Thursday, April 14, 2011


Music is a fantastic way to develop patience. I remember being a hyper 14 year old who was just dying to star in a Broadway musical as fast as possible. I practiced singing "Memory" from "Cats" over and over again and it broke my heart that I couldn't sing it perfectly every single time. There were always at least 5 bad notes or 10 missed beats. Always. I remember my sister used to tell her friends it was painful to hear me practice. She was right. No one wants to hear off-key singing.

When I started teaching myself the guitar during my 16th summer, I thought I would never get it. In the humid Florida heat, with a broken air conditioner and sweat pouring down my neck and arms, I struggled to get through a simple D7 chord. My fingers felt like they were pressing against shredded pieces of metal. I spent at least one hour trying to switch effortlessly from Easy G to D7, and I probably only accomplished that 3 times.

I can understand why students quit. The frustration of being imperfect is enough to make you want to punch a wall. I only continued because I wanted it so bad. I kept envisioning myself onstage, with a guitar, singing songs of my own. I just had to be patient.

Lately I am trying to teach my students about patience. Probably because right now now I need it in my own life. Yesterday I was listening to the "Real Jazz" station on Sirius satellite radio, and there was a soundbite of a musician who said "Improvisation is important to learn in music, because it is important to learn in life." This is true for so many elements of music. Patience is like that.

Kids are so naturally impatient. When most of my students make a mistake, they give a frustrated sigh, hunch their shoulders, and express a kid-friendly expletive. Yesterday, one very frustrated boy shouted "Dangit!" each time he missed a note.

I realized only recently that I need to teach patience for 2 important reasons: I want students (and myself) to become better musicians and individuals. Musical practice is all about creating and breaking habits and patterns. We play one scale over and over again perfecting our fingers, the rhythm, dynamics (volume), tempo (speed). If we make a mistake, we have two choices in how we handle it: we can either freak out or stay calm. We create habits of frustration if we choice the former.

Last night I suggested to Dangit! Boy that instead of getting so frustrated each time he makes a mistake, I would like him to try pausing, breathing in, and breathing out. Then start over. It took almost fifteen mistakes before he finally started to remember the new assignment. It takes practice to change a habit, and it takes practice to develop patience.

My hope is that some of this patience practice will seep out of the children's piano lessons and into the rest of their lives. Imagine what checkout lines and rush hour traffic would feel like if we could all develop a little more patience.

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