I’ve been thinking about the idea of awkwardness lately. “Awkward” is common in the lexicon of my daughters’ generation, and not necessarily seen as a negative. “It was so awkward,” my older daughter once said with delight after finding herself on a dorm floor full of college boys as she and her friend looked for her friend’s older brother. Some of our best stories come from initially awkward encounters. I wonder if what makes the outcome of these stories ultimately positive is that we were able to push through the awkwardness to something better on the other side.
A memory from over a year ago, captured in the photo above, points to this – with a college class in September 2013 I found myself spending the day volunteering at the nursing care facility at our local retirement center. Our tasks were simple – to sing songs, play games, take walks, and generally interact with the residents – but felt anything but simple as the 20 of us stood in that initially awkward space. As a collective shyness permeated the room, one young woman moved towards an old woman, grasped her hands, and began a conversation. Claire’s model empowered the rest of us to spring into action. There was more awkwardness throughout the day, to be sure, but we now had more trust in ourselves to push through it.
This memory helps me identify two ways of thinking about awkwardness. First, we can embrace rather than avoid awkwardness, whether the awkward moment is humorous or just difficult on the way to something better. Second, we can be confident in our ability to make the awkward not awkward. In my piano practice and teaching I think about this when there is a technical quandary – a part under the fingers that doesn’t feel, look or sound right (or usually all three at the same time). In my own playing my first tendency is to deny or avoid this awkwardness and keep playing without addressing the issue, with a foolish hope that it will eventually take care of itself. My teaching requires me to be more mature, which in turn strengthens my practice. Identifying the awkward and exploring how to ease it leads to a time of experimentation at the keyboard – with hand placement and fingering, with gesture, with phrasing, with repetition and drill – until that beautiful moment when the awkward no longer feels awkward and has emerged into something smooth and authentic.