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Every time I’ve stepped back into the world of being a student in one form and another over the last few decades, my empathy for other students has increased considerably. And it doesn’t take much time, be it in a traditional classroom or on a tennis court (or more recently in a music studio) for all my patterns of hope and worry to take hold. It’s hard being a student!
I started taking bass lessons again…for the fifth time over my twenty years of just ‘messing around’ with the instrument. What led me back this time was that I knew if I learned a few new techniques, I could have more fun, and less pain, during the monthly jams with my brother and friends. The thing is, I’ve been shown plenty of techniques over the years from many lessons, but I had gone into those lessons with the unspoken hope of a shortcut—some magical insight that would quickly unlock the door to becoming a kickin’ bass player (without lots of tedious practice)! Of course my intellectual self knew this to be unrealistic, just as I believe many of my young students also have some awareness that learning is a process—so why do we adult learners, at least I still do, fall prey to our fears (‘I’m not very musical.’ ‘I don’t have the ear for this, who am I trying to kid…’).
Is it some version of perfectionism? I certainly don’t see myself as a perfectionist, but I recently returned to a favorite website, Lisa Van Gemert’s giftedguru.com, for some insight on the subject. I smiled right away at her posting of a quote by Samuel McChord Crothers, “We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.” How true! In this last year, my ability to make new mistakes seems to have grown exponentially! And each mistake during those previous bass lessons quickly fed my long held fears.
But this time I know why I’m ready for another round of lessons—I’m ready to do the work, and it’s for me (and not so much because of worrying that I’m holding my band mates back). On her website, Lisa has a list of questions to determine if one’s perfectionism (or their child’s) is serving them or not, because there are ways in which it can be healthy. “Does the child receive pleasure from working hard?” “Are the child’s standards based on personal desire (as opposed to outside pressure)?” “Is the child capable of relaxing?”
Each of these questions resonated deeply within me. That last question hit home during a recent ride up and down the ‘I’ve got this…oops, now I don’t’ elevator. One aspect of the bass lessons is to work on ear training, both with my teacher and on a computer program. After getting 66% correct on my first round of matching intervals, I was feeling encouraged. This reminded me of a geography student who was so proud after getting his third correct answer during a latitude/longitude game that he proclaimed, “I’m really good at this!” When he played the game again in his next class, he missed his first two attempts, and he was utterly convinced, “I can’t do this!” That’s exactly how I felt when I scored 58% on my second round! Like I said, being a student all but guarantees empathy for my students.
So then the question became, ‘How can I relax?’ because getting frustrated only led to getting a 52% on my next round! It was time for a break, which we also allow our students to take on occasion. And then plenty of deep breaths the next time I approached the computer…but more importantly, an open mind about what sorts of supports might help me. It turns out that trying to match the notes on the bass is slowly making a difference. I wonder what strategies might help my geography student relax just enough to keep trying those latitudes and longitudes?
It’s the fact that these kinds of questions flood in each time I become a student that I know how invaluable the experience is. I’ve just scratched the surface of what being a student is like for me, and what I perceive it is for those around me. I’m very interested in hearing other people’s stories along these lines, so if you’re willing to send one my way, please do!
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