A couple of weeks ago, when I'd posted some sort of musical something or other on my facebook and blog, I got an email from a reader who asked, "How is it you're so good at so many instruments?" And I thought about it for about forty seconds and replied, "Because I am really good at practicing and staying focused while practicing." It's the same answer I've given for my writing and my art, too, historically.
Only, I now realize that it is not the right answer, for any of them. Because yesterday I posted that video of my playing my bagpipes for the first time in seven years, and it made me think about how I used to teach bagpipes to college students and middle school students. There was a huge rate of attrition for these baby bagpipers. Not just for me, but for all the bagpipe teachers I knew. Probably half of the students only took one lesson. Then you lost a few more after a month. Then you lost a bunch more at the three month mark. If you kept 'em for six months, they were yours.
And in thinking about this, I realized that it isn't about being good at practicing. It's about being willing to suck.
Let me describe to you how you learn to play the pipes. Briefly. I promise. You start out on something called a practice chanter. It sounds like a dying goose, because it uses a very easy reed and is much quieter than the real pipes. Mind you, it's still loud. If I practice in the house, you'll still hear me in most rooms. And it doesn't sound like a musical instrument. No one -- NO ONE -- will ever listen to the practice chanter for fun.
Then, after one to three months of learning fingering on that -- and the cross fingering is weird and challenging -- you have to learn how to manipulate the pipes themselves. Now you won't have good breathing technique, so you won't be able to play a tune, you'll just gasp and flap your arms and the drones will wail. And when you finally do try to play a tune, it will be awful (because you're still awful, remember), and not only is it awful, but it is at 100 decibels (for reference, a vacuum cleaner is about 70 decibels. A lawn mower is 90 decibels. A police siren is about 120 decibels. Sound ordinances start at 50 decibels.)
That means that everyone for two miles can hear you suck.
*maggie backs hastily away from this line of dialog*
The point is that most people can't stand that level of humiliation. First, there is the shock that you are not good at it instantly. Then there's the shock that you aren't good at it in a month. Then there's the shock that you aren't even listenable at three months. At six months, you can play two tunes and you're proud of it, even though other bagpipers will still point at you and laugh. And all of this compounded by the fact that you have an audience for all of this, because you are loud, loud, loud.
And it made me think about how this is like writing, like art, like pretty much everything worth doing. So many times I have tried to teach art or music to someone and they will give up right away when they realize that they are not instantly good at it. It takes practice, yes, and most people get that. What they don't seem to understand is that it also takes the ability to deal with your own sucking. Because what comes out of those practices -- those early manuscripts, those wretched sketches, that horrible tune -- will not look wonderful. You might not even be able to tell a difference from one practice session to another. For months. You have to live with that.
So that's the real reason of why I can play so many musical instruments. I am willing to live with myself while I do things badly, and I'm willing to do things badly again and again. I don't get frustrated when things don't turn out well; I'm a patient creature, and I know what the other side will look like. I can live with the suck.
And I can live with it at 100 decibels. Can you?