It doesn't matter how long it will take, and you don't want to know anyway

Not everyone wants to take the slow train. A prospective student might ask me how long it takes to get good at the guitar. A parent will occasionally express concern that her child is not progressing as quickly on the piano as he should.

A teacher's job would be much easier if these variables could be managed, but the truth is that there is no helpful answer to the first question ("Anywhere from six months to ten years") and there is no easy solution to the second problem ("Your child is either in the midst of a plateau from which he will emerge victorious, or he's truly not into it. We should know one way or the other in eighteen months").

Futile but fun. Not knowing how long it will last is part of the experience.My left foot is almost healed. I hurt it somehow on a run on Christmas Day - not sure if it was broken or sprained or strained, but I could barely walk. Now, the pain is just a little ghost that reminds me to continue to take it easy.

The fact that I am almost fully healed is thrilling, because at the beginning, the pain was so bad that I couldn't imagine it would ever go away. My injury was my reality, and it felt oddly permanent in its intensity.

Turns out it took just over three weeks to get to this point. If I had known at the beginning that it would be three weeks, I wonder if that would have changed my experience. Would it have seemed like an unreasonably long sentence? Or would it have soothed my fears of being sidelined all spring? I think that by not knowing, I let go of running and focused on healing.

Speaking of being sidelined, a powerful ice storm recently shut down the city of Atlanta. On day one, when I learned that I would have to close Eclectic Music, my mind was tallying up the lost revenues and fretting over the inconvenience. After five straight days of being shut down by ice and snow, I just didn't think it was a big deal anymore. If I had known at the beginning that the aftermath of the storm would last all week, I would have driven myself crazy with worry.

I recently came across a (presumably) well-meaning guitar teacher on Twitter. Most of his tweets were essentially advertisements for his services. "Learning the guitar is hard. It takes at least two years before you'll be able to play anything decently."

I happen to believe that both of those statements are false, but even if they were true: It doesn't matter how long it takes. But by sentencing his students to a long and difficult process, he's taken all the fun out of learning and is unlikely to find any takers.

There's a saying: The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.

If you want to do something, just get started, and don't even think about about how long it will take to get where you want to be.

He'll leave home for college in 2025. But let's focus on the deer tracks.Some things, you just can't measure in time. It doesn't matter how long you've been playing. It doesn't matter that another student started three months ago and can already do more than you can do after a year. It doesn't even matter that you don't feel like you've gotten anywhere. What matters is what you do with today, with this moment that you've been given.

We aren't supposed to have all the information. We've just got our little lantern to illuminate the pathway a few steps ahead. Too much analysis, too much awareness, too much anticipation, and the passion is lost. Reading the plot synopsis of The Usual Suspects on IMDB is not the same as spending a couple of hours in its thrall as the twists and turns of the story unfold before you.

So what does that mean for the adult trying to decide whether to start learning the guitar? Do it for the sake of doing it, and be pleasantly suprised when you realize at some point that you can actually play.

What about the parent of the child who doesn't seem to be getting anywhere? Recalibrate your expectations and look for little signs of growth and progress.

Winter can seem long and dreary, but we all know that spring is coming. The beauty is, there's no way to know which day it will actually happen. I'll take the pain and discomfort of those cold days of wondering when it's ever going to warm up, just so I can have that incredible moment of awe and delight when I finally find the first green shoots of the daffodils.

Don't tell me which day it will be - I want to be surprised.

Nothing to Show For It

I did a yoga DVD this afternoon. The instructor said at the end, of savasana (corpse pose), that it was one of the most challenging asanas. That's the kind of statement that's practically begging you to roll your eyes - I mean, how hard could it be to lay down on your back and relax, especially after a tough workout? But I know she's right.

As a music teacher, I see that my students have the same challenge. "You're trying too hard," I say. "Let it be as easy as playing one note [I got that from Kenny Werner]."

But to try not to try - you can't. You just have to let go, and then you're not holding on to anything so you panic and grab tighter. But if you keep coming back to it, you'll make progress.

Look for tiny increments of progress. Set micro-goals. Slower is faster. Don't use momentum. Clearly, this is an issue I have a lot to say about.

And where will all this careful, easy, mindful practice get you? Perhaps nowhere anyone else will ever be able to see. Perhaps you will literally have nothing to show for it.

What if there's no way to make your mark? (Tybee Island Sunset, November 2010)A slightly stronger pinky finger. A throat that clenches almost imperceptibly less on the high notes. The ability to play a cadenza with just a bit more surefootedness than you had last year.

Of course, meanwhile, your brother/friend/teacher/enemy can do it all and more, and better, while hungover on two hours of sleep.

It's almost enough to make you give up. For some, it is enough.

I've been thinking about writing an ebook about piano - like, Seven Ways to Be More Awesomer At Piano or something - so I googled a few "learn piano"-related phrases.

Yikes! It was like being solicited by a prostitute when you're looking for true love. Promises of "100s of times faster than other courses" and blinking ads and long-form sales letters. Not the right marketplace for my message of slow and systematic and taking a year to learn to uncurl your left pinky.

The worst part was the realization that those websites with their comprehensive courses in two easy payments of $39 are better than anything I've ever come up with, and it's possible that I will never create anything to rival them in scope, marketability, or even quality. But after a few minutes of feeling like a character in a Sofia Coppola film, I got my shit together and felt okay about just being me again.

Just being me: as in, I don't actually need to accomplish anything visible in order to be myself. I can make all kinds of little changes that you'll never see and never value, and that's okay.

Tybee Island Sunrise, November 2010The reason I was doing yoga in the first place is because I hurt my foot during a run on Christmas Day, and I can't run. I love the way running feels, but I especially love the way I can measure things - how many miles away from home I can get, how fast I go, how much better I did than last week. Now that I'm not running, I have nothing to measure except my perception of how much strength, speed, and conditioning I am losing.

Yoga is the opposite and the antidote: don't measure, don't analyze, don't compare - just keep breathing and observe. It's just you and your body and your breath - and you are whole and complete as you'll ever be.

Today, for a moment, in savasana, I got it - just for a second, I felt the way it would feel to surrender completely and dissolve into the earth, like the actual corpse I will someday become. The knowledge moved me to tears: I don't need anything else but what I have, and I don't need to be anything else but what I am, ever.