Scott Joplin & the acquisition of skills

I grew up in a house where the children were forced to have piano lessons (call me middle class if you will, it would be an accurate and wholly justified thing to do). I didn't really take to the lessons mainly because I never practised. I passed the Grade 1 exam but before long the whole thing fell away.

A little later though we acquired a book with the sheet music to a number of Scott Jopin's tunes. If you don't know Joplin he wrote "ragtime" which is a kind of mild piano-based early form of jazz. More importantly though it was a Scott Joplin tune that was used as the theme music for the Pot Black TV Snooker show and it was both a fun tune and quite impressive.

So with those two things in mind I set out attempting to teach myself to play the tune (UPDATE: actually it wasn't the Pot Black theme but another tune called The Entertainer which was also used on TV quite a lot at the time). My Dad did too if I remember rightly and so we both kind of helped and encouraged each other. It took a long long time and there was a lot of the music which we simply missed out (i.e. we found we could get a good approximation of the sound without playing full chords in the accompanying left hand) but eventually we got to the point where we could both bash out a fairly recognisable version of the tune. And this we did over and over and over.

In some ways this was a bit of a peculiar situation. My Dad I remember could play a few things on the piano but apart from the dross I'd be encouraged to play in lessons I couldn't really play anything else. Certainly nothing that was a fun to play or gave me anything like the sense of achievement and satisfaction I got from clumping my way through this. What was so satisfying I think was the memory of how impossible the thing had seemed at the beginning. Just looking up to the snow-capped peaks of it and thinking "I'll never get there". I mean, I hadn't totally got there but getting even close was a great feeling.

Unfortunately, it having taken so long and been such a slog to get there, I never really fancied starting at the bottom and learning another, and so apart from a bit of dabbling and then concentrating on understanding music instead of gaining playing skill, I ended up not really being a piano player. What I did come away with was the general impression that if I wanted to, and gave it enough time, I could probably learn to play a lot of things on a piano and more than likely the same could be said of similar skills-based activities.

I think that it was the first time I'd really internalised the importance (the primacy) of hard work in any kind of achievement and the possibility that time and effort (and not innate skill) was all that was needed. There had been things before this I'd found myself to be good at (football predominantly) but hadn't really thought about how that had happened. It now struck me that possibly those endless hours in the back garden kicking a ball against a wall might have had something to do with it. I wondered what my friends might have been doing whilst I'd been doing that. It gave me a different perspective.

I think about all this now because it’s these kind of lessons I want my kids to learn. It’s hard because the only way to learn it is through experience and it’s almost impossible to engineer. But thinking about how I came to understand stuff like this is sometimes useful. Maybe just to keep it in mind when opportunities to give my kids opportunities arise.

The American TV Show Yo Gabba Gabba included a song in which the lyrics went "keep on trying, keep on trying, never give up, never give up". It has become a kind of tradition in our house that if someone is obviously throwing up their hands and walking away from a thing we sing it to them. It’s an incredibly annoying song, and incredibly annoying to have it sung to you in those situations. Still every little helps.