Flying by the seat of your pants

When I was younger I used to get obsessed with some new interest and then make all kinds of plans as to how I would carry out my obsession. I still get obsessed with new (or old) things, but with one important difference. I don’t make hardly any plans. It’s taken me a long time, pretty much my whole life, to figure out that I’m not very good with plans. Which is not to say that I never make plans, or that I don’t think they’re important (they are). It’s just that I finally figured out that my strong personal inclination makes it hard for me to rely too much on plans.

Knowing that one thing has made my life a lot easier.

Growing up, I felt like it was my duty to plan things, and then carry out the plans exactly as they were conceived. Actually, in the beginning the planning was done for me by adults. School was filled with plans (e.g. homework and projects). And guess what? From about kindergarten to the first month of my senior year in high school I did really poorly in school. For reasons that I’ll explain in a minute, I had this amazing turn around my senior year and started getting straight A’s.

Looking back, I think that one incident in particular was highly symbolic of my disconnect with ‘planning.’

For some reason I always loved music. I wanted to play the guitar, but I didn’t know anyone who even owned a guitar, much less played one. No one in my family played any musical instruments (except my mom’s mom, but she lived in Panama and I didn’t see her that often). When I was about ten I went to the house of my friend Linus (named after the nobel scientist, not the cartoon character) and he started playing his piano. He was really good. I told him that I wanted to play, but I didn’t know how to learn. He started showing me some simple stuff, like how to play chopsticks. So I pestered my mom to get a piano and let me take lessons. She was completely excited and said fine.

Flash forward to about six months later. I’ve been dutifully going to lessons with Mrs. Howard, and I feel like things are not exactly turning out the way I had hoped. Mrs. Howard had a very specific plan for me, and she assured me that if I followed it with dedication I’d become a great pianist. “So, show me how far you’ve come with ‘The Magic Froggy,’” she said with a magisterial splendor. She had no way of sensing the truth: I didn’t really care for that particular opus in the Baldwin tutorial.

A few days later I went to Linus’ house and he was playing the Petula Clark song called Downtown. I loved that song! I told him how much I wanted to play that song, but I realized that it would be years before Mrs. Howard would be letting me take up such complex works. Linus assured me that it wasn’t complex at all. He proceeded to work with me, very patiently demonstrating each passage and then letting me practice it. All of a sudden I was excited again! I realized that a seemingly complex musical piece is nothing more than a bunch of simple pieces strung together.

I practiced Downtown over and over until I had the whole thing down pat. And then I made the mistake of showing Mrs. Howard what I had learned from my friend. Instead of complimenting me on my determination, she chided me for wasting time on something that was not relevant. “You need to learn to stick to the practice plan,” she warned. “Concentrate on practicing what you are studying here, and they’re be plenty of time for those kinds of songs soon enough.” Reluctantly, I went back to practicing The Magic Froggy.

My favorite song at the time was something called “Windy,” by The Association. I bought the 45 with my allowance and wore out the grooves playing it over and over on my mom’s stereo. Now that would be a cool song to learn on the piano. I sat down at the piano and plucked the notes. All of a sudden I started to figure out how to play the melody. I was shocked! Even Linus had to use written sheet music to learn his songs, and here I was playing ‘by ear.’ The whole idea of playing ‘by ear’ was something I thought only musical prodigies like Mozart could do. Caught in the euphoria, I spent the next few hours slowly mastering the song I loved the most in all the world. I thought that if I learned the whole thing I could show Mrs. Howard and then she’d agree to help me learn the full version using written sheet music. It was kind of like that scene in Christmas Story when Ralphie thinks if he writes the killer essay his teacher will help him convince his mom to get him a Red Ryder BB gun.

Me and Ralphie suffered pretty much the same fate. Mrs. Howard, instead of complimenting me, scolded me for attempting to play a song without proper sheet music. She said that I needed to learn to read music if I intended to be a musician, and this effort would only get in the way.

Shortly after that event I lost interest in piano completely and stopped taking lessons.

But many years later, when I was living in Panama I met a guy who lived across the hall who played guitar. He played mostly classical music, but he could play popular music too if he wanted to. I asked him who he took lessons from. He said he learned to play by ear, all by himself. Of course, I knew he was lying. I had never met anyone who could play by ear, which seemed to prove what Mrs. Howard told me. To prove it, I asked him to play a Cat Stevens song that I knew he didn’t know. He said it would take him awhile to work it out and he didn’t want to do it in front of me.

The next day he came over and, sure enough, he could play the song. Really well. I asked him how hard it was to play the guitar, and he replied that it was actually really easy. I remarked that it wasn’t easy enough for someone like me. He laughed and said that I, of all people, would find it especially easy. Why, I asked?

“Well, you obviously like music and you probably would like to learn songs that you like to play.” He showed me a simple song that I knew from the radio and I was shocked at how easy it was to strum the chords. When my mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday I told her I wanted a guitar. This time she had a completely skeptical look on her face. “Are you sure?” she sighed. Yes, I was sure.

Over the next few months my friend David taught me lots of songs, all of which he figured out by ear. I studied the process that he used, and while it seemed simple enough it also seemed way beyond my abilities. Over the years, of course, my abilities improved. I met other people who played by ear. I found out that there was a whole genre of music based on the idea of improvisation (e.g. jazz). Now in college, my dad was encouraging me to learn jazz guitar. I thought that was too hard, but he pushed me. He offered to get me a teacher, and I started taking lessons. I had reconnected with Linus, and he was now playing some jazz and he and I decided to take lessons together. My teacher said he’d have to show me on the piano, so I went back to getting a piano. But this time the idea was for me to learn how to figure songs out for myself. I was in heaven.

So what does all this have to do with school and how in one weird moment I went from being a horrible student to being a really good one? It has to do with an exceptional teacher that I had.

The school I went to in Panama was pretty demanding. It was a tri-lingual school where the graduates emerged speaking fluent Spanish and English. Half of the classes were in Spanish and the other half in English. You might take Math in English one year and then in Spanish the next. There was also a French class which was taught completely in French. Anyway, I did bad in all of the classes, but math was my worst subject. Lots of rules and formulas and exact answers. Definitely not my cup of tea.

We were required to take Physics that year, and it was not a simple introduction kind of class. It assumed knowledge of Algebra, Trignometry and Analytic Geometry, and it was taught by a college professor. I didn’t like the professor, mostly because I knew he would be brutal for someone like me. Fortunately for me (but not for him), he got sick and had to turn the class over to his ‘star graduate student.’ The grad student was named “Ernesto” (ironic) and he was the complete antithesis of what I expected a Physics professor to be. He was exceedingly calm and he spoke in a very soothing voice, kind of like you’d hear from a devout monk. Turns out he was a devout Catholic, and belonged to an order of Evangelicals. As in, the church he went to believed in faith healing and speaking in tongues.

Wonderful.

His first task as a teacher was to administer the first big mid-term test. He passed out the exam booklets and told us to leave them on our desks. Then he told us to close our eyes and put our hands together. Then he started to pray out loud. I closed my eyes and tried to keep from laughing. My urge to laugh stopped completely when I opened the exam and saw that I had no idea how to answer any of the questions. All of the questions were variations on this theme: Boat A is going north at 10 miles per hour and Boat B is going west at 15 miles per hour. How fast are the boats going away from each other?

After 10 minutes I stood up and went to turn my exam in. I hadn’t answered a single question. Professor Regales wouldn’t let me. He said I had 50 more minutes to do the exam and I would have to use all 50 remaining minutes to solve the problems. “But these are all based on the Pythagorean equation, right?” Yes, so why don’t you solve them using that equation, he asked? I told him I didn’t know the equation (yes, sadly, it’s true) and I assumed that he wasn’t going to remind me. He confirmed that he would not give me the formula, but insisted that I sit down and think about the problem and see if I didn’t have some kind of insight.

I sat down and let my mind wander (my forté). I figured I’d just let 50 minutes go by and then turn the exam in. After about 30 minutes my mind began to think about this idea of a right triangle, one boat going up and the other going across. Hmmmm, there was a constant relationship there. But how to measure it?

I looked around in my desk and found a ruler. I started to take measurements. I created some of my own questions that worked well with my ruler. One boat goes 4 miles per hour north, and another goes 3 miles per hour west. Looks like if you draw a 4 inch line and a 3 inch line and then measure you get a 5 inch line. Okay, measuring the relationship works. I popped up to ask if I could use a ruler to answer the questions. Big smile. Sure, why not?

So, I went ahead and answered all the questions using my ruler. When the exam came back I found out I had scored a 91, which was an A minus. Completely fucking incredible! I had never scored anything better than a 78 on a math exam. The professor explained that he was giving me full credit for solving the core problem. He said he only deducted minimal points for calculation errors.

Man, I loved this guy!

I got hooked on Physics. Turned out I was really good a figuring out the solutions, even better than some of the ‘best math students’ in the class. I decided to go back and learn the stuff I had not learned the previous couple of years. I got out my old textbooks and started working the problems. I only worked a problem until I understood how the math worked, and then I’d skip ahead. Amazingly, it only took me a few weeks to learn a bunch of math that had consumed years of class time. In the end I graduated with all A’s (except French, which was hard because you can’t cram a foreign language into your head, at least not if you are going to be tested on grammar and conjugation).

So, I should have known by the time that I graduated from high school that I don’t learn things or do things the way other people do. I wish I could, actually. I think it’s much better to proceed methodically and to be able to learn in a traditional classroom setting, mostly because that is the predominate system. But that’s not how it works for me.

Somehow, I can’t get past boredom.

The other thing that I have learned is that people who rely heavily on plans find it impossible to fathom how anyone could learn by ‘improvisation’ or ‘trial and error.’ That’s why they are so adamant that people not ignore “the plan.” To them, it’s like walking off of a cliff and expecting to fly. The weird thing is that’s how it feels to me too. But, somehow it works, and I wish I could explain it but I can’t.

  • http://www.mcgeesmusings.net Jim McGee

    Great tale, Ernie. Too bad you took so long to run into teacher’s willing to work from your strengths instead of forcing you into the one model of learning that they partially understood.

  • http://raymondpward.typepad.com Ray Ward

    In my teens, I knew a guy a few years older than me who amazed me by seemingly figuring out how to play folk and rock songs on guitar by ear. I don’t know whether he had any formal schooling in music theory, but he had listened to and played so many songs that he developed an innate sense of musical structure and chord progression. So when he heard a song, he would recognize the patterns. And since he knew how to play the patterns, he could play the song once he recognized the patterns.

    Nothing to do with planning, but something to do with learning.

  • Barney

    Ernie, I find this experience very interesting. When I was reading it I could not help but relate this experience to my son, Eliot. As you may or may not know he is enrolled in a National High School that is internet based. We have found that, as you mention about yourself, he does not learn like most other people. I am hopeful he will find some inspiration from your written experience.

    Thanks, Barney