Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hi, I Suck.

EMO JEDI 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.

Well, blow.

*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?

19 comments:

sarah said...

i LOVE this analogy. bagpipes to writing. the broadcasted suckiness. and the bravery behind it all.

**

"i'm taking the pledge," she shouted. "I will live with my suck."

Jonathon Arntson said...

I DARE TO SUCK! Maureen Johnson inspired me to live that way and now you've reinvigorated my beliefs!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nyhv80HDSj4

Crystal Cook said...

I can live with it, sometimes it's hard. But the alternative like you said is giving up. And I can't do that. I'm no quitter. So Huzzah! To all my crappy practice work.

Thanks Maggie :):):) I love these posts, they keep me going :)

skull.kitten said...

thank you for the inspiring words. now if i could apply it to my thesis, that'd be great.

Nat said...

WOW--my friend Chris said the exact same thing (okay, hauntingly similar) when he did my chart (astro) for the next six months: "don't be afraid to produce something sucky..." or something like that... and I have since produced some duly awful rewrites of my solo novel, which I am now de-suck-i-fying. This was an awesome post!

Abra Ebner said...

EXACTLY!!!

Anna N. said...

My problem was the 100 decibels part. I didn't mind sucking, I didn't mind sucking for months (hey, I played trumpet for 10 years and honestly I never rose above "competent" - and I'm thinking about picking it up again. I miss it.) but I mind sucking when everyone for 2 miles could hear me. I prefer to practice in private until I don't-completely-suck (be that art or music or writing or dance or anything, really) and that just doesn't work when there's no way to hide.

erikasbuddy said...

Oh i love it!! What awesome words of wisdom ;)

Solvang Sherrie said...

Now that's an inspiring post because it's SO true. You have to be willing to suck. Or blow. :)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I love your guys' comments. So much!

sxswann said...

Bagpipes and oboe must have even more in common than I thought. Oboes are so loud there are usually only two per orchestra. While we haven't been accused of sounding like a goose, the very famous double-reed makers in Chicago - Edmund Nielsen Woodwinds - have had Esmerelda the oboe/English horn/bassoon playing Duck as their mascot for years - at least the last 35 that I know about and they were in business 25 years before that. And you really have to suck at double-reeds for a long time. If you can stand that, one day you might be playing Handel's Water Music! I always had to practice in the basement. At least the sound was a little bit muted there.

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Fabulous! So true of anything worth mastering!
:-)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Yeah, indeed - double reeds are finicking and challenging. Are oboes as evil with weather changes?

And thanks, Frankie!

sarah said...

Do you know who you would pick if you book Shiver was to be put in a movie?

Anonymous said...

who would you pick for shiver if you had a say who would go to each person in the movie

Amelia Robinson said...

Incredible analogy. :) I love it and I will remember it as I slave through my own pathetic excuse for a piece of creative writing.

And I should say that while I wouldn't listen to a practice chanter for fun, it was still fascinating to listen to. I wouldn't want to learn though. I am not a patient creature and I've already had a go at the recorder. XD

Enjoyable post, as usual. :)

-Amelia

O. said...

I actually listened to the whole melody you posted the link to and call me crazy but I liked it, to the point of bobbing head and tapping foot. So there, it's all a matter of opinion ;) Of course there is a question: when does that guy breathe? I can't believe he did that whole thing on one breath.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

O -- hahaha -- as someone who plays the practice chanter, I can tell you that you get very clever at finding small places for breaths between phrases.

sxswann said...

I never mastered that "circular" breathing, but I sure would have loved too. I only know one person who can do it - he's a professional sax player.

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