Seems like I've been playing hookey a lot recently. A couple of days ago I did it again: I took my trusty Sony NEX-6 and my trusty (well...) J. Pechauer cue and drove to a club called The Brass Ring in Madison for, of all things, a pool lesson.
Normally, instructor Jerry Briesath's students fly in from all parts of the country for three day-long one-on-one sessions with him. As befitting my lowly status as a second-time-around beginner, I drove in for one day-long lesson. (I figure I'll add the other two days as finances allow. It's not a very long drive.)
So how was it? Permit me a metaphor.
You're hiking, and come across a hole in the hillside. You crawl in. To your surprise, you find it's a cave. You explore a little further. It gets a little bigger. By the time you can stand up, the light has faded to almost nothing, so you're exploring very slowly and carefully in the dark. You feel your way step by careful step, groping along the rock walls.
You're thinking, this ain't so much fun. Maybe I'd better bail.
Suddenly, floodlights come on. Before your astonished eyes is a vast fantasical cavern with stalagmites and stalagtites and torrents of crystals embedded in rock walls that shimmer with a thousand mineral colors. There are sub-caverns and grottos and dark recesses and rivulets springing out of the rocks into deep bell-clear pools rimed with sulphur, and there are clouds of sleeping bats and white albino snakes and...
...Over to one side is a friendly, smiling gentleman named Jerry saying, "Oh, and over here...."
That's what it was like.
Well, maybe I exaggerate. A little. Bottom line: it turns out there is much, much more to this than I thought there was.
The Brass Ring is a beautiful restaurant / bar / pool hall in Madison,
Wisconsin. The tables are 9' Diamond Professionals, currently
considered the ne plus ultra among connoisseurs.
Jerry is famous in pool circles as one of the best instructors in America. Unusually, he's been teaching pool for 50 years (cue sports teachers have never been very common, but they were less common 50 years ago). From all I've heard from anyone, he has a reputation within the game that's solid gold.
You know those few-and-far-between teachers you've had who just seem born to teach? One of the best for me was Beth Sieckman, who taught me 7th grade oceanography and 8th-grade paleontology, although I was fortunate to have more than a handful of great schoolteachers in my time. They're people who just have a gift for making complicated subjects simple, meeting students where they are and opening their eyes. Mrs. Sieckman would have glowed just as brightly as a teacher had her passion happened to be Mozart or motorcycle maintenance; she just had the gift. She taught me the discipline of writing, for one thing, more than any English teacher I ever had (and I had some fine ones). I get the feeling Jerry Briesath is cut from the same cloth—the only difference is that he teaches his passion, and that is pool.
And let's face it, there's just nothing more fun for a student, any student, than struggling and struggling to understand something and just not getting it, and then having a gifted teacher come along and turn on that lightbulb over your head! I had not one, but five or six of those moments on Friday. Absolutely the most fun I've had in ages. When Jerry showed me how to play position for six different balls around the table from the same shot, and I did it myself, I was grinning like a kid. Couldn't help myself.
One more example: If you've ever played pool, you probably know what a "hanger" is—it's a ball that's hanging right near lip of the pocket, those annoying shots on which casual players often scratch. Well, it turns out there's a whole encylclopedia of "hanger knowledge." (Who knew?) Not just how not to scratch, but how to change the angle of the shot and the direction of the cue ball after hitting a hanger in a myriad different ways—even how to "cheat the pocket" to affect the speed of the cue ball after the hit by 10X. Applied physics; totally fascinating.
While I take a break, Jerry answers a question from a former student and his friends at another table. As the owner of two Madison pool rooms for many years, Jerry was his own "house pro," and says that was the most challenging kind of teaching—finding a way to increase peoples' enjoyment of the game in just a few short minutes.
He really makes me think that I should start a "photo school" series here on TOP, and try to impart what I know about getting better at shooting. Contrary to what you might think, I've never really done that here on TOP, except perhaps with my "Leica for a year" post.
Hard to know for sure from just one meeting, but I suspect Jerry is a "people person." I know his famous DVD set, which you can get from his website, is well thought of (and for me it's going to be great for review), but I think there's just a huge benefit in the give-and-take of a one-on-one lesson. To get a guy who's taught thousands of people to look at me and analyze my stroke and tell me what I'm doing wrong is something I can't get from a tape. (Turned out my stroke didn't have some of the common flaws, but did have a couple of others I just wasn't aware of.)
Well, I won't go on and on. Suffice it to say that I almost didn't do this. I played pool for five of my teenage years with my more coordinated younger brother (hi, Scott!), and then just recently took it up again on doctor's orders*. I'm a neophyte, and I originally considered it both presumptuous and indulgent on my own part to sign up for a lesson. But boy, am I ever glad I did. I just didn't know there was so much to learn**. Those "lightbulb experiences" are just so much fun. I've already signed up for lesson #2, later in August***.
Anyway, Friday was a great day for me. (Fittingly, the skies outside even cleared during the four hours we were inside.) It was really ten times better than I thought it would be, and to say I'm enthused is an understatement. Many thanks to Jerry for a great experience.
P.S. Should you want a lesson yourself, call him: (608) 279-9994. Tell him your heard it on TOP. [Disclaimer: I never met Jerry before two days ago and I get not a penny if you buy a lesson. I'm just another happy student.]
*My doctor said I absolutely had to stop sitting at the computer for such long stretches of time and get up and move every couple of hours, so I cleared a corner of the basement and put a used pool table in it. And it has worked already: for years I've been plagued by neck pain, not terribly serious but chronic, and it's been gone for weeks now. That alone is worth everything I've done so far.
**Really, I had no idea.
**Chris Norris said he almost stopped in at the Brass Ring to see me when he heard I'd be there, since he lives down the street from the place. Next time I'm there I'll alert people, and anyone who'd like to show up after my lesson can come on by and say hello.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
dan meyers: "Yikes, Mike! You're photographing while driving in poor weather, not what I would expect."
Mike replies: Don't worry, Dan, I wasn't looking at or through the camera. Just holding it up and clicking away, eyes on the road the whole time. I took something like 40 shots in three batches to get that one. I don't have to look at my camera at all to turn it on and click away.
Wasn't so successful with the "good weather" shot later...I should have stopped, but I needed to get home to let the dog out. But no unsafe practices in either case, promise. Actually, it was harder to grab the few shots I took during the pool lesson! [UPDATE: See follow-up post two posts above this one.]
Kevin Bourque: "I had some similar "lights on" moments when I did a Howard Bond workshop some years ago. He didn't have any magical chemicals and my gear was every bit as good as his. He just showed me some very practical tricks, and more importantly, gave me new ways to think about what I was doing. We're never too old to learn, eh? Makes we wonder what else I might be good at. ;-) "
Mike replies: It's been a while since I talked to Howard—I really should remedy that. I will say that never taking a photo workshop is one of my great regrets in photography. I was teaching before I even got out of school, and somehow I skipped that phase. I really wish I had taken two or three workshops with teachers whose work I liked and admired during the appropriate phase of my involvement.
Jay Tunkel: "One of life's hardest lessons: You don't know what you don't know."
Chaz L: "Congratulations, Mike, you're learning from one of the very best! I've had the occasional itch to take a lesson from Jerry, but the prospect of flying in for three days always deterred me. If I was within driving distance, it would be a no-brainer. Enjoy applying your new knowledge on the table."