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Quit Stalling and DO

This is about getting in there and doing it versus reading a bunch of articles that tell you how.

In 1970, I was the second youngest student at Cal/Arts, founded by Walt Disney. I was also one of the first students at the school. It was so new, in fact, the campus wasn’t even ready. We had to take over a defunct Catholic girls school in Burbank, complete with swimming pool (whose privacy was protected by very tall hedges all the way around).

It was a wild atmosphere that first year. There were initially no age or education requirements to get in. You just had to have shitloads of talent and drive. So there were all the post-grad students, and then me (15) and one 11-year-old flautist savant. When he practiced, there were always ten or fifteen of us in the hallway, listening, rapt, mute.

There was no grading system. There were “experience reports.” You wrote an essay about whatever was going on for you, and they decided whether you were serious enough to stay on or not. We dubbed the student lounge “Walt’s Malt Shop,” and people smoked pot openly there, decades before it was legal. And the swimming pool? So private, we routinely took all our clothes off and skinny-dipped. I never told my parents what it was really like. I let them think Walt Disney thoughts — Mickey Mouse and Bambi and stuff…

I turned sixteen there during my first semester. Almost everyone else was post-grad — so, in their twenties and thirties. My major was music composition, and my faculty advisor was Mel Powell, Dean of the Music Department and (I didn’t know this until just now, fifty years later) winner of a Pulitzer Prize in Music. I showed up to my first composition lesson in my bellbottoms and flower power t-shirt, manuscript paper in hand.

“Do you know what a concerto for piano and violin is?” he asked, once I’d sat down at the big, well worn Steinway in his office.

“Yeah. Well, I think. It’s a piece of music for two instruments, piano and violin…” (little eye roll here), “and, uh, I think it has three movements? The first one is usually a normal tempo. The second is an adagio. And the third movement ends with, like, more energy?” It was a guess.

“Close enough. Your homework is to write a concerto for piano and violin.” And he returned to the papers on his desk. We were five minutes into my hour-long lesson, so I waited for the “how to” part.

“That’s it,” he said. “Go away now.”

“But, but, you can’t be serious. I don’t even…”

“Bye bye,” he said, smiling gently, escorting me out of his studio.

That five minutes turned out to be some of the richest teaching I’ve ever received. In any subject.

I wasn’t really that skilled at music notation. I had to go to the library and get a book to help me remember the rules. Then I went to work, pencil in hand. Writing a concerto for piano and violin. When I returned the following week, I’d only written part of one page, but I had a million questions.

“I have the melody for the first phrases, but in measures six through eight, I want the violinist to drag the bow across the strings while she fingers the notes, rather than sawing back and forth on each note. How do you show that? And then over here…”

He stopped me.

“NOW, you’re ready. Now, I will tell you about writing a concerto for piano and violin.”

So smart. He wasn’t going to just dispense information. He was going to make sure I was hungry for it before he spent his valuable time teaching me.

This little story has carried me through many episodes of I Don’t Know How.

Now, when I’m faced with something daunting — everything from installing the Amazon Firestick to writing a full-length novel — I don’t wring my hands and worry that I don’t have what it takes. I just do it. If I need to stop and read directions, I do that, too. But I step off the sidelines and I get in the game.

I’m not special. Really, I’m not. It doesn’t take an artistic gift to do what’s in front of you. It takes the willingness to fail at it. To do it maybe badly at first, for a while. There’s no shame in that. It's how we learn.

So. Is there something you’ve been avoiding or foisting off on someone else because you thought you didn’t have it in you? Cut that out. Take a deep breath, roll your sleeves up and get in there and do it. Make a mess. Go ahead.


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