Give It Your Miserable Best
by Ed Collins/December, 1995
Sometimes when I pick up my accordion I think of my mother.
Wouldn’t it be nice if she could hear me now.
It’s not because I play well––far from it––it’s because when I was a kid she wanted me to learn music and I quit before I hardly got started.
Unbelievably, I still have the music book from those first lessons. On page 18 the last inscription was dated 9-22-54. I was 7 years old. Apparently my music education lasted 8 weeks.
These days I practice in our dining room. On the wall in front of my music stand is a 10×14 black-and-white photo of me posing with my accordion. It was taken in 1954 in my grandparent’s back yard, in front of the garage; my sister is standing next to me, holding my music book––most likely it’s the same one.
I’ve been plugging away at it for 13 years now. I go through spurts were I kinda work at it, then there are periods of time where the accordion just sits there, neglected and gathering dust. I’ll pass it on the way to pick up the newspaper outside. “Yeah, I know,” I hear myself say. “Sorry.”
These days I’m practicing and playing a lot. It’s the first week of December and I’ve been invited to play at a few Christmas parties. With each year my accordion becomes more popular; years ago, however, I used to bring it along to parties and, by request or not, played until everyone left the room. “Hey, where’d you go?” I’d yell. “Get back here! I’m not finished.”
I realized I was a boor, but as a student of human performance, I also realized that what I needed was experience. It’s just that my audience wouldn’t sit still for it. Nowadays my music is more tolerable. One advantage is that my palms don’t sweat as much, which makes it easier to slide my left hand up and down the baseboard where all those little buttons are.
I’m hitting most of the notes and I’ve learned to play softly when I’m in a room where people are talking. I used to play the accordion like an attention-seeking child: Look at me––I’ve got nothing to say but I’m saying it loud!
I wish I was blessed with musicality; I’m not, but that, I decided early on, would not stop me. As with a few other pursuits, I took my only talent and applied it to the accordion. That talent: perseverance. My motto: Don’t let an insult get you down.
My biggest hurdle has been my teacher, Don Balestrieri. I discovered Don in the Yellow Pages. After buying a $30 child’s accordion at a swap meet, with the intention of learning a song to play at my tennis camp talent shows, I searched local music stores for a lesson book; unsuccessful, I decided to splurge on a few lessons.
Don’s music studio is located ten blocks from my house. Coincidentally, he was beginning to write an accordion study guide. I would be his test case.
I knew at that first lesson that I was sitting across from an immensely talented, somewhat eccentric person who had dedicated his life to the study of music. I was so far beneath his level of understanding that, during some of his explanations, he just as well could have been speaking Mandarin Chinese. I could tell, however, that he had empathy for his student, and that’s all I needed.
One day during my lesson he asked me to play a piece; he shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes back and said with a chuckle, “OK, give it your miserable best.”
For the next minute or so I couldn’t play. I was laughing too hard.
“It’s so true what you say,” I said to him as I dried my eyes. “That comment speaks to the heart of the issue. It says perform and to hell with your audience. Later I remember thinking to myself that in tennis competition, trying is what makes the champion. In the end, it’s effort that determines the winner––not stature, style, technique or strategy––but effort.
Your miserable best.
I think about those words often when I teach and coach tennis, and when I play the accordion.
It’s not a matter of being good or bad, winning or losing––it’s trying your hardest. It’s about exposing your lack of talent––it’s doing it in public, in front of your peers, your parents, your coaches. It’s baring your soul, your insecurities, your weaknesses, your faults, your bad habits.
It’s about facing up to your parents’ disappointment. It’s about being true to yourself, not worrying about what others think.
In tennis it’s about losing. It’s about losing confidence. It’s about that depressed feeling that wraps itself around you. It’s about recovering from losing, coming to grips with it, which, one eventually discovers, is the first order in learning how to win. Most importantly, it’s not taking losing personally––it’s knowing that you and your tennis are not one in the same.
It’s about swallowing excuses and acknowledging mistakes. It’s going back to the teacher, taking another lesson and trying again. It’s about practicing.
Like Don says, it’s about giving it your miserable best.
And for me, my best on the accordion is hitting most of the notes and not playing too loudly.
I’d like to think today that my mother would sit still for my accordion playing.
My mother has been dead for almost 30 years.