You’ve got to pay your dues. Learn the hard way. Experiment. Experience. Fall down, and get back up, again and again. All of this is true. At least, I believe it is. Students of music have been hearing this from the beginning of their artistic journey, especially these days. But there’s an essential ingredient in the teaching and molding of young minds which requires something of teachers spouting these truths and mind shaping ideas. It is a fundamental, seemingly obvious yet often lacking principle. Love.
It sounds so cliché. So trite and amorphous. A word which can sometimes fall into what I like to call the “kumbayah” or conviction-less simplicity of expression category. So what do I mean?
As a classical singer trained in the conservatory system, I was reminded of the need for this kind of teaching when I recently watched the academy nominated film, Whiplash. I’d heard about this movie for months. And honestly, I was hesitant to watch it as I was told it was the story of a young, talented percussionist who wanted to be the very best. He was attending a conservatory and this story focused on his relationship with music and a somewhat abusive teacher. My heart did a flip when I heard that last part. When my body reacts in such a visceral way, it is generally a sign to me that I need to deal with whatever it is that caused those inner aerobics. And so I did.
A few weeks after the raving endorsement from a few trusted friends the screener arrived in the mail and a few more weeks later, I finally watched it. And I cried. Well, sobbed, more like it. Granted, I was pregnant at the time, so maybe it was just hormones, but I had to stop the film several times and yell at the screen. You see, it was not too dissimilar to the relationship I had had with a few of my teachers at the conservatory where I attended. Relationships which need to be based in trust and respect and when those elements are not present, can bring out feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy and fundamentally, shame. The comments and conversations which cause you to question your very being, ability and purpose. What I like to call “the mind F”. So, why did this happen with me? The reasons are numerous. But fundamentally, my ignorance lead to shame, and my teacher’s need to perform-even in a teaching setting-lead to all kinds of dysfunction. Watching the film brought that dysfunction back to the surface.
There is a technique in psychiatry which I had learned is a way to combat PTSD. You relive the agony of the experience. Tell the story to yourself, record it, listen to it over and over again until your mind gets bored with it. Until it no longer stings. I used this technique and revisited Whiplash two more times. By the end of the third viewing I wasn’t crying. And I was reminded of another movie. One which came out many years ago about another music teacher. Mr. Holland’s Opus. And then I smiled. Because this was a story of an equally talented and determined person. A composer-turned-teacher who represented so many of the teachers that inspired me and many of my classmates to go to conservatory in the first place. I had such a teacher. His name is Mr. Tsugawa, or, Sam as we came to call him once in High School. He was my orchestra teacher from sixth grade until I graduated. He dealt with my obnoxious adolescence. From breaking the violin hall pass, seeing me move from a ½, ¾ to full size cello, to negotiating performing in three different ensembles simultaneously, Sam was there. One of my most memorable experiences in orchestra came one day during tuning. The A was blaring through the loud speaker. When someone started talking, Mr. Tsugawa looked up and with conviction said, “If you speak you can not hear. We will begin again.” We tuned for 45 minutes that day. Even now, I do not speak when the orchestra is tuning. There was discipline in his approach. Lessons which have stayed with me, lessons of respect for myself, for my fellow musicians and even more, for the music. This teacher, and his humanizing perspective infused gestures, created a sense of belonging, rather than inadequacy. And belonging is what music has always felt like to me.
I love music. I love the respect that classical music demands. The concentration. The investment in a moment. For the patience required in the waiting for the resolution of a chord. For those transcendent moments where I weep because music understands me. Because the music has revealed the softest part of my underbelly. And I do not need to hide because those introducing me to these experiences are disciplined, knowledgable and filled with love.
Love. Love for the student and their individual process, the process of becoming. Love for the art form and keeping it alive. Love for yourself and the huge gift you are to the world. Your plethora of knowledge, experience, pedigree and truest levels of expression. Love, for the music.