Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Works for You?

As a kid, I did terribly in school. I just never really understood what the teachers were saying. I had a hard time paying attention and the days seemed to drag on forever. I couldn't do math, I couldn't write well, and when it came to taking multiple selection tests, I could come up with reasons for any one of the answers being correct. I would actually do worse than random.

To compound matters a bit, I totally missed social cues, I was overweight, I was terrible at sports and my mom insisted on me having a crew cut. In fifth grade, I became the kid in class that everyone else had to beat up in order to be "cool".

Then something magical happened. One day at school, they brought all the fifth graders into the gym for a presentation by the music teacher. He had a huge array of band instruments that he and others demonstrated for us. One man picked up a tenor saxophone and played this amazing jazz solo.

I fell in love.

At the end of the presentation, they handed us forms that we could take to our parents if we wanted to begin taking band lessons at school. I took two, just to be safe.

A few weeks later, I received my brand new conn student-model tenor saxophone which I didn't put down until I could play something, anything. As I held the saxophone and blew through it, I imagined all the cool saxophone players I'd seen on TV or in the movies. I became them.

Finally a Win!
I don't know that it was genetics or environment or passion or vision or simply not being able to do anything else well, but as a fifth grader I got really, really good at playing saxophone. By the middle of the year, the band director arranged for me to go daily to the junior high to play with the eighth grade band where I became the "first chair" saxophone player.

One day after school, I was walking home with a friend and several of the boys from class walked up to us, surrounding us a looking for a fight. I got ready for my usual get-beat-up scenario in which I never actually fought back. I just kind of took it.

As the other boys went through the litany of taunts and pushes that always preceded the beating part, my friend said, "Hey, you know he's playing sax in the eighth grade band and he's first chair!"

Suddenly, everyone stopped! Magic again. One of the guys helped me off the ground. Another picked up my stuff. And yet another picked up my sax case and offered to carry it for me. We all proceeded to walk home.

I never got beat up again.

Special Treatment
By eighth grade, I still wasn't doing well in academics, but I was doing great with music. I also started to do well with things that weren't taught traditionally. Whenever I listened to someone teach or read something in a book, I always managed to come up with at least three or four ways to interpret it. So, I was never sure what they meant.

However, when I could learn by doing, by practicing, I could discover for myself what worked and what didn't. Although my science grades were poor, I ended up winning a first place in the state science fair with a binary computer that my dad helped me to build from discarded telephone relays. Hands-on worked.

In high school, several teachers created special classes just for me. For example, Mr. Greenberg, who was running a film making class (using super-eight film cameras), created a film scoring class just for me. He let me compose and record film scores for the movies that people made in the film class.
The Mr. Ganzman created a music theory class for me. I started writing more and more music. By fifteen, I could sit with a sheet of music paper in front of me and write down all the parts for the orchestration simply hearing them in my head. (It's funny, I still can't read music, but whatever I hear I can write).

I still had problems with focus and distraction, so I would sit in the living room on the floor, my feet stretched out under the coffee table with both the TV and the radio on. It seemed that the more cacophonous the environment, the easier it was for me to concentrate.

One evening, as I sat in the living room writing the score for a musical I was working on, my dad walked in. Seeing the TV on, hearing the radio and seeing no text books, he said, "Hey, it's a school night. Why aren't you doing anything?"

He sent me to my room to do homework. I learned to work on music when my dad wasn't around.

What Works for You?
Today, I still have difficulty focusing in environments designed to provide limited distraction. I do well in loud and crowded coffee shops, or on subway cars, or with the TV and radio blaring. I also still have a difficult time learning in typical classroom settings or from textbooks. But, when I approach new topics as I do music, with passion, awareness and practice, I can learn anything.

I do what works for me.

Have you or your kids had similar experiences? Perhaps it's an inability to pay attention or stay focused? Perhaps you suspect your child of being "really smart", yet he or she doesn't do well in school? Maybe they seem to spend all their time on things that don't matter?

I believe that each of us has the ability to do well when we find the model that works for us. The clues are often hidden in the things we gravitate to or the places where we feel most comfortable. When our comfort zone and our optimal approach are outside the norm, the response is typically to try to get us to conform.

Perhaps that's the wrong answer. Perhaps the answer is to deeply explore what works and then expand on it.

Happy Tuesday!


  1. Wow, Teflon, this was quite an eye-opener for me. It'll certainly help me not judge others when they are being different, and it motivates me to go a step further and actually seek out what helps others (like my kids for instance). Thanks for letting us have this peek into your (exceptional) life.

  2. Hey Sree, thank you for your comments and encouraging words.

    It was really a great experience for me to write this blog. So many experiences that I hadn't thought about for years.

    I feel really gratified that some of my experiences, that seemed so difficult and trying at the time, might be useful to others.


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