Sometimes things just don't go according to plan. We can write the best lesson objectives, have the highest hopes and the most open heart and it can still fall to pieces. Those days when nothing is working. Suddenly it's like the last five rehearsals didn't happen and you're back to square one. The musicians are restless and all the attention is anywhere but on the task at hand. How do we respond to this and come out better, rather than broken?
These are the days when we can start catastrophizing. 'I had a bad rehearsal' can easily snowball into 'I must be doing something wrong', 'I am a bad teacher', 'Why am I even doing this?', 'I will never be any good', right on down to the bottom of the barrel and the woeful, painful 'I'm a terrible person'.
I've been there, sitting in the car after rehearsal with my head in my hands. Or lying in bed, crying quietly and thinking I must be a terrible teacher. It must be my fault they don't get it. It must be my fault it's shockingly bad.
And yet really, we just had a bad rehearsal.
This isn't to say we shouldn't take responsibility for our work and actions. It's entirely possible that there's a grain of truth in whatever mean thing you're thinking about yourself. We can all always be better at what we do. Maybe you didn't read the energy of the room correctly. Maybe you did keep doggedly sticking to the plan when it was obvious it wasn't going to be successful today. Maybe you did respond to an ensemble member in a way you're not proud of. These are all discrete things we can take stock of, and plan how to do it better next time.
But it's really hard to do that when we've conflated one difficult rehearsal with our entire life's work and learning so far.
So what do we do to recover from these dips? How do we respond to this and come out better, rather than broken?
The first step is to acknowledge that we're feeling bad about it. It's okay to be frustrated, or upset. Then look at the event in the bigger context:
What actually happened to make you feel upset? Often it's some small thing that has pushed some button or probed a deep insecurity in us.
How bad is it really? It's usually not the huge disaster we make it out to be.
How does this fit into the bigger picture of your work with the ensemble? It could be a trend that's worsening, in which case we can look deeper to see what bigger issues are at play (once we've calmed down). More likely though, is that it's an anomaly, a blip on the radar.
We need constant reminding that progress is not linear. And humans (students, musicians) definitely aren't linear, or predictable. Also, for us conductors whose joy is in creating something abstract with a large group of people we have to remember that we can't control everything. (In fact, we control very little).
Next, ask yourself:
What is the best way forward? (Hint: Usually pizza/booze/chocolate/your vice of choice is not the answer, though you might wish it to be.)
If you recognise something that you could do differently, acknowledge that and plan how to do it better next time. Write it down wherever your rehearsal notes are. Be specific.
'When I notice the X section are talking I will address it immediately, rather than letting it happen multiple times and blowing up later'.
Adjust your next rehearsal to accomodate for what didn't happen according to plan today.
If the change is incumbent upon others, plan how you will communicate and help them improve.
Remember why you're here. Reconnecting back to our purpose can help us reframe and refocus. Put on a piece of music that makes you feel great (my go to is You Can Call Me Al). Or just something beautiful.
Move on. Then the most important thing is to let it go. (Cue bad arrangements from Frozen, on loop, in your head). Draw a line under it. It's the obsessing over it that drags us down.
Take a deep breath and remind yourself:
'Things didn't go to plan. I did my best in the moment. I will learn from today and be better tomorrow.'
And don't UberEats a pizza. Seriously. You'll thank me later.
An edited extract from my new book Planning Effective Rehearsals: Tools to Boost Learning & Engagement
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