While sitting with another music teacher during a luncheon, she shared that one of her top students had just quit. I felt her frustration and pain. You pour yourself into your students on a one to one basis, exposing all your thoughts and limitations, your frailty as an individual and find yourself encouraging all the growing edges of their life. Music lessons become more than music, and you wonder how any parent could succumb to allowing that exposure to be extinguished. Without what appears to be no previous hint, your pseudo-family member says they are quitting music. How is that possible? Haven’t you picked up on who they are, their feelings and what their goals were? Where was your focus? They just finished an amazing recital, working tirelessly to play the best they could, and then, the page becomes blank. Not moving onto another teacher but just walking away. It isn’t about you. Don’t worry, you weren’t the cause but you could be a part of the solution. A number of teachers will experience this as the end of the school year comes along. There are many reasons for this, but I wanted to discuss one today. One you could actually influence and one that is more important than an overworked, distracted parent or a ‘jack of all trades’ mentality.
The four D’s we can actually influence
and one that we can’t
It might simply have been a thoughtless word from a teacher, a comment from a student or worse, a goal undefined or unfulfilled. I always think the most painful memory is of ‘what was worked toward and hoped for, but became a dream that never happened’. Unless handled with maturity and understanding and approval of ourselves, the disappointment of a simple non-toxic experience could become a grove to begin a path toward failure. As an adult, we just think, ‘deal with it’. But kids are tender and one word could resound in their mind throughout life. Teachers, parents and practice partners have the power to easily extinguish this small flicker of disappointment before it takes hold. Praising a child for what they don’t think is worthy of praise will not do the trick. They will ignore your praise. Maybe an ‘ice cream cone’ celebration with those who have been a part of the work that went into the study of music might blot out the disappointment of someone’s thoughtless words knowing there are those who believe in them. I went to a recital where the student forgot how to start the piece, got up and bowed and that was that. She had that song down. She just forgot how to start it and no one helped her. She had to accept the loss of sharing how much work she had put into the day. A huge reception was held afterward and she was radiant. Why? These people were celebrating a life of work not a moment of memory short circuits. It is important for the student to know that success and failure are on the same road. The untraveled road may be safer for your ego but in the long run, the dark threads of our beautiful life’s tapestry will be left as just that, threads we had never viewed, holding no lesson learned. Along the road are many opportunities for success and just as many, or more, for failure. No matter the outcome, it doesn’t define the final goal. A poor presentation could be just what we needed to prompt us into greater practice habits. Was it still a failure?
Disappointment could last a few minutes or a few hours, but left to fester, it grows into discouragement and discouragement is much harder to dissolve and bring back to a great attitude. Once discouraged, a series of new plans start to take form. Silent exit strategies that aren’t discussed and are barely thought through are the protective resource should this happen again. At this point, the strategies are not fully developed. They don’t have a beginning or end, but there is the birth of a new path.
If a student remains discouraged for long enough without intercession, he becomes disillusioned. His hopes start to develop cracks even though he still walks the walk and talks the talk. Memories of what-could-have-been start to have powers over everything. The student appears disinterested at times, actually protecting themselves from becoming whatever it was they were criticized about. They appear lazy. This destructive thought process needs to be stopped in its tracks. How?
1- Take some time to set realistic goals.
2- Explain life and how there are bumps in the road but that they don’t have to push us into the gutter.
3- Every dream has a cost that comes with it: cost of time, friendships, money, etc. Unfortunately, young people don’t realize that high school friendships are for high school and will demand their valuable time but rarely develop as adults. They have great value but if they stand in the way of practice or your progress, then, they might have to become part of the cost of a dream.
See if you can make music more interesting.
a.- Have the student record just a short passage for you to evaluate throughout the week creating accountability.
b.- Take them to play for those who need a lift. Go to a hospital, nursing home, ask a church who in their congregation is stuck at home. Go to an orphanage, offer them a dream.
c.- Become creative. Make posters of their defined goals and have them put them up in their homes.
d.- Take pictures of the student playing their instrument so they will visualize themselves as musicians.
Depression is a serious result of ignoring the previous steps. It is easy to put the weight of the responsibility back onto the student because with the actual symptoms, comes ‘acting out’, silently calling for help yet, continually becoming more distant. Once depression hits, they have already walked through self-pity, bitterness, and anger. Now you have much more to try to remove to help the student achieve their dreams. Unfortunately, the push-back to all your altruistic attempts can be self-defeating for the student himself. This is when you need to call in the reserves. Don’t get your hopes up if they suddenly start to really put an effort into preparations for the big recital, all the time knowing they are cutting cords at that point. As with anyone who is depressed, the mood changes dramatically when they come to a point of making a decision. If the student doesn’t learn the life lesson that criticism is simply a part of being human and each person having an opinion, then they have lost one of the great lessons learned through the study of anything diligently.
Finally, we hit dismay. The kids usually aren’t ‘depressed about life’ to the point of giving up the entire experience, but they carry a feeling about lessons that prevents them from using their music in life. When a celebration of a simple ‘ice cream cone’ could have prevented the ownership of the criticism back at the discouraged stage, maybe more celebrations should be planned. Maybe lessons should be so much fun they wouldn’t want to miss a class for any reason. Then, just maybe, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.