickly and being able to pass that information on to others, and it’s something I’ve become very good at. In most types of games, I can quickly figure out the strategy necessary to win (even if I sometimes fail in achieving that strategy). Overall, I’m good at finding patterns and using them to maximize efficiency.
When I encounter something for which I cannot immediately find the pattern or for which a slow acquisition of dexterity and muscle is required, I tend to balk. My brain tells me that it’s not interesting enough, which to some extent is true; I am not at the level with that particular skill or tool in which I can perform the activities that I know to be possible. I’d rather do those activities on an instrument with which I am familiar than take the time to learn them on something new.
So what, I’m doomed to only do the things that are easy or which which I’ve already acquired the skills? That’s no way to live my life. So I’ve been trying to figure out ways to persist past the initial stumbling stones. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Embrace the mistake (Me fail English? That’s unpossible!)
A coworker of mine has a Post-It note above her workstation that reads “We become experts by not trying to do things perfectly the first time.” I am terrified of being bad at something the first time I try it. I’m sure some of it is the (irrational) fear that others will think less of me for not being instantly competent. The larger part of the equation comes from the identity I’ve built up of myself as an all-around talented person. If I can’t succeed right away it shakes the foundation of who I think I am. By understanding that making mistakes doesn’t make me incompetent, but rather leads me on the road to becoming more competent, I can more safely start to get my hands dirty with learning new things.
Embrace incremental improvement (Climb the ladder, Monty)
It’s hard to remember back to the time in which we did not know the subjects of which we are experts now. For instance, there was a time in which food magically came from Mom and Dad. Over years of watching them, then helping them, then trying to cook on my own, I gained my own culinary awareness. It took lots of time and many mistakes and revelations along the way to make me the food genius that I am today. When I go to learn another instrument that doesn’t come naturally to me, it may be helpful to savor each moment of learning and to celebrate each small accomplishment. Through remembering that the things I love took time to learn, and becoming more fully aware of the process and how it relates to me as an adult, it can become a delightful experiment about self-awareness.
Make your time ([INSERT SIMPSONS QUOTE HERE])
I mentioned this above. I need to commit myself to improvement by allowing myself the time to do it. This is the toughest one for me for two reasons.
Firstly, my spare time has dwindled over the past year. Along with my full time job, I am gigging or rehearsing on a lot of evenings and on weekends. When I add in the important downtime of being with friends, with my family, and by myself, I’m running out consistent times across the week to devote to improving my weaker skills.
Secondly, not letting myself off the hook for a moment, I have problems with time management. In fact, if anyone were to tell me the first statement above, I would immediately question whether they are truly committed to improvement. We find time to do the things we want to do. Usually “I don’t have time” is a cop out, meaning I’m not interested in making the time.
I know there’s truth in both statements. I both am working with constraints and am having trouble organizing my free time (possibly the second is a result of the first). But it’s something I need to pull together if I’m going to continue to improve. As my former tuba teacher used to say “Air is finite. Efficiency is not.” So it goes with time and time management.
In any case, talking with Mark about the bass was quite helpful, if only to remind me that it can be done. One can be a tuba player and find the time and motivation to learn another instrument (even one as evil as the bass). I need to shuffle my priorities and develop some new skills, but I know I can do it. The alternative – just using the skills I have learned to this point – is just too bleak. It’s time to get this party rocking with my choice of bass instruments.
Next stop, Contrabassoon!