In 4th grade I learned a really valuable lesson about appreciating my talent and my uniqueness.
I was taking piano lessons, but I was a poor student. I preferred to play by ear but my teacher, of course, wanted me to learn to read music. So while I was playing complicated songs by ear, she would force me to go back to my little dinky pieces in my piano book, which I struggled with because I wasn’t good at reading music.
Several of my friends in school were also taking piano lessons from the same teacher. When I talked to them about what they were playing I found out, to my shame, that they had all surpassed me and were in advanced books while I was still in the first one.
On Fridays, our teacher had us give speeches in the school auditorium (that’s a horror story for another day!), and afterwards she would let people play a song on the piano for everyone in the auditorium. You can be sure I never volunteered to play the piano! I was way too nervous, plus my friends were playing these beautiful advanced pieces and next to them I knew mine would sound like nursery rhymes. Even though people knew I played the piano, and even though they all encouraged me to play, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
But one day, after a particularly good speech, I was feeling powerful instead of nervous. I agreed to play a song called the Fairy Prince on the piano. It was a four-line song and would probably take 1 minute or so to play. I sat down in the darkened auditorium with the spotlight on me. I put my hands on the keys. This was a song I knew extremely well. I began to play. But I was suddenly overcome with panic. I started playing the song at 4 times the normal speed, and I skipped an entire line! I don’t know what happened to me. I just totally lost it. I heard some people laughing in their seats. I heard my teacher shushing them. And then there was some polite applause, but it was too late. Embarrassed and humiliated for not even being able to play such a basic song properly, I vowed never again to perform on the piano in front of anyone!
And so it was, as the weeks passed, people began to forget my faux passé. I had accepted that I just couldn’t read music that well or that quickly and that I would never catch up to my friends in this area.
One day it was raining outside so we had to eat lunch inside the classroom. After eating, our teacher let us play games in the room. There was a piano in the room and I and my friends would line up and take turns playing one song at a time. All my friends were playing their advanced songs from their piano books, and I was playing my little ditties. Then it was my turn again and I decided to try something different. Every morning after our flag salute our teacher would play a patriotic song on the piano and we’d all sing along to the music. I decided to try to figure out how to play one of them: “You’re A Grand Old Flag.” I had never played it before, but I had heard my teacher play it dozens of times. That was all I needed. After struggling just a little bit to find the right keys I started playing “You’re A Grand Old Flag” perfectly and with gusto!
When I was done with the song I was surprised to hear thunderous applause from the entire class. Apparently, while I was in my “zone” trying to figure out the song, my classmates and teacher realized what I was doing, and everyone stopped to listen. When I finally got the song down and was done playing it they were very impressed.
My teacher said, “Wow, Erin. I didn’t know you could play the piano by ear. Why didn’t you ever tell us? Do you realize what a rare talent and gift you have?” Then she pointedly asked my friends if they could play by ear, and they all shook theirs heads and indcated they were limited to playing songs with music they could read.
After that people asked me to play all kinds of songs. “Hey, Erin, can you play ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy?’” Sure thing! Piece of cake! “Hey, Erin, we want to hear a Beatles song, can you play one?” Sure, just name it! I discovered that it was really easy for me to play songs I’d heard before. Before long, I went from being a novice at the piano to being a virtuoso … well, at least in the eyes of my 4th grade peers. I’d found my niche. And I was happy.
Eventually I stopped taking piano lessons because they were slowing me down, and I started composing my own music. I was able to compose complicated songs just by listening to the music already playing in my mind. In fact, I created much of the video game music for Steve’s games when he ran Dexterity Software.
That experience in 4th grade taught me that I didn’t have to be like everyone else; that we all have our unique talents and gifts. I still can’t read music that well, but I can play the piano and still compose music when I have time. I had been very limited by how my teacher thought I should learn and had come to the erroneous conclusion that I would never be able to play songs more complicated than Mary Had a Little Lamb.
Are you trying to read music when you should be playing by ear? Are you ignoring a natural talent or skill you have because you don’t know how valuable or useful it is? What do you do better than anyone else you know? What are you really good at? Talent lurks inside you somewhere. When you discover or acknowledge your talent, you have a clue to your path to purpose. You’ve probably got many talents. Which one(s) can you use to further your goals in life? Sometimes you have to go off-script and write your own lines.
There’s power in your talents! Make a list of all the things you’re really good at, and then ask yourself if there’s a way to incorporate them into your work (or your daily life). Could one of your talents hold the key to an exciting new future for you?