When I was about 4 years old, my parents purchased a Kimball piano. This was a major purchase for a young family living on a teacher’s salary, but my parents saw that I had some natural musical talent and they wanted to foster that in me.
As soon as the piano arrived, I started tinkering around on it. I would pluck out simple songs on it and find patterns between notes that created pleasant harmonies. I discovered octaves and some basic chords and quickly was able to find melodies just by ear. My Mom decided it was a good time for me to start taking piano lessons.
My piano teacher was Mrs. Hart. Mrs. Hart was a retired musician who lived in a beautiful old house with a nice yard. She taught lessons in the corner of her elaborately decorated basement to lots of kids of all ages. She was kind and patient and would sing along to the melody as her students played.
She would need every inch of her patience with me.
I started out very excited. I wanted to play the piano, but I found learning music theory to be very challenging. My talent was playing by ear, not reading music. Within just a few weeks, I was asking my Mom if I could quit the lessons. She wouldn’t let me quit. She explained that hard things are sometimes worth doing and that learning the theory would help me to use my talent more and that music would be a lifelong gift. These are wise and true words, but as a kid, I often resisted.
Sometimes I did practice like I was supposed to and I got better. Other times, my practicing would devolve into me just tinkering around on the piano. I took piano lessons for more than 10 years. You would think during that time I would have become a concert pianist, but my poor work ethics and desire just to play by ear limited my development.
Still, I learned enough music theory to carry me forward. In the 5th grade, I began to sing in an All-City choir and was able to use what I learned to sight read as we were introduced to 4-part harmonies. That expanded into a lifelong series of musical experiences that have enriched my life and provided me with a creative outlet. In college, I learned to play the guitar and used my knowledge of theory to join a church band. I’ve performed in musicals and sung with vocal jazz groups and the Nebraska Men’s Glee Club. I’ve sung, played piano, and played guitar at both weddings and funerals. The same Kimball piano currently sits in my home office and often gets used at the end of the day helping me to unwind.
We often talk about focusing on our strengths and not our weaknesses. We are all created with a set of natural abilities and spending too much time and energy fighting those abilities uses up energy. Studies show that successful people focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses.
However, I believe this concept can be taken too far. Sometimes we have to buckle down and learn to do something outside of our natural abilities in order to enhance our strengths. In my piano example, I didn’t try to become a concert pianist, but struggling to learn to read music and understanding music theory helped to enhance my skills of playing by ear.
I once had a friend who said he wasn’t good at public speaking, so he generally steered himself away from it. However, his inability to speak to a group of people was starting to hinder his career. He joined a Toastmasters club with me to get over his fear. At first, he was unable to finish even a simple presentation. However, he kept at it and found ways to cope with his fears. He used his natural strengths (his sense of humor) to overcome his weaknesses and finally was able to present.
Not only was he able to give a presentation to a group, he found that he enjoyed it and entered into a speech competition. He took first place with a clever presentation that used his humor. It took him a lot of work to overcome his weaknesses, but once he got over the hill, his work paid off and he became more effective in his work and found a new skill.
If you aren’t naturally talented at something, it can be tempting to walk away from it. It is generally your best strategy to work on developing your strengths and not your weaknesses. However, sometimes a little hard work on an area where you fall short can be tremendously valuable and rewarding.