Shoulders of Giants

“How did you get so good at this?”  The query is posed by the young teenaged girl who is preparing to start marching in the local middle-school band.  We’ve done nothing special; simply helped her with the gadgets she needs to move from being a stationary musician to one with a little more mobility.  Nevertheless, she is impressed and has a look of respect in her eyes, a look that unfortunately, she will learn to mask as she grows older and more worldly-wise.

I admit, I am stumped by her question and obvious fascination.  What I’ve done is a small thing and not impressive at all in my eyes (and quite possibly, not in yours), but the question is already before us.  How do you get good at what you do?  I’ve had the inquiry made by a number of curious folks over the years, related to my work; mostly in response to the repairs to musical instruments which I have executed in the course of my work at the music store.

I wish I could offer a wise response.  “Well, child, it’s a combination of education and experience over a lifetime of striving for excellence.”  That would suffice!  It would be arrogant, but the young lady might have left the music store with an even greater sense of awe.  No, I can’t say the words.  I have to consider this for awhile.

I go back in my mind’s eye many years, to the late 1970’s.  The skinny young man stands behind the counter and listens to the old man wax eloquent about the old violin to a customer.  “Notice the tuning pegs – how they are tapered.  That is so they have some friction when they’re pushed in slightly as they turn.  They’ll stay in place if they are set correctly.”  And again, as the young man rides in the ’67 Dodge van which was the store’s delivery vehicle in those days.  “We’ll have to come back later to tune this piano.  It takes some time to acclimate to its new home.  Tune it now and it’ll be out of tune again in a week or two.”  A different occasion, back in the music store and we see the old man demonstrating the principle of striking a harmonic on a guitar string, explaining as he shows how it’s done, that it’s all scientific and mathematical, with beats-per-minute, and sound waves, and nodes.  With just the lightest of touches, he sets the string to vibrating.  The clear, ethereal tone that fills the air is a never-to-be-forgotten exclamation point to the lesson, also never forgotten.

Fast forward a few years and I see the same young man, although now not so skinny, nor quite so young, as he waits for a clarinet to be repaired in the shop where the craftsman works his magic.  As the artisan holds the keys over an alcohol lamp, he talks of “seating” and “leveling” pads.  “The pads have to be perfectly aligned in the keys to achieve a seal.  You never want to take a shortcut.”  Again, the lesson is learned and added to the ever-expanding library of facts and techniques which the young man is amassing.

Tolkien tells us that “the road goes ever on and on”, and I’ll not argue at all tonight.  The years have been full of great sources of knowledge, many of them anxious (and a few less so) to share from their treasure trove of lessons learned, until we come to the present day, when that young man has begun to be known as the old guy at the music store.  The amazing thing (to me) is that it’s not the end, nor even approaching the end, of the story.  One young man now comes in for an hour every week to learn some of the almost-old man’s secrets, others come at less-scheduled intervals.  So it is that the knowledge passed on from the old man and others, now passes again from an aging man to younger folks.  There is a real joy in sharing the knowledge.  It was given me.  Why should I not freely pass it on?

How did I get so good at this?  If I am good at it, it was a gift.  Yes, there was some labor involved on my part, but I have profited greatly also.  Oh sure, the business has yielded an income, but the great profit has been the joy of seeing more than one generation of young musicians graduate from the childish infatuation with making music to a deep love of music that only years of learning and practice can effect.  I can’t imagine a better paycheck.

We’ve all been given gifts like this.  Obviously, not all in repairing instruments or selling musical gizmos.  Some of us repair cars, some build houses, some cook, some are artists.  I have nothing against those who have chosen to teach these things as a vocation (the laborer is worthy of his/her hire), but for most, the skills and knowledge can be shared freely and should be.  The reward is great, since it’s nothing less than immortality, if you’ll allow me to put it in those words.  I’m not talking about eternal life.  That comes from another Source.  The immortality I speak of is the legacy we leave behind us.  The young men and women to whom I pass my knowledge today are, in reality, learning at the feet of men long dead.  Recipes and patterns and lore from many generations before us are passed on as we share knowledge with our children and grandchildren.  Truly, the road goes ever on and on.

Oh!  I’m not finished with learning, either.  I still find that there are new lessons in the University of Life which come my way almost daily.  Why don’t you come by the store sometime and tell me what you know about fuel injection in the modern combustion engine?  I’ll show you all I know about playing harmonics on a guitar string.  I promise that one of us will learn something.  

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
(Sir Isaac Newton-English physicist and mathematician~1643-1727)

“Docendo discitur”  
“Ancient Latin quotation meaning roughly, “By learning you will teach.  By teaching, you will learn.”)

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