Empty Your Cup

I’ve been a martial arts practitioner for over 25 years and have learned a few things. One is that the most important part of learning new information in a class or seminar is “emptying your cup.” That refers to the necessity of opening your mind and to be willing to learn a new way or change your way of thinking.

I thought that I was good at emptying my cup, until I started piano, that is. I don’t claim to have any great skill. At all. In fact, I’d argue that I am worse than the average beginner. And that’s a big part of the problem.

When you reach a particular age, you tend to have a good idea of how good you are at certain tasks. And I’ve been fortunate because I tend to be pretty good at most things. I was always at the top of my class and always found school easy. I was never a varsity athlete, but I have always been a decent athlete, and could always comfortably play pick-up sports with nearly anyone. I’ve been working since I was 14, and have always excelled at whatever job I’ve had.

So, being bad at the piano is difficult for me. It really is. I don’t do well with failure as an adult. And that’s the problem – that I characterize my first couple of weeks in piano as a failure. It all started last week when I finally came to the realization that the piano piece that my teacher assigned to me was just too damned hard. At my current ability level, there was just no way that I’d be able to play more than a measure or two at a time.

So how does this relate to the concept of “emptying your cup?” I need to empty my cup of my elevated expectations. I’m not a “natural” musician. I can’t just pick up an instrument and play it. I don’t have a great ear, and will probably never be good at listening to a song and then being able to play it. It’s just not going to happen.

I have to accept the fact that if I want to learn to play the piano, I’m going to have to grind, rather than glide. That’s essentially what my teacher told me this week.

You see, she gave me a new, and easier, piece to learn this week. She asked me to attempt sight-reading it, as she obviously wanted to see if I was capable of learning it. While I was able to slowly play most of it on the first try, I tended to become frustrated with myself every time I missed a note.

She was taken aback a bit and asked me why I did that. I informed her that I have always been hard on myself, and hold myself to high (and sometimes unreachable) standards. She simply told me to stop doing that. She pointed out that making mistakes is a big part of the learning process.

She’s right, of course, and I’m working hard to “empty my cup” and rewire my brain to accept mistakes and continue learning. I’ve only been taking piano lessons for two weeks, but I have already learned some valuable lessons.

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