Some years ago, I walked by a piano sale and couldn’t resist. I bought a Japanese, console piano and started teaching myself how to play with a song book from the mall. Within days, I was playing “Waltzing Matilda,” “Clementine,” and something about a Turk from Mozart. After a while, I got so good I convinced myself I was ready to help out the fledgling choir at my church. They were in desperate need of an organist, and I figured how hard could it be? After all, I already knew sharps from flats and how far the piano should be from the wall.
At our first rehearsal, I slid off the bench onto the floor trying to play one of the keyboards while messing with the pedals. I had never been that close to an organ before. It had multiple keyboards that looked like rows of shark teeth and more stops than the B train in the Bronx. But the group was so desperate they wouldn’t let me quit. That was before hiring a South Korean music director who whipped them (and me) into shape.
Later, after moving to Washington DC for a job, I found myself at the Italian national parish, not far from the Capitol building. I sang in the choir there, too, and continued teaching myself piano at home. That was my first mistake. Never be your own teacher, especially with something you enjoy, because inevitably you will strangle all the joy out of it. That’s exactly what I did to “Ode to Joy.”
My second mistake is one I have committed with such regularity throughout my life as to make the swallows of Capistrano jealous. To wit, I overestimate my ability and underestimate the challenge. Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean that I fail at everything or even most things I take on. If my success rate were a batting average, I’d be a .300 hitter, which, as the woman said about the Brie left out overnight, ain’t that bad. You may recognize this as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but I like to think my fault lies not in a lack of competence but a failure of judgment. The fact that I take solace in that should tell you everything you need to know (see Baseball and Other Fantasies).
It happened again in DC. When the organist announced that she was leaving with her family on vacation and couldn’t find a replacement, I stepped forward with the same gusto I had volunteered with previously. You know, to be of service. The poor woman, not realizing that I was delusional and quite incapable of filling in (I referred to myself in private as a fourth-string organist), gladly accepted my offer.
I should have paid attention to the warning signs when, the evening before the Sunday Mass as I practiced in the choir loft, a woman came up and asked if I could help her rehearse a song she had to sing for a wedding the next day. She had brought sheet music with her. Of course, I couldn’t. I had barely kept myself from sliding off the bench again. She went away perplexed, and I got the impression she assumed she had done something to offend me.
Suffice it to say that the next day was a disaster. Halfway through the first Mass a parishioner came up to the loft to see what the problem was. I could hear murmuring below and thought of Moses in the desert. Finally, they asked me to quit and just lead the assembly a capella from the ambo, which I did for the remaining Masses. Several people made it clear that that kind of thing should never occur again, especially at an Italian parish. Apparently, they would have been more forgiving at a Croatian one. Still, the pastor was incensed. If he could have fired me, he would have. In fact, he might have and I just don’t remember.
This incidence of over confidence wasn’t the first and probably won’t be the last. It may be typically male. I have led workshops in languages I don’t speak, instructed courses in subjects I don’t know, and guided people through wilderness when I didn’t have a clue where we were headed. Most of the time these things worked out. Occasionally, there were casualties. Today, I am less prone to volunteer blindly, although everything in me wants to say yes and figure things out later. Self restraint has never been a virtue. Lent may be a good time to change that.
Image credits: feature by Anthony Tori on Unsplash; man by Adam Neumann on Unsplash; organist by Gabriele Strasky on Unsplash. Want more (why wouldn’t you)? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which “promotes alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”