Translating music: a note about learning new things

Damn straight I can play the guitar.

I unintentionally joined a jazz group with a few other teachers at my school.  I play the guitar.  We practice on Wednesdays.  Here is an example of how practice goes:

We’re playing some Duke Ellington piece to which I lost my last page of music and I don’t know the last chord.  I play the wrong one.  No, es el primero.  The music teacher says.  No, Sol menor.  (They refer to musical notes as do, re, mi, etc. not as letters.)

My mental translation process: Sol means sun in Spanish.  Like “re”s of golden sun!  So it must be re and what note is re?  Let me just sing the whole song… it is the second one, D.  D minor is the chord?  Oh good, I know that chord.  But oh wait, sol isn’t re, sol is so!  Duh.  It must be G minor.  Don’t know that chord.  Look up chord in book.  It’s a bar chord.  Great.  Bar chords are my favorite (read: I cannot play bar chords).

Sometimes I leave practice thinking dude, why do I suck at this so much?  As often is the case when it comes to learning new things.  Some days the ego takes a hit.  In the gut.  And it’s especially difficult when whatever you are learning—like a new language, painting, singing, unicycling—is not something that can be mastered in a week, or even a year.  A non-native French speaker once told me it took him twenty years living in France to feel like French was really his own language.  Wonderful, I only have eighteen years to go.

Some days throw me off, make me think, what is the point?  Despite all of these years of practice I will never be a perfect Spanish-speaker, blogger, pianist, juggler…  But in these moments all I need is a simple reminder that the goal was never to be perfect.

A very smart friend (Hey Kimi!) once explained to me how, even though Spanish is not my native language, it still is, in a sense, my language.  I use it to communicate needs, emotions, stories, jokes.  My sentences might include grammatical mistakes or mispronunciations.  The message might require significant hand gestures.  But communication is one of our most primal human capabilities.  Whenever we are able to communicate successfully, we are capitalizing on our innate ability to do so, no matter where we are from or what language we speak.  Thus making that form of communication completely legitimate, if not… perfect… in and of itself.

Finally, to tie it all together—the Spanish, the guitar, the unicycle…  The ways we perform these tasks will never be flawless, but they will always be uniquely our own.  For example, I speak Spanish in a way that’s not quite the same as anyone else.  I have an accent and sometimes I emphasize that accent while speaking to make a point or a joke.  I have a unique combination of Spanish slang from Argentina, Mexico, and Spain and an inability to learn the vosotros form which always makes for a good conversation starter.  As for the guitar, I may not be able to play a bar chord, but I can play a mean Taylor Swift.  And my Taylor Swift, different from anyone else’s Taylor Swift, has become a cultural bridge between me and my Spanish high school students.

It’s understandable that sometimes the ego has to take a bit of a beating for you to keep learning and progressing in whatever it is that you do.  But remember, the point is not to be perfect, and it’s not to be the best.  The point is just to do what you do.  Because you love it.  Because you love the people.  Because you love the process.  That is what makes what you do so beautiful.  So please, never stop doing what you do.

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