Sunday, March 30, 2014

Having The Fun.

Whenever I start working with a new student, I interview them the first time we meet. There’s a little leeway here; not every student gets the exact same line of questioning, but there is one query I pose to everyone:

“Why are you here?”

Some students like to answer that question with:

“I want to have fun.”

And I cringe, knowing that the odds are that this student will be gone in a month or less.  I admit, I am much more rigid and less forgiving with students who hit me with the “fun” answer. It tends to get rid of them faster, and if they're gonna go, that is a process I would just as soon speed up.

That's right; I just admitted that I try to push certain students towards quitting lessons if their motivation for showing up is “to have fun”. 

How can this be? Am I a sadist? Am I a terrible teacher? Don’t I want my students to enjoy themselves in their musical pursuits?

Rest easy. I am not, in fact, a sadist. I am, actually, a darn fine teacher. And I am giddy with excitement every time one of my students expresses joy through the music they play, which is happening with alarmingly increasing frequency.

But not one of those students has fun playing music by attempting to “have fun”. They all have fun because they attempt to PLAY MUSIC. They end up playing it very well, and the feeling one gets when playing music very well is done little service by the word “fun”.  More apt terms would be “exhilarated”, or “ecstatic”, or “elevated”, or “euphoric”.

Students whose goals involve playing music take no issue with working at it, because they want to play well. When they’re having fun, it’s because they know they’re good, and ideally, so are the other musicians they’ve surrounded themselves with.

Students who claim to want “fun" have usually not considered that music is something one creates through skill, or that skills are acquired through learning. These students also tend to lack the ability to focus their attention, so many of them don’t realize that music is something you LISTEN to. 

I don't take students under the age of twelve. I think one's pre-teen years are for exploration. I am an enthusiast of imagination. But these aren't tiny children whose fantasies I'm dashing, here. These students tend to exhibit something I call “We’re here because YAAAAAAAAY!”-Syndrome, where showing up to a music lesson is like showing up to a pep rally and chanting about how much “spirit” they have… There’s no connection to the activity itself; only to a picture in the student’s mind that they have tied to their self-esteem because of a movie they saw or the good time they had playing the “Guitar Hero” video game.

Once it’s pointed out that music performance offers little in the way of instant gratification, these cheerleaders tend to disappear, off to find a path of less resistance.  Seriously: the act of just tuning the instrument is a barrier to entry for these folks the same way running for miles and doing a dozen sets of burpees under the eye of a loud coach keeps a certain type of person off of the football team.

So I’d encourage the same kind of process when thinking about applied music as one uses when thinking about athletics: It makes sense to most people that the way to achieve “wins” is through training. Whether you have “fun” playing or not, the hours of drilling and conditioning are necessary to play well, and “wanting to have fun” doesn’t get you on the team. When a coach gets the call from a parent who wants to know why their kid didn’t make the squad, they lay down the truth: Their job isn’t to cater to children’s feelings; it’s to instill discipline and show how practice and teamwork can achieve a goal, and that starts by declaring standards.

And yet a music teacher isn’t expected to have this same outlook. Apparently, learning about standards, practice, and achievement is only worth instilling in young people if it will also blow out their knees by the time they’re 30, so music teachers are expected to give gold stars to everyone who shows up, regardless of their attitude or aptitude.

Getting away from analogy and back to the real world: if you take music lessons, you are doing it so that eventually, you can stand in a room with other people who will listen while you’re playing… or at least so you can stand in front of a video camera and record a performance to upload to the internet. 

You could deny that; you could say, “That’s not true; it’s just so I can have fun”, but you’d be kidding yourself. 

Because if you don’t ever intend for another living soul to hear you perform, why do you need lessons at all? You’re driven to get instruction because you WANT TO KNOW HOW, and you want to know how so that you can BE HEARD. 

But nobody wants to listen to you if you suck, which means nobody wants to play along with you if you suck, which means that you won’t be performing for anyone for long if you suck, and if you do, you won’t be getting positive feedback. Nobody will even need to tell you you sucked; you’ll know from their involuntary reactions before they ever say a word.

And knowing that you sucked, regardless of how few people heard you?