What it's like to be a beginner - Part One
An experiment in reacquiring perspective
by Mark Blakemore, PGA Professional
When you have many years of experience at something it's very easy to take a lot of things for granted. So, every few years I figure I ought to put myself in the position of the absolute beginner. Not only do I feel like it will help me identify
with beginning students and, therefore, help me to be more insightful with my instruction, but I also get to learn something new! And you can't have too much of that in your life, now can you?
A couple years ago I decided to learn how to ride a unicycle. There weren't really any unicycle riding lessons being offered anywhere that I could find. So I checked out a book about riding unicycles from the library. One thing (spill) lead to
another, and after about a month or so I could ride the unicycle reasonably well (i.e., I could turn in either direction, do figure 8's and go somewhat faster or slower with decent control). Don't get me wrong, I wasn't ready for the circus or
anything like that, but I felt like I achieved my goal. I could ride the thing; and that was more than I was certain would happen when I started.
I've been getting that feeling again lately (needing to learn something new and experience being a beginner). So I have started learning how to play the piano as my latest project. And, HELLO, what a dose of reality. Oh,
I'm getting plenty of "what it's like to be a beginner," all right. Please don't hold your breath waiting for my debut at Carnegie Hall. After asking for a few expert opinions, to use a golf analogy, I'm probably not breaking 100 yet (and
that's being kind). Again, the good news is that I am right there with the beginners and it gives me wonderful perspective. And I'm learning something new that is extraordinarily rich and that I can do for the rest of my life.
My procedure so far has included books, asking questions of some experts and formal lessons. Once I had really decided to take on the project I began by reading some books to get a general idea of what I was in for and to start to familiarize myself
with the language -- my resource list so far is below. (Absolute beginners in golf might consider starting by reading my free online book, The ABC's of Golf.) Note: Even within
the short list of written material on piano playing that I have perused so far it is evident, as it should be to any astute reader of written golf instruction material, that differences of opinion, conflicting methods and lack of clarity (with
unlimited potential for misinterpretation) abound.
Next, I asked around and did some research to find a well-known and respected teacher in my area and started taking lessons. I began on November 20, 2001 and I have had 8 lessons so far (it's February 1, 2001 as I write this). I've had one
experience playing in front of people so far (other adult beginners) and I was absolutely dysfunctional - shaking hands, tunnel vision, loss of memory, lots of mistakes, etc. Now when a student says to me, "I'm nervous with you watching," I
understand exactly what they are feeling. I'm nervous playing the piano with my teacher and other people watching too. I can't say I'm exactly anxious for my next public performance experience, but I've been told that nervousness diminishes as you
gain experience, which is also true for golf.
There are many parallels between learning how to play golf and learning how to play the piano. Some of the obvious ones might be
- There are hackers (beginners) and there are PGA Tour players (professional concert pianists)
- A concert or recital is analogous to a match or tournament (at whatever level)
- Playing songs is analogous to playing golf on the course, (and playing songs with someone else around watching is like playing golf with others watching), as opposed to just practicing or working on drills and exercises
- Both endeavors require lots of technical expertise, lots of practice and many years of experience to even come close to realizing one's potential
- Both require motivation to learn and improve and a systematic approach
- Both are assisted considerably by taking lessons from a professional, knowledgeable and reputable instructor
I'm sure there are a lot more similarities and comparisons to be made. At this moment playing the piano seems much more difficult to me than playing golf (the movements are much finer ... and there are no practice swings ). But I suppose if I had 32 years of experience playing the piano and I started learning to play golf I'd feel just the opposite.
I will write installments periodically reporting on this project and how I'm progressing. I guess I'm officially committed now that I have publicly announced myself as a beginning piano student. One other similarity I didn't mention above is that
I've already felt like quitting more than once. I cannot estimate the number of times I've felt like quitting golf since I started playing about 32 years ago. But if you ask anybody who plays golf on anything approaching a serious level if they've
ever felt like quitting, most of them would say "many times." Like anything, I guess it depends on how much you want it. Wish me luck!
Here's the list of my resources so far
With Your Own Two Hands, by Seymour Bernstein
Playing the piano for pleasure, by Charles Cooke
Mastering Piano Technique, by Seymour Fink
Musical Fossils, by Matthew M. Harre
Fundamentals of Piano Practice, by Chuan C. Chang
Tone Deaf and All Thumbs, by Frank Wilson (out of print)
Guided Sight Reading, by Leonard Deutsch (out of print)
Read Part Two -- one year later... >>>