Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Gimme Four Down Low For Risk and Failure

I've wanted to learn an instrument since forever. But it's always been a want that was far away, a Soooomedaaaay want. Someday I'll buy a drum kit or a bass. Someday I'll learn an instrument. Someday.

That day, friends, was today.

And I'm totally freaked out about it. Excited. But also kinda freaked out.
Pictured- Excited but freaked out
Some musical background on me- I played both the violin and trumpet in middle. When I say "played" what I actually mean is "held". I didn't do the work to learn either of them. They didn't speak to me. I never learned to read music. I'm pretty sure that I guessed at half the notes when we did our recitals. And then I discovered swimming and that was the end of my musical extra-curricular activities. As far as playing went.

In high school I fell in with a bunch of guys who would become my best friends and remain the only people I really still talk to from those years. One of them married my sister. Traitors. They were all musically inclined and started a metal band. I was the Fan. I hung out. I was Young Neil from SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD. I did not play.

In college I had to take Music For Children for my education program. But to get into Music For Children I had to take the prerequisite Fundamental Structures of Music. I almost failed two classes in college- Human Anatomy and Physiology (remember, with the skinned people coloring book?) and Fundamental Structures of Music. We had to learn to read music. We had to learn to really read music. And, like, discuss what was happening. We had to learn a short piece on the piano. With one hand playing one thing and the other hand playing something completely different. I remembered my struggles in middle school well, so I'm sure I didn't go into this with the best mindset, but man I sucked it up in that class. I also probably didn't practice as much as I should have, but it was one thing in one class. And I have another excuse- I was in college. Needless to say I basically bombed that course.

The follow-up to that story is that I still had to take Music for Children. How stressed was I? So stressed, dear reader. I just barely passed Level 1, how am I gonna survive this? Easily. Music for Children was singing carpet songs and basic recorder and tambourine and all that cool stuff teachers who aren't music teachers but want to teach music stuff need to know. I'm pretty sure Fundamental Structures of Music was later dropped as a prereq. Long after it would have done me any good.

Fast forward all the way to today. The Bug had bitten me a week ago. The Music Bug but also something else. The Challenge Bug. I like learning new things. I know every time someone says "growth mindset" they owe some edu-author a gold doubloons, so let's just say I like being uncomfortable and expanding my horizons. Can't talk the talk with my kids if I don't walk the walk. But I'm also not doing this just to use as an example in my classroom. That's a happy accident.

Over a decade ago I decided I wanted to ride motorcycles. I found a class and took it. I was nervous. About looking dumb. Failing. Getting hurt. At the time the TV show "Orange County Choppers" was popular, and I vividly remember looking at those guys and thinking, "These guys are morons. If they can figure this out, I can." Learning to ride was the best thing I ever did that isn't getting married or having kids or becoming a teacher. When I was single my motorcycle was the most important thing in my life. Now it's the most important non-human object.

Half a decade ago I decided to take up triathlon. I could swim, hated running, and knew how to ride a bike but didn't own one. I felt foolish going to my brand-new wife and saying, "I wanna spend money on a bike and then train a whole bunch on do a triathlon. If I hate it I'll do one, sell the bike, and be done." I borrowed a bike from a friend, learned to not hate running, but not get fast, trained for a few months, felt sick with nerves the morning of, and fell in love with a sprint triathlon (500m swim/12mi ride/3mi run) that hurt so bad. But I didn't puke and I didn't walk and I didn't crash the bike. A few years later I was on the Big Island of Hawaii crossing the finish line of the Honu Half Ironman (1.2mi swim/56mi bike/13.1mi run). Still slow, still loving every painful, awful, wonderful second.

Around the same time I decided I could write a book. I didn't know if anyone would read it, but I had to try. So I did. And people actually liked it. But writing it (and every book after, but slightly less so every time) I felt a cycle of exhilarated, dumb, scared, nervous, excited. Who am I? Who will care? Is this any good? Same basic emotions as before I started that first motorcycle class, and then practiced figure eights on my street. Same basic emotions as when I wobbled down the street and fell off my bicycle because I couldn't get my clips unclipped from the pedals at a stop light. Dumbass. Oh well, get up, let's go. None of these stories are directly related to teaching, but all of them inform everything that happens in my classroom and every pedagogical choice I've ever made, from moving schools when it sucked too much to taking the legs off desks to getting more into making and projects and robotics. I don't know how to do this. I'm gonna look stupid. I'm gonna go anyway because I want to.

I needed a new project. A new thing to make me feel stupid and anxious. A new personal risk, putting my ego on the line and getting it punched in the face. So back we come to music. Remember, where we started all those paragraphs ago, when you were younger and didn't have so many lines in your face? I bought a bass guitar. And I'm gonna learn to play the thing. Well.
Pretending to be badass while actually freaking out
about holding my very own bass

Ibanez sells a really good starter kit
#Ibanez #MuchBranding
Here's the big difference between learning the bass and learning all those other things. I never had a negative experience with the others. Not a major one. I knew I could write. I knew I was physically capable of most of the triathlon stuff. Those worries were mostly about the amount of dedication and work the thing would take. But this? I've got baggage about music. I honestly have a knot in my stomach when I think about what I'm going to do. I'm constantly telling that jerkass that lives in the back of my head to siddown and shaddup and stop talking about middle school and the piano in college and come on dude, really? This is a risk for me. I have the fear. But I'm also older and more mature (relatively). I know what real hard work is, what struggle is, what sucking for a while is. I know what time commitment really means. You have to if you want to not die during a half Ironman or finish a book and then edit the damn thing and then rewrite it and then finish it again and then edit it again and then and then. I have the tools to fight the fear.

When we talk about risk, those emotions are what holds us back. I believe, deeply and fully, that who we are outside of the classroom impacts who we are inside in ways we can't even explain. I believe that if we want to take risks in class we need to make that part of who we are in more aspects of our lives. I believe if we want to accept multiple points of view or try other things we need to take ourselves out of our comfort zones in hobbies, in the media we consume, fully. Envelops exist so that there are envelopes to push against.
Pictured: Metaphorical envelope
I'm excited to learn the bass because I want to learn the bass. Because bass is cool and different. Because Geddy Lee and Les Claypool and Mick Harvey and Cliff Burton and Brad Whitford are the weirdos who hold the line and push everything forward at the same time. Because when I say I'm a "rock star front man of a never-ending education funk machine" I really do not-so-secretly wish the rock star part was true. Because I know the time commitment is going to be huge and I'll have to find other things to cut, but it'll be worth it in the end.

But I'm also excited because I know that on this personal journey I'm going to learn so much about teaching and learning. It'll be professional development sideways, which is often the best way.
Pictured- The Squee
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. That’s awesome! I hope you are planning to VLOG the journey so we can hear the progression of learning.

    1. Kinda am! An making videos as I go, just of playing. This is an off-site time "Ain't No Sunshine"

  2. I own a bass ukulele. Yes, that is a real thing. First song I learned to play was Garbage Truck!

  3. That college music piano thing was sim ilar for me.
    And I learned how my students feel in the risk dept when i went to one of those wine and canvas painting events.

  4. I have no idea how and why there are question marks after my name... Therefore, it is a Typo.