A few years ago, I took a 2-hour music improv workshop at the school where I was studying straight (acting) improv. The teacher, Rob, was first rate, fun and supportive, but were all terrified. (Of course there was no objective danger, but as we know, people tend to be more afraid of public speaking than of death, so imagine the terror involved in spontaneous singing in front of a group of strangers.) A few people abstained from singing through the entire class, which they had paid for, waiting for courage that never came. I forced myself to participate, but it was a real stretch. The payoff was enormous, though. I felt I was exploring areas of my brain that I had not known were there.
A few months later, Rob taught a straight improv class that I participated in and loved. After that he left the school, but we stayed in touch through email. I signed up for a few beginning music improv classes that were canceled because not enough people registered, and periodically bugged Rob about teaching a class, promising that I would find a way to attend whenever and wherever he held it.
So in April, when I received an email from Rob announcing a music improv class through another school, I immediately wrote back that I would be thrilled to be part of it. I didn't realize it was a mass mailing, or bother to read the part about how it was for very advanced music and music improv students only.
Rob wrote back that the teaching was going to be at a high level, assuming a certain background in music theory and composition as well as comfort with musical improvisation. Yikes, I replied. Sorry. But where is that beginner class?
It is in the works, he wrote, but I don't know when it will happen. And I have been thinking, I would love to have you in this class. Your energy adds a lot to a class, and you can probably pick up what you don't know.
That didn't sound likely, but on the other hand, I had waited well over a year for a class, Rob is a great teacher, and the class was on an evening when I was free, so I took the plunge and registered.
It is totally intimidating. The other students are all experienced in writing and improvising songs, and several are professionals—one I have paid to see in concert. It took me several weeks to even find my voice; at first I was "singing" in a strangled croak I hadn't heard since my first voice lesson. Every time Rob gives us a new exercise my first thought is that I need to run for the bathroom and stay there until it's over. And, despite my normal tendency toward chattiness, I have trouble finding anything to say to my classmates. I feel paralyzed.
Yet I keep going back. I restrain my impulse to head for the head and instead participate in all of the exercises. I am slogging my way through Music Theory for Dummies in my free time, and some of it is sticking. And I am making up songs on the spot, and singing them for this intimidating group of musicians, and I haven't died or been kicked out yet. In fact, Rob assures me that I am doing fine.
Most of the hats I wear in the rest of my life have "expert" stamped on them. In my practice and my supervisory position, I am assumed to have deep and useful knowledge of human dynamics, and I believe this is the case. I bring expertise in grammar, story structure and style to my freelance editorial work. My parental authority is eroding as Ben grows more independent and sophisticated, but he still asks for my input when dealing with social or romantic tangles.
So I think the rewards of taking this class are greater than the considerable ones of discovering abilities I have never tapped and, most likely, forging new neural pathways. It is too easy, as an adult professional and a parent, to lose sight of how limited my competence really is; how much I don't know and haven't mastered. It helps me to stay humble and compassionate toward others who just don't get subjects that seem easy to me because I've been practicing them half my life.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts