Drill, Old Man, Drill by Joe Mills

Danielle and I have just entered our third decade together. So far, so good. But, to be honest, there have been difficult times. Choosing colors for the dining room, for instance. I’m slightly color-blind, which wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I can hold very firm opinions. Sometimes, seemingly at random. At one point, I banned the color green. Then, later, when I went to buy something green, Danielle said, “But you don’t like green.” I asked, “Why would you think that?” and she replied, “Because you said I HATE GREEN.” This surprised me. Did I? No. So, why had I felt so strongly about it at one point? I didn’t know. Maybe there had been a full moon when I said it. Or maybe, as Scrooge suggests about Marley’s ghost, I had been affected by the equivalent of “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of undone potato.” Over the years, we’ve realized that it’s best if I recuse myself from those household decisions where I might stake a strong, yet arbitrary, stance.

Games have been another dangerous area. We love them, and we are both highly competitive. At times, trash-talking has led to not-talking. Then there is the issue that Danielle likes to learn the rules to play the game; I like to learn the rules to game the system. And, she has never conceded that for some games, like Uno, cheating should be considered a basic part of playing. So, years ago, we recognized, regretfully, that it probably was best for the relationship if we not play one another.

And then there were the dance lessons.

My wife follows rules. I see rules more as … suggestions (see earlier point on “cheating”). She wanted us to do the steps the whole time. I would get bored and try to do something else. The problem is that I didn’t have any alternative steps. I wanted to wing it without have any wings, so I would end up just wrenching us randomly around the floor until Danielle would drop her hands and ask, “What are you doing?” (even though she knew the answer was “I don’t know”). Dance Nights too would end up Silent Nights, so we stopped. We just couldn’t work it out. She wanted me to be Fred Astaire, and I also wanted to be Astaire, just without having to submit to the drudgery of repetitive practice.
Our differing attitudes can be seen in our approaches to learning piano. My wife has been working her way diligently through the books. She does what her teacher tells her and masters the songs, even the ones she doesn’t like. I dip into the books, skip what I think is boring, and mess around with pieces. She plays scales and does exercises. I don’t. She knows what those metal things at her feet do; I ignore them.

This has been a conscious approach on my part. I wanted to learn piano out of pleasure. I didn’t want to drill and do something “that was good for me.” In a casual discussion with my students earlier this year, I discovered that most of them had taken lessons at some point, but almost all of them had quit. They hated the practicing and rote exercises. One student explained that her teacher had insisted that she know the theory, “but I didn’t care about the theory.” What kid does? Wasn’t this comparable to insisting elementary students know the theory of poetry or of dodgeball or of coloring? It was clear that in insisting on piano fundamentals, the fun, if there had been any, was drilled out them.

At the same time that I was thinking about the “drill, baby, drill” philosophy of music education, a friend passed along an article about the state of US soccer. It asks why, since the country has excellent resources and athletes, it hasn’t produced, on an international level, many star players. The theory is that in the development programs there is too much emphasis on rote skills and not enough on “unstructured play.” American players, according to this thinking, haven’t spent enough time independently messing around to develop creativity.

All of this reinforced my prejudices.

However, I came to admit that the issue is more complicated. One key sentence in the article reads: “rote skills, while essential, are not in themselves adequate.”

…while essential…

My problem is that I have staked too extreme of a stance (see my earlier position on “green”), and it is in danger of leading me to a dead-end. I insisted that drills kill the fun, but the fun cannot happen without the skills, which are developed, in part, by the drills.

Consequently, I now find myself only able to play a few songs, and I have become bored with them. I want to do something more interesting, but I don’t have the basic abilities to advance.

Maybe I should quit and dabble in something else.

Or maybe it’s time to change my attitude and my actions.

The stereotype is that people get more set in their ways as they get older. Perhaps that’s sometimes true, but for me, part of the benefit of aging has been the sense that we do and can change. We gain perspective. We become less rigid. We paint rooms green.

Last year, for Danielle’s birthday present, I signed us up for dance lessons. I did so with trepidation, but I assured her that the real present was my promise to try to learn the steps, do the steps and, at least during the lessons, only do the steps. No going rogue. And, it went much better. It was rewarding, even fun.

And, recently, we tentatively have begun to play games together and have found ourselves going to bed still talking to one another.

Yes, we can change, and, if we do, we get the chance to experience pleasures that we’ve been denying ourselves for years.
So I’m going to go back to the beginning of the piano books, work through some of the exercises, and practice some of the scales. Should ten-year-olds do this? Maybe not. But I’m not ten. My motto for the rest of the year? Drill, old man, drill.

At least a little bit.

Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). A new book of poetry is coming out in April: Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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