Where I come from, girls learn how to play the piano. If that sounds Victorian, well, now you know something about where I come from. I don’t have much to show for the time I spent and the money my parents spent on that endeavor, but it wasn’t optional. Every week, from 3rd grade to 8th, I went to piano lessons. I liked playing the piano when I was allowed to play what I wanted–but most of the time my teachers made me practice boring exercises and songs I didn’t know. So, even though I wasn’t a terrible piano player, I was pretty terrible student. At least that’s how I remember it 30-some years later.
The most important thing I learned at piano lessons, I learned from Mrs. Swan, the elderly lady who sat 12-year-old me in her dark living room at her doily-draped piano after school on Thursdays. She made me play the most dreadful drills.
Another thing girls do, where I come from, is play the piano in church. This is an honor and a privilege, and it is freaking terrifying because all the older girls who have been taking lessons longer than you have and can play without ever making mistakes will hear you if you mess up. Everyone will say you did great and it doesn’t matter if you made a little mistake. But still. Even the preacher will hear you mess up.
So one Thursday afternoon, I was playing particularly badly for poor Mrs. Swan. She seemed so discouraged by my lack of love for her lessons, that I confessed. I had barely practiced my lesson at all that week. I’d been asked to play the piano in church, and I was madly practicing… “Whispering Hope,” I think it was. This relieved and delighted poor, discouraged Mrs. Swan.
“Play it for me,” she said.
I gingerly began picking out the notes, pausing where I was uncertain of my finger placement, not wanting to fail at this as well. When I got to the end of the song, Mrs. Swan gave me a significant piece of life advise which I have called on many times and repeated often. Whatever the words she used, the message was this:
“Don’t you be afraid to make mistakes. You just play that song with all your heart, and if you make a mistake I want you to make a big, enthusiastic mistake that everyone can hear. No little wimpy mistakes!”
Something to that effect. She told me to play it again. So I played it again, loudly and confidently. I made some loud, confident mistakes and I had to admit she was right—it sounded a lot better, mistakes and all.
Mrs. Swan isn’t living anymore–if she were she would be 100. And I can’t play the piano to save my soul, but I know how to make a good mistake. Big. Loud. Not fearfully or shamefully. I’ve had lots of practice and I’m fabulous at it.
I actually hand myself Mrs. Swan’s advice quite frequently when I’m surfing—who knew that piano lessons could speak to that? “Don’t worry about making a mistake,” I tell myself. “Make a giant mistake. Take the wipe-out of the day.”
Mixed with my rides, I get me some almighty wipe-outs. I consider them a success in their own way. Sometimes going all in is more important than what happens next.