Roger screws up.
As many of you know, my quartet, 4-Way, has been teaching this year at Woodford Paideia Elementary School – we’re helping out the 5th and 6th grade orchestra classes, and giving some private lessons. We’re also getting to know some of the kids we’ll be working with starting in January, when our after-school program begins.
Last week at Woodford, I worked with several young cellists, and one moment in particular stuck with me. I was teaching French Folk Song (a staple of beginning string players from the Suzuki method) to a very enthusiastic 5th grader (let’s call her Riley for now) – a child whose photo should appear alongside the dictionary entry for the word “radiant.” However, she became very upset with herself every time she made a mistake. “I’m a perfectionist,” she explained.
I know that feeling all too well, as most musicians do – you can’t play an instrument well without setting high standards for yourself. I gently told her that her instinct to correct her mistakes was good, but that getting upset at herself wasn’t helpful or healthy. I reminded her that I made mistakes all the time, and that she should accept and indeed, embrace those mistakes as the critical learning tools they are.
Yesterday morning, I played a Youth and Family concert with the Cincinnati Symphony – 2,500 elementary school-age kids packed the Taft Theater for a program entitled “American Journey”. I love doing stuff like this – it is always fun to witness the energy of the audience right before the concert starts, with all the kids chatting and bouncing in their seats.
During the show, I was reminded that kids understand some things better than grownups do. During our performance of the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Chris Philpotts, the CSO’s marvelous English horn player, gave a beautiful rendition of the famous solo, and the kids (sadly unfamiliar with the classical music tradition of sitting still and shutting up no matter how much you’re enjoying yourself) applauded wildly, until they were quickly shushed by their teachers and chaperones. Audience training begins early – sigh.
What my lesson with Riley and the stifled enthusiasm of the kids both highlight are the dangers of overcorrecting behavior. In her case, she’s decided (as too many of us often do) that mistakes are something to feel bad about. Luckily, it’s fixable – if she enrolls in our program (and I really hope she does), we can work every week on putting that perfectionism to work for her in a positive way. In the case of the audience at the Taft, it’s a little more complicated.
I am sure that many of those kids had never been to an orchestra concert before, and that their teachers, with only the best of intentions, gave them strict instructions to be on their best behavior, which is certainly good. Still, those kids experienced what music is all about during Chris’s solo, and responded naturally – I bet that many of them thought, “That was awesome – why can’t I show my appreciation?” And just as this might have been their first orchestra concert, it also could well be their last, and if their takeaway was, “Don’t show it when you like something – it’s not appropriate,” well, I could hardly blame them for not wanting to come back later in their lives.
Now, I certainly understand the importance of crowd control in a hall with 2,500 kids – without it, anarchy would set in real fast. But maybe there’s a way to have both decorum and enthusiasm. What if the conductor had acted like a jazz bandleader, and told the audience before each piece – or even just one piece – which instruments would be featured, and that they should feel free to clap after each solo? I bet it would work just fine – it’s certainly worth a try. Maybe we could try it with the adults, too – remember, Mozart expected that sort of behavior!
For my part, I can’t wait to start working with Riley and her classmates at Woodford after school every week, and help them learn from their mistakes. I’ll be posting regular updates here and on the blog at 4-WayQuartet.com. In the meantime, we are hard at work raising the money we’ll need – if you would like to help us out, please click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to donate via PayPal. Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving!
Till next time,