How do we keep aspiring to be great teachers and conductors when the rug has been pulled out from under us? How do we keep striving for excellence without beating ourselves up in the process?
The other week, at 2pm, I was crying pretty inconsolably about my online rehearsal coming up at 3.30pm. I felt useless. Like I had nothing to give, no value to bring, and like my students weren't learning anything useful. After the rehearsal I went for a walk and had a good blubber too. If you think face masks are uncomfortable, try having a big snotty cry in one!
Just like in normal rehearsals, I want to create a transformative experience through music. I want musicians to connect to themselves and their emotions and channel that through music.
Yet we can't play together.
Everything I've practiced and trained for can't happen in the same way right now.
I feel ill-equipped and like I just keep failing, over and over again.
Do I do what they enjoy, because that's what they need right now?
Do I do what is educationally rigorous, at the risk of disengagement?
Is now the time to continue to make them feel the discomfort of learning and growing?
What if I ask them what they want and I don't think it's 'what they need'?
We can have such a paternalistic bent as teachers. The model of the teacher as the all-knowing, omniscient leader who hands down knowledge is so pervasive. As much as I cognitively know I want to be the most student-centred teacher I can be, I'm not there yet. There are so many habits, ideas and subconscious paradigms that are steering my ship. Many of these I wasn't aware of until recently. And I'm sure there are many I'm still not aware of.
One of my internal rudders is perfectionism. It drives many of my beliefs, actions and responses about myself, others and the world. These patterns have been repeated and strengthened so many times the rudder could steer the Titanic!
But just seeing the rudder is there doesn't change it. It's definitely the first step to change. But change takes action. Intervention in my life-long patterns.
Yesterday I decided to ask my students how our online rehearsals were going. I asked them what they enjoyed and didn't, what they wanted more and less of, and what ideas they had.
The first thing that stood out for me was that they all responded to different things. Something one student liked the other didn't. It made me glad to see they had opinions and were comfortable expressing them. Doing a variety of activities meant everyone was getting a bit of something they enjoyed.
The second thing that stood out for me was their rating out of 5 stars on how online learning had been going - and how I responded to it. 3.24 out of 5.
I grew up feeling like an abject failure if I got 98/100. If I could just have gotten 100% I could say I was done. Completed. Box ticked.
3.24 out of 5 felt like quite a blow.
But this isn't how the world works.
Yes, there are things we get to 'finish' and 'complete'. But in the world of music there's little that can actually be perfected. There's no such thing as a perfect performance, rehearsal or practice session. And if we believe there is, it's probably because we're measuring quantitatively - right notes, rhythms, articulations. How well did I comply with the dots on the page out of 100.
This misses the point of what music is actually about. Connecting with others. Moving people. Making a difference. The things that really matter are hard to measure.
As a good little high-achieving compliant perfectionist that drives me nuts!
If only I could get them to 5/5. I'm doing my absolute best and working my butt off. Why aren't I providing a 5/5 experience?
It did help me to get the data - to hear how they were going. What didn't help was connecting it to my self-worth as a teacher and person.
What I realised is that I am doing my best. And this is an equally good metric to measure.
Am I able to perfectly please all 50 teenagers and get a 5/5 rating from them? Not likely. It's about as likely as giving a perfect performance.
Just as there's no perfect performance on stage, there's no perfect teaching. There's only us, our willingness to show up and do our best. To see the gap between where we are and where we want to be and keep moving forward. Improving. Reiterating. Reimagining. Reinventing.
And right now we're in a brave new world. The way we've done it - in a room, with musicians in front of us - doesn't exist right now. It's unreasonable to expect we'll be able to seamlessly transfer our years of knowledge and experience to a completely new, untested context.
We're doing something new, that's never been done before. There is no map.
So we need to maintain our standards, but adjust our expectations to the context of today. We'll trip, stumble and fall a lot more than we do. We will feel like beginners again. It will be hard. Learning is uncomfortable. Let's show our musicians how to lean into the discomfort of learning, growing and adapting.
It's the only real choice we have.
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Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.
The path to musical nirvana starts with a single question. And the path to musical hell starts with telling the ensemble what to do.