One of the hardest moments I face as a teacher is that moment when a student is playing in a recital, and the performance is not going well. All my nerves are at attention, willing everything to sort itself out. My whole being goes into survival mode, sending out mental messages of help, mentally willing the right pedals or strings or notes. And as soon as the crisis is over, I instantly start analyzing the possible causes of the problem and how I will help the student pick up the pieces and move forward.
Napoleon, that most-quotable of generals, said, “A leader’s role is to define reality and then give hope.” That seems to me an ideal formula for leading a student back on the path to growth and success.
1. Reality of the fail: How bad was it really? Often our perceptions are distorted, seen through the lens of our own embarrassment at the moment. Look at video from the performance. What really happened?
2. Reality of the how: How at that moment did it happen? Was there a trigger? A particular moment when recovery was impossible? Sometimes one seemingly trivial thing will cause an epic fail.
3. Reality of the why: What actions or circumstances in the preparation phase may have contributed to the problem? The essential rule is you may not blame people, only actions and circumstances. We can always choose our actions – practice more, practice differently, practice in our shoes. We can’t always change circumstances – the light was bad, you were ill, etc. However, when we know how we react to certain circumstances, we can prepare for it.
Then Give Hope
1. Acknowledge the universality of the experience. We all have been there. In fact, most people come to understand that a failure is merely a part of the journey. Two great thinkers had this advice for recovering from an epic fail:
“I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.” – Abraham Lincoln
“It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.” – Zig Ziglar
2. Find the positive. There are always good things about a performance. Help your student notice how well she played the opening of the piece or how musically he played that particular passage. Sincere recognition from a teacher is perhaps the most heartening gift for any student. You are a powerful person in your student’s life. Be generous and honest.
3. Make a new plan. This is a moment when students are most open to new paths for growth. Take advantage of this to help them try something new: a new piece, a new kind of music, a new practice habit.
And I leave you with another quote, this time from the other Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher:
“Keep on beginning and failing. Each time you fail, start all over gain, and you will grow stronger until have accomplished a purpose – not the one you began with perhaps, but one you’ll be glad to remember.”