When I started teaching fiddle 15 years ago, there was a lot I didn’t know about the job, like the fact that music teachers are sometimes amateur counselors.
No one tells you about this field promotion, or prepares you for what you hear in the sanctity of the studio: the end of marriages, the helplessness of watching loved ones suffer, on one particularly heartbreaking occasion, two children who broke down crying mid-lesson over their parent’s upcoming military deployment.
I knew my scales and arpeggios, but I had no training in child comforting. So I did the only thing I knew how to do: Gave them the space to cry (and chocolate).
Just taking a lesson can be a jump into the deep end of vulnerability. Admitting that we don’t know something and opening ourselves to someone expert enough to see the full naked glory of our inexperience is a brave thing to do.
I’ve always respected that, but I didn’t know was how much it would teach me about life.
“I’m (fill-in-the-blank) years old, do you think you can still teach me?” People often laugh as they say it, but behind the laugh I think there’s a whisper of mortality asking, “Am I running out of time?”
Thankfully, the answer is no, it’s not too late. I’ve watched hundreds of hands and minds – from not-quite 4 years old to 70-something – wrestle with this instrument, and I can tell you, the adult brain is a whole lot sharper than people think.
Yes, kids pick things up fast, but I think the real advantage they have over adults is their approach to learning.
When kids want to know if the stove is hot, they touch it. They haven’t yet been taught to turn the data of life’s experiments into personal judgments. So when it comes to music or any other new challenge, they try something, see what happens, try something else and move on.
Not true for we so-called grownups. Years of being judged have made us wary, so instead of touching the stove, we buy a book about stoves. We go to a stove convention, maybe talk to a guy who touched a stove back in the 1970s.
Meanwhile the kid has run rings around us, gone and touched three more stoves, and we’re just losing more of the precious time we already fear we don’t have enough of.
I’ve been telling this story to my adult students for years, but about a year ago I really started listening as I was saying it.
I realized there is so much more in life I wish I knew and want to be, but I’m afraid of failure, too — afraid it’s already too late for me to learn.
Teacher, teach thyself, I thought. I needed to touch the stove.
So I did. Over and over, and let me tell you, some of them burned. But all of them gave me a chance to grow toward the person I want to be.
I picked up a new instrument, applied to write a newspaper column, and had more terrifyingly honest conversations with people in the last 12 months than in the previous 12 years combined.
When we’re open to learning, we can’t help but live in the truth that we aren’t finished, we are always in the process of becoming.
We're taught that being a student is a phase of life, that we graduate out of learning and into the glorious state of knowing, but the white lie that we are done — we know all we need to know, we are now who we will always be — makes a great security blanket, not a great life.
It’s scary to admit we don’t know it all, but silly to act like we do, and maybe a little freeing to embrace our lives in progress and the fact that we should be learning as long as we are breathing.
So go live and learn like a child. Ask “what happens when I do this?” and judge the results of the experiment, not yourself.
Go touch the stove.
* If any youngsters are reading this, please don’t touch an actual stove. It’s an allegory. Go ask your mother about allegories.
Sarah Comer of Puyallup is musician, storyteller and community dance facilitator. She is one of six 2018 reader columnists for The News Tribune. Reach her at email@example.com