The Critical Voice

Do you remember as a child working for what felt like hours on a project, pouring all of your attention into, then presenting it to a parent or friend with a great sense of pride? Did you ever have the experience of being cut down by their words of criticism (even if that wasn’t the intention) upon the presentation? Do you remember how that made you feel?

I remember when I was about 8, I noticed all the acronyms that people used and was fascinated by them. I was also practicing writing in cursive at that time and spent an evening in my room drawing my best cursive letters to come up with different acronyms of my own creation. I was particularly proud of one and when I showed it to my mom, she chuckled at my naiveté because I had accidentally spelled something quite different from my intended meaning. I don’t remember what it was, all I remember was the initial response was laughter and that crushed me. Was I too sensitive? Perhaps. But as a child, I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to be.

As I grew older, my awareness of the responses of others heightened. I became quite self-conscious about showing anyone anything I made for fear of looking stupid. As my interests turned to music and performance and I regularly participated in events where I received feedback from other musicians, this anxiety intensified. Not only was I doing a hard thing (performing difficult repertoire by memory), I was sharing a part of my soul and passion. What if someone really hated how I played? Sometimes, they did! During one piano lesson in undergrad with a particularly demanding instructor, I played the Brahms Rhapsody in B Minor. When I had finished playing through the piece for her, I remember being somewhat pleased with how I did. She was silent for some time. The first words out of her mouth were “if I have to listen to such amateurish playing one more time, I’m going to hurl myself out of this window.” Another time, a judge spoke such simple words of encouragement to me, that I remember that person and what they said almost 30 years later.

Words are powerful. At times, opinions can feel as though they occupy an almost palpable space, especially when they come from someone in a position of authority or from a colleague or peer. They have the power to tear apart or the power to empower.

As teachers, may we never forget that. May we never forget to share our encouragement and joy first and our constructive feedback second. As our students get older, they get better about hiding their desire for approval, but it is still there and that’s not a bad thing. When they do something well, we should be the first to tell them. We all need people in our lives to say “that’s right. You made the right decision in that moment. You are growing. Trust yourself. You handled that well. You’re on the right path.” Certainly our job is to help them improve, to find the flaws and to find strategies to make the piece better, but that will be heard better after we have taken the time to connect with them as humans and artists first.

This extends to our professional relationships as well. When another teacher’s student does something hard or well, we need to be the first to tell them we noticed and that we can appreciate how much time and effort they have put into that student. There’s no room for petty competition and insecurity. We can better our profession by training ourselves to allow positivity and encouragement be our default.

Teaching During the Busy Times

I find September is always a challenging month to teach my pre-college students. After-school activities and sports ramp up, families are often gone on the weekends drinking up every last bit of the warm weather, and the first round of exams begins.

Sometimes the temptation to allow students to feel the weight of the consequences of not practicing in their lessons is strong, but over the years I’ve learned a little grace and patience as they navigate this busy season is almost always the better choice.

Today, after teaching 2 classes and giving 2 exams of my own, I ran home to teach (after getting stuck on the highway due to a stalled vehicle) and got in just in time to welcome my first student of the afternoon. I was rushed. She was under-prepared. We decided to chalk last week up to the crazy time of year and embrace today’s lesson as a chance to practice together. As she left, she promised to practice more this week. The next student came in, head down. I could tell she also didn’t have a good practice week. I asked her how it went and she launched into the familiar list of meets, weekend travel, after-school practices, etc. She’s always a very responsible student, so I reminded her that a bad practice week doesn’t have to mean a bad lesson—we’d practice together. So, we worked through spots she was struggling with for the rest of the lesson. This trend continued throughout the evening.

Like I said, sometimes I was tempted to remind them of the thing they already knew: if they had practiced more, they’d feel more prepared, but that was unnecessary. They knew that. Life had gotten in the way this week and perhaps their lack of preparation was a combination of that, exhaustion, and yes, perhaps some days, not the best uses of time, but we all have those days/weeks, even as adults, don’t we?

So, hard as it is sometimes, I try to remind myself to treat my students as I would want to be treated: sometimes with tough love (but rarely), but mostly with grace and joy.

Church Musician Woes

Any other church organists out there? If so, you might understand my quandry: why is it that my post-choir-rehearsal ears are so different from my Sunday morning ears? Usually after choir practice, I run through my Sunday morning prelude and postlude and decide on settings. I mess around with a few things and then settle on what it will be, write it down, and go home.

Then Sunday morning rolls around and when I fire up the organ to run through the music before the first service, my ears are assaulted by sounds I don’t recall ever hearing before! But these are the same settings I decided upon just 3 days prior. How can they sound so completely foreign to me, the same person who chose them days before?

It remains a mystery why I hear things so differently, but it reminds me of a course I took in my doctoral studies wrestling with the question of hearing music—is it possible to hear the same piece the same way? Ever? We go through our days and lives with filters and influences impacting our brains and ears that we will never be aware of, so I suppose it’s possible that by the time Sunday comes around, my perspective is that much more different than it was the Wednesday before.

It’s a reminder to me to stop and consider the perspective of others. Perhaps their viewpoint is worth considering, even if I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Because who knows? I may find myself of the same opinion not much farther down the road.

Is This Really My Life?

Who here has ever had that moment of realizing that they teach music for a living, but pretty much no one else in their circles (or even outside their circles) who isn’t a musician knows what that means? raises hand

Well, this blog’s for you. And me. Because sometimes just to maintain sanity in this crazy free-lance, self-employed lifestyle we’ve chosen, we’ve got to be able to talk and laugh about it.

As is the same for many of you, I make a comfortable living as a musician, but that of course means piecing together various jobs. Currently for me, that means teaching positions at two different universities (piano studio instruction only at one and piano studio instruction, keyboard skills courses, as well as aural skills courses at another), maintaining a private music studio in my home, playing organ and piano weekly for two church services and a weekly choir rehearsal, and working for a non-profit chamber music organization as an administrator as well as performer.

No day is every the same! Which I love. But it also drives me crazy sometimes. No one, not even my husband, can keep up with my schedule. At one point we tried syncing calendars, but that turned ridiculous quickly because have you ever been able to do that successfully when you end up needing to constantly rearrange your schedule every day/week to accommodate sick or busy students or to adjust it to fit around your own performing schedule? Nightmare.

To complicate things further, we have children, so shuttling them to and from school/activities while working around my schedule is either numbingly rigid or comical in a sisyphean sort of way.

So here I’ll share daily happenings from my studios or home and hope that you’ll find something you can relate to, or, at the very least, laugh at.

Today’s story is a sweet one for me.

My son and I attended a concert this afternoon given by the chamber orchestra I am a part of and this particular concert featured winners of our Youth Concerto Competition. Two young musicians, one 12 and one 16, each performed a movement of a concerto with the orchestra and I wanted to take my son to have him see what some other musicians a bit older than him are doing. Normally when I ask him to come to concerts with me, there’s a fair amount of moaning and flopping around on the couch or floor in protest, but today he happily agreed to go.

The concert was lovely and the young musicians shone. To add to that joy, my son really enjoyed it. The bonus I suppose of raising a kid to endure my own marathon practice sessions and concerts from birth is that they can sit through a full-length concert without much effort. After the concert we decided to walk around the city a bit and enjoy a treat together.

He may never do much with music as an adult, but I hope he’ll pleasantly remember these times we share enjoying concerts (and sweets) together.