I’ve had a few conversations over the last few weeks that have hovered around this topic: it’s ok to be a student. At first, that sounds worthy of a “duh,” but here is some context, and I bet you’ll be able to relate.
A student has friends that started playing earlier than her, so she feels like she should be playing at the same level they are even though she’s only been playing for one year. A student has a really good set of ears and he hears everything he does wrong (every slip of the fingers, every time he doesn’t land a note right on pitch), and it makes him angry with himself. A very hard-working student at the top of her section gets called down by her director in class because the solo altissimo sixteenth notes flying by at presto are not exactly even. Of course, she feels bad about herself afterward. A student is nervous about joining an ensemble because he thinks he might not have the skills needed to play the music.
Now, I’m at a bit of an advantage here. I have the benefit of being their teacher and thus able to look and listen more objectively than the students can. It’s different when you’re the one who feels like something is at stake, when you’re the one who has something to lose. Whatever that something is: a placement, a grade, respect of your peers, even a job. But that objective perspective that I have allows me the luxury of seeing what all of those students ARE capable of, what they have to gain. It’s not cheerleading - I’m definitely not the cheerleader type. It’s an honest belief that they are able to complete the task they’ve set out to do. The other advantage that comes with my perspective is this: I know and expect that it will take persistent effort over time. I don’t expect my students to play like professionals. I expect them to play like students who make progress. Together, we set out tasks that they can complete in time frames that push them, not overwhelm them. Again, it’s different when you’re the one who sees what you want to achieve and have to persist in the effort to achieve it. It feels like it takes forever. With so many little setbacks. And sometimes, it just gets so frustrating! Every now and then, take a deep breath (and if it’s a little shuddery or sounds more like a huff than a slow breath, take another one, ‘cause the first one didn’t work!) and try to look back. Look at the progress you’ve made. Look at what skills you used to struggle with that don’t slow you down anymore. Look at the music that used to scare you that you can revisit and find fun now. Look at all the new things you’ve learned in the past year that you didn’t know before. You are making progress. Keep working on making progress. Even professionals seek out new skills, techniques, methods, and literature to learn. Congratulations! You’re part of the same continuum of learning that they are on. If you so desire, one day, you will be in the same place on that continuum that your favorite musicians are. It’s not fair to expect that you should be in that place now; not fair to you and not fair to that musician you admire. They’ve put in loads of work in a field of study that is not compatible with shortcuts. It will take persistent effort over time.
This means you won’t always know the answer, and you won’t always have that particular skill you need. Typically, you won’t nail it on the first try. You won’t. Listen, I know it can be infuriating. I am that one who can get so exasperated with herself when I don’t get it right. Dwelling on your frustration does not help your cause. It distracts from the work that needs to be done. Stop yelling at yourself and make the correction. Next time, you will know the answer, and with some practice, you will have that skill. If you already knew and could do everything, there would be no reason to learn anything.
In the case of my student who had the rough day in band, she wanted to work on that spot in her next lesson, so we did. It sounded excellent. But I wanted to address this feeling of disappointment in herself that we’ve been talking about in this article. I told her, “This music is difficult. For an adult ensemble, this music would be difficult. You are a high school student. It’s ok for you to have to work at this. It’s ok for it to be difficult.” That far into the conversation, her shoulders relaxed a bit and she returned with, “That’s actually very relieving to hear someone say.” It gave her permission to be a student. And indeed, at whatever point in the continuum of learning we are, we are all students.