Patty Duke Water Pump Moments

Okay, for those of you who have never seen the movie “The Miracle Worker,” it is a classic, with Patty Duke portraying a young Helen Keller. Helen Keller was blind and deaf from age 2 and her family had learned to live with this person who had no means of communicating with them.

Enter Anne Bancroft (yes, who also played Mrs. Robinson) who plays a teacher of deaf and blind children. Throughout the whole movie she does her darnedest to teach little Helen how to communicate using sign language, by making individual letters with finger positions than one can feel in the hand. It’s 90 minutes of struggle until near the end, when Helen Keller “gets it.” She runs to a water pump and Anne Bancroft spells “water” with her hand in Helen’s hand. Suddenly, Patty Duke/ Helen Keller grasps this amazing new level of possibility of something that well, not that it seemed impossible, it was just not something she had ever thought of, period.

SO now I refer to such earth shaking life changing shifts of consciousness in my own life as “Patty Duke water pump moments.”

Now bear in mind, PDWPM’s don’t occur in a vacuum. They usually occur in an environment where limitation is accepted as the norm. There are people who have accepted the dogma– e.g., that little Helen will never be able to communicate and that’s just the way it is . . . and then there are people like Anne Bancroft saying, no, there is a better way, but it’s tough to grasp and it conflicts with current dogma which some people are actually happy with maintaining.

I will illustrate with a personal example,

When I was a teenager I had taken up the string bass, and it became my path to something better. I was able to get out of the farmhouse in Ohio and get to see a little bit of the larger world because I was willing to play the bass.

Unfortunately, I was okay for a high school kid, but I wasn’t all that good. I am a very competitive person, and whenever I bumped up against any real bass playing competition, I always came in at 5th place. This bothered me to no end. But I did not know what to do about it.

I actually practiced a LOT, but I was practicing the way that everyone in the music school dogma soup taught me to practice, i.e., just play a piece through from beginning to end and then go back do it all again. This made minor temporary levels of improvement here and there, but for the most part, it did not work. I was stuck in being a third rate bass player. This endless failure suited the teachers who profited by my taking their lessons, and it profited the music schools who collected tuition, but I was going nowhere.

Enter Joe Scheer, a very skilled violinist who was my age, and I asked him what I could do to improve myself, as following the standard procedures had not worked. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said “Go home and practice your scales and arpeggios.”

This, folks, was my first real Patty Duke water pump moment. Joe had gone on to say that “All the (tonal) music we play is just bits and pieces of scales and arpeggios, so if you can play all the scales and arpeggios, you can sight read anything, and do it perfectly.”

So I went back to that little farm in Ohio and instead of “practicing for a lesson” I just started to play nothing but scales and arpeggios. The fundamentals of music. Over and over and over again. 8 hours a day, seven days a week. I did that for 3 months, and then 2 months after that, I had leapt over all my competition and become one of the top pro bass players in Boston.

That PDWPM forever changed how I approach, well, just about everything.  In my humble opinion, no matter what it is that you are trying to accomplish, I am totally convinced that while you are surrounded by people who are hacking their way through with no mastery, often guessing and hoping and faking, there is always some basic underlying principle that, if you can just master THAT, everything else becomes simple and easy and you achieve total command of the situation, instead of hoping your fingers will magically land on the notes you want to play.

Bear in mind, there were a fair number of people who were not happy with my transformation. Once I achieved technical mastery of the locations of notes on the double bass, I quit taking lessons, so my teacher was not happy about my lack of need for his services. The music school I was attending was not happy to lose my tuition money either– their business model was based on my endlessly seeking to improve but never actually doing so. And of course the other bass players who used to be better than me weren’t all that thrilled either.

So when I see things like vague advice on leadership that has long lists of what successful people do every day at breakfast, or studies of “emotional intelligence” that have a vast amorphous plan of attack, I have to roll my eyes and ask, “What are the fundamentals needing to be mastered here?”

Real teachers that can take you through to a Patty Duke water pump moment are actually kind of rare, partly because they just are, and partly because there isn’t very much money in teaching in this way, as your students don’t hang around for very long. Very often people who have achieved mastery do not share their secrets, in part because, as I have learned, most people do not seek to achieve it. They like just poking along, fitting in with the other amateurs, and not making any major changes.

So now, whenever I write or speak about management or self improvement, it always comes from that experience of understanding and mastering fundamentals. It’s what actually works.


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