Don’t Get Me Started

I sit in my practice room with my tuba resting in my lap.  On this cold winter day, I am kept toasty by the space heater humming in the corner.  In the large mirror on the wall, my reflection scrutinizes my posture, searching for hints of physical tension in the way I hold the instrument.  I lean forward, then lean backwards trying to gauge the point in which I am balanced on the chair and on my torso.  I feel the support as my feet root firmly onto the hardwood floor.  I bring the mouthpiece lightly to my lips, testing the way the warm metal feels.  After one more relaxing exhale, I open my mouth and take in as much air as possible, form a tight seal against the mouthpiece, shape my mouth to play a C, and expel my air through the horn.

Ffffffff……womp!  Sigh…

I’ve done it countless times, but getting the note to start consistently instead of flubbing it is still a daily struggle.  Once the note starts, I can make it sound beautiful, but getting it to start is daunting and often demoralizing.  And that’s just the beginning (ha!).

I’ve been looking to start teaching privately in the last few months.  My strongest areas are tuba, trombone, and accordion, but there isn’t a huge demand for that compared to an instrument like piano.  While I’m not the strongest pianist, I have performed plenty on the instrument, and the demand for piano teachers is much higher than the other instruments I play.  I know that once I begin to teach piano, everything will fall into place.  But how do I take that first step and start things rolling.  Where do I start?

I recently called a friend of mine who is an accomplished singer in a variety of choral chamber groups.  She was lamenting the lack of initiative in the groups she sings in, talking about some of the directions she’d like to take them.  “I’d love to focus on modern choral music, written within the past few years.  I think there’s a real market for it in my community.  But I have no idea who I’d talk to about getting it started.”

On a “completely different” note, I’ve been missing an important part of my life since I left my full time job.  Namely, I used to go to the pool twice a week to swim laps for a half hour.  Now that I don’t have access to a cheap recreation center, I haven’t been exercising nearly as much.  During the summer, I started walking more and then running, something I haven’t done since college.  Just as I was getting into the swing of things, the weather turned colder.  When it’s not absolutely frigid outside, I see people running and biking with special gear and multiple layers.  I’d love to try it myself, but I’m afraid of getting embarrassed by these veterans who have been doing it all their lives.  I wouldn’t even know where to start.

track and field and dan

Yes I know the hurdles don’t actually accelerate. But did you know that this arcade game is one of the most likely to give you a heart attack?

Ok, I think I’ve made my point.  Often the most difficult hurdles to leap over are the simple ones of going from 0 mph to 1 mph.  It’s tough getting started with a project, a conversation, a new skill set; even with the process of getting started!  Lately, I’ve been inundated with examples of encountering obstacles in the simple process of trying something new.  So how do we create the momentum to get us up and running?

Firstly, in the case of the conversation with my vocalist friend, I found that approaching her issues from a non-her perspective gave me an edge in seeing the big picture.  Namely, I reminded her she worked at a university.  Her role at the university puts her in contact with many different departments, including the music department.  Which just happens to have a great composition program.  I told her about how when I worked at a university, I used to come into contact with people from the music department.  I would introduce myself as a musician and form a connection.  Most often, that connection was one of simple camaraderie, but I had also seen some of them performing when I wasn’t working.  And since leaving, I have even gotten some work from them as a freelance musician.

In that case, my knowledge of how this system worked for me, and my reminder that she worked in a similar system gave her a template to follow in starting to pursue her own goals.

As for my private teaching, I recently reached out to a pianist friend of mine who has been teaching privately for years.  She discussed some of the books and exercises that she uses for her beginning piano students.  While this was incredibly helpful in showing me some examples of how I could start teaching, what was even more useful (and impressive) was the checklist she showed me.  It listed out all the different tools students should have available to them before they start moving on to more advanced repertoire.  It included things as basic as “Left Hand vs. Right Hand” and “playing loud and quiet” to more advanced concepts such as “syncopated rhythms” and “arpeggios.”  Truthfully, the contents of the checklist were unimportant; rather, the mere fact that there was a checklist with subjects that she deemed important for the students to know was the real eye opener.  When I have my own set of priorities of the components a student should know, I feel like I’ll be so much more prepared and confident in my piano pedagogy skills.

One common thread to each of these solutions is the input of a friend or mentor to help get things started.  Rather than talk about the process we can do to find a good mentor, I want to talk about how we can actually BE a good mentor.  See, I’ve taught countless seminars on a variety of technological subjects, and I know from experience that it is far more important to be an empathetic teacher than a knowledgeable one.  Now clearly, we need to have knowledge of our subject matter to be effective at helping others to grasp it.  However, without the communication skills to meet the student (or mentee) where they’re at, the knowledge is pointless.

We all have things that we’re great at whether it’s a musical instrument, the arcade game Track and Field (see the picture above), or navigating the Affordable Care Act website.  If you are helping someone learn how to do that thing you’re great at, think back to the difficulties you encountered when you first approached it.  Guide them through the pitfalls with relatable language.  Something like:

“Getting notes to start consistently on the tuba is something I’ve worked on for a long time.  There are days where they sound better and days where I don’t even feel like I can play a single note.  However, I found these exercises helped a lot.”

In that way you are pointing out things to be aware of, letting them know that you’ve encountered the same issues, and giving them a potential solution.  You’re also making a connection between yourself and the person you’re helping.  I find a casual approach helps me with that.  Empathy is really important here.  If you are detached, mechanical, or overly discouraging, you can easily break the connection and trust necessary so that they can ask for help and advice.

So let’s summarize.

Having trouble getting started with something?

  1. Ask someone outside your situation for a fresh perspective.
  2. Make a list of the components that make up the thing you want to do.
  3. Ask for help from someone who has encountered a similar issue.

Has somebody asked you for help starting something new?

  1. Offer a template that has worked for you.
  2. Use relatable language to help establish trust and offer solutions.
  3. Be empathetic!  Listen, offer encouragement, talk about similar issues you have run into.

Above all, try to recognize the paralysis that can set in when you begin something new.  Remind yourself that there are countless solutions and plenty of people to help you.  Reach out to embrace the new like we did when we were children.  Be wide-eyed and wonderstruck.

Then you may begin.

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