Toughen Up, Kids

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So I’ve been codirecting a jazz camp this week for the school where I teach piano. It’s a weeklong camp, with about 15 students. Most of them are beginners, while a few are on the cusp of being in the intermediate stage in their musical development. Already, we’ve had a few quit because they felt they weren’t up to the challenge. And this has got me to thinking about the idea of facing challenges in a broader context.

I see a lot of parallels, actually, between the process of learning how to play jazz and living with diabetes. Both involve great patience, both involve high tolerance for “not knowing,” and both present a great many challenges that must be met, processed, and overcome if one hopes to move forward. So let me start with the challenges of learning how to play jazz.

Improvisation is the heart and soul of jazz, and learning how to do it is not easy. Improvisation means creating music in the moment, and to do it well requires a staggering level of musical understanding and applied music theory along with years and years of ear-training and development.

One of the things that makes jazz improvisation such a challenging thing to learn is that you have to spend huge amounts of time “failing.” You can memorize the theory all you want, but to turn that dry, academic knowledge into readily available information that can be instantly recalled and freely manipulated you have to simply dive in and “do it.” And the first 1,000 times you do it, you’ll hit more bad notes than good; you’ll play out of rhythm more often that you will play the right beat.

The people who make it in this style of music are the ones who can come back to the practice room day after day, content to make just a tiny bit of improvement each day. It is the people who can continually “fail” but not let that failure stop them from coming back to it. The ability to work through each challenge, no matter how long it takes or how many road blocks are hit — that’s what makes a great jazz student.

And that is what makes a great Diabetian, too. Remember when you were first diagnosed? Remember when you had to learn how to think of every bit of food as a set of numbers (carbs, protein, fat, etc.)? I remember having the same feeling some of these kids have had this week — “I’ll NEVER be able to get this! I’ll never be able to look at a plate of food and make anywhere NEAR a good estimate of grams! I’ll never be able to break down the content of my food that specifically!”

But I had no choice. And so I worked with my dietitian, read books, “guessed” at foods and then found out how close I was by checking the package, until I got to where a plate of French toast was no longer “a few pieces of bread with some syrup,” but rather “45 grams of carbohydrate in the bread, 30 grams of sugar in the syrup.”

When my numbers get a little haywire, like they did last month when I was sick, I had to face that challenge with patience, another hallmark of a good jazz student. Learning jazz requires that you can have a vision of where it is you’re trying to get to, and the patience to keep working toward that goal even when it feels like you’re not moving at all (and there are plenty of those times along the way). My weird numbers were annoying, but I didn’t use them as a reason to just give up and stop trying. I worked with them and had the patience to know that they were a function of my body fighting off an infection, and sooner or later normalcy would return.

And finally, you’ve got to be a little bit tough to learn jazz. You can’t let your failures hold you back. You can’t run away from sounding bad. As I tell my students, if you never sound bad, it means you’re never trying anything NEW. Practice is SUPPOSED to sound bad, and it’s SUPPOSED to be hard. If it’s easy, you don’t need to practice it. Diabetes requires us to be a little bit tough, too, doesn’t it? We can’t stick our heads in the sand and ignore our condition when our numbers don’t behave the way we want them to. We can’t just “take a vacation” from it and run away. We have to face the moment-to-moment reality, face our challenges directly without trying to hide, and address them.

I’ve learned a lot about how to live with diabetes from my years studying music; and I’ve learned a lot about how to approach the challenges of learning music from my years with diabetes. Patience, the ability to deal with failure, and a little toughness, that’s what makes a great musician — and a great Diabetian.

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