Sarabande: What’s one plus one?

Here’s an excerpt of Handel’s Sarabande, which you may have heard on its own or as part of the soundtrack for Deer Hunter, American Horror Story, 21 Grams, or more than 100 other movies and TV shows.

My son has been learning this on the piano, and as you might be able to tell from all the markings, we’ve spent a lot of time together trying to get these three measures right.

What’s tricky about this piece is that it has three separate voices but the pianist has only two hands. (If you’re not a musician, don’t panic, this is easy: the notes on the top staff with the stems pointing up are the top voice; the ones on the top staff with the stems pointing down are the middle voice; and the ones on the bottom staff are the bottom voice. So in this section you need to play, and think about, two voices in your right hand).

Watching him take this on is a sometimes-sobering reflection on how learning really happens.

The way you pick apart a piece like this is to work on one hand, or one voice, alone; then work on the other voice or hand alone; and then put it all together.

So, right hand first, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

Then left hand, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

And then, voila! Both hands together.

What drives my son insane is that it just doesn’t work like this. Not even close.

There “voila” doesn’t happen because when you put both hands together, things usually fall apart. All the old habits and wrong notes and fingerings that don’t quite work – the ones that are ingrained at a deeper level of (muscle) memory – come roaring back in the face of the complexity of trying to put all of the pieces together.

And so, it’s back to the drawing board. To each hand alone. To putting hands together in tiny increments until those hold together. To putting bigger and bigger pieces together, and having those fall apart too. And then, bit by bit, it sticks, you can play the whole thing.

And then you sleep on it, you come back the next day, and it’s fallen apart. Again. Only this time the putting back together happens more quickly, more naturally.

And then one day, you arrive.

What we’re experiencing is that the act of putting together more than one new behavior isn’t a 1+1 = 2 process. It’s a 1+1 = 1 process, over and over and over again until, if you stick with it, if you don’t get too discouraged, if you’re willing not to abandon ship, 1+1 = 4.

More often than not, it’s not the learning of new things that we find hard, it’s the work of not giving up. We are often unwilling to slog through that awful period in the middle, that part where we know what we’re trying to do, we’ve done a bunch of work, and the new behaviors don’t hold together. We often have little reason to believe, in the midst of not getting there yet, that we are actually on the right path, that this is what the work looks like, that real growth and progress are never linear and that new skills are fragile things that crumble, at first, when exposed to the light.

Until they don’t. Until they become a part of us. Until they become natural and we just show up and play, beautifully.