Serious musicians are vulnerable people. Trying to express the inner and outer world in sound is a spiritual pursuit. Some musicians tap deeply into their emotions while performing. The result is music that is very moving both for the performer and for the audience, and this effect outlasts the performance. The memory of music can continue to elicit strong emotions, and in this way enrich the lives of both performers and their audiences. For some, the music and the associated feelings play over and over again in the inner ear, and some particular music becomes the theme of life events.
Vulnerability can make music students reticent about exposing the desire that drives them into this art. It can also make them self protective about the process of improvement and feel badly about where they are in the process of making music. I believe it is important to cherish such people and to make them feel comfortable so that they can express their gifts, and so that the world can receive their gift. As an instructor, I try to make it very clear that I am not there to embarrass students, or to find fault with their personalities or their learning processes. I also have no pre-conceived notions about what they should or should not already be able to do well “by now”. Instead, I make it clear that I am on their side and I that I genuinely want them to succeed.
In the process, students sometimes express hidden beliefs, but only if they trust me as an ally. I asked one student, “What happens if you make mistakes?” The answer was very honest, “Then you are a failure”. The statement is judgement on the individual who makes mistakes, and, of course it is self judgement as well. Who doesn’t make mistakes? But, the statement goes on, that person is a “failure”.
If I genuinely believed this myself I would have given up music long ago. I was a poor sight reader, very slow to take in information from the grid of ink dots and lines that is written music. I was miserable at playing scales. But I didn’t stop, and I was able to achieve quite a lot by engaging in the process of constant learning and self-reflection about my own learning processes, as well as tons of patience, which, of course, would sometimes explode in anger, frustration, cursing, crying, and other demonstrations. But that is all part of putting desire together with patience with the self.
Since I am very aware of my own slow processes, I endeavor to convince my students that they too are involved in musical learning processes. Every processes is multi-dimensional. Each process includes takes that are not perfect, or mis-takes. That is how we find out what needs technical attention. The ideas, expressions, and associated emotions in music need to be communicated both to ones self and to the listeners if the music is to succeed, so we need to get the technical aspects out of the way of the music.
The technical processes of playing music, in my case a wind instrument, include hand positions, mouth positions, tongue patterns, breathing places, phrasing, the understanding of music theory, interpretation of rhythms, ear training, eye patterns for reading the musical grids, listening to other players while playing oneself, sound projection, dynamics, and much more. All these skills are required, and all this evolving understanding needs a big supportive space to unfold.
Progress is beyond dualistic concepts of failure and success, but concepts of failure and the spirit-crushing feelings associated with it can keep understanding from unfolding, or delay it by a lot even if somehow the desire is left intact.
Not everyone is gifted with the same set of musical skills. Some are gifted at reading musical grids. Some are gifted at musical phrasing. Some understand theory and harmony superbly well. Some are gifted at composition. Others are gifted at improvisation. Some have a superb ear for intonation. Some are gifted with great technique. Some are gifted only with an intense desire to express, and none of the rest. There is room for all of these musicians and more.