Every once in a while, it’s good for grown-ups to try to do something they just aren’t very good at. And it’s especially good for people who teach other people how to do other things.
It’s been a long long time since I learned how to play the piano, and like many people who end up teaching music, piano was something that came fairly easily to me. Not that I wasn’t responsible for plenty of grave-spinning among the great old classical composers, but I don’t remember having much trouble learning to read music or playing fast and loud (whether appropriate or not).
I am, however gravitationally challenged. Remaining upright on a board that is moving beneath me — say a surfboard, a windsurfer, a skateboard, or a snowboard — seems a feat much more difficult than playing a Beethoven sonata. Last week, on the island of Kaua’i, I was introduced to what is purportedly one of the hottest new water sports going: stand-up paddle-boarding.
Basically, stand-up paddle-boarding is a geeky-looking sport that is something of a cross between surfing and kayaking, with a bit of Venetian gondolier action thrown into the mix. You are issued a wide, supposedly stable, beginner-suitable board. You kneel on it, then scramble to a standing position. Once you adjust your feet and balance, you start paddling, first on one side, then the other. Every once in a while the wake from a motor boat or a wave passes underfoot, meaning that — if you are me — you end up doing a belly-side-or-back- flop into the water .
It’s a little like learning to play golf (or, I suppose, piano). Move this, but don’t move that. Bend here, but not there. Twist this way, but don’t twist that. Knees bent, paddle forward, thumbs, up, toes here, heels there…. And just as you finally feel like you’re getting going, an instructor shows up with another half dozen helpful hints. You concentrate on what he’s telling you, forget to do something else, and end up doing the backstroke once more.
Don’t get me wrong: It was a lot of fun. And after practicing on Kauai’s placid Hanalei River, I even made it out to not-quite-entirely-so-placid Hanalei Bay where a few gentle ripples underfoot made me feel as though I was riding some giant championship surfer wave on Waikiki Beach. Meanwhile, Puff the mighty dragon (yes, he really is there) looked on, lounging on his perch by the sea.
Here are a few things that learning to paddleboard reminded me about teaching piano:
- Most people can’t take in too much information at once: Better to concentrate on two or three main essential skills, and add refinements as you go.
- Even when you’re flopping into the ocean, a good teacher will find something nice, or funny, or encouraging to say.
- Funny little anecdotes about how your teacher learned something or got over a hump reassure the learner that everyone faces challenges when trying something new – - and can get over them.
- It really is all about the practice: To paddleboard like my teacher, I’d have to spend a few weeks going up and down and up and down and up and down the river, practicing falling and getting up, turning, and paddling against the wind and over waves.
- Enthusiasm counts. Taking breaks helps. You don’t have to learn it all at once.
- Having fun means you’ll try it again tomorrow. Getting better at it means you’ll have more fun doing it.
Just like learning piano.