I had an uncharacteristically (wow! Great Boggle word!) confrontational class with 8thgrade the other day. Compared to what it could be, it was quite mild, but I was trying to teach all the parts to a new Latin piece and I pretty much have the process down. A circle of instruments, show one part and get two kids playing, then show the next part and they move on and two more played what they did and so on. However, coming off my 6thgrade class, there was no time to set up the instruments, so I was trying to set them up while we were rotating and kids ended up having to wait a bit before they came up to play. Once they got there, they were challenged both because it was new and a little tricky and because they hadn’t spent their waiting time preparing their parts. So unlike the typical class, there was very little positive musical feedback coming and that was unpleasant for everyone.
Suddenly, one looked at the clock and shouted, “It’s time to go!” My response was, “Not yet! We need some musical satisfaction here and to be perfectly honest, you guys sound like crap!!” I think they were shocked that I would dare to criticize them and between them wanting to go to recess and feeling like they were just insulted, there was a little bit of pushback. Like I said, so mild compared to the horror stories you could hear with 8thgrade. More of a slight disgruntled grouchiness and mumbling. We persisted a bit longer, played a tiny bit better and then I let them go.
When the next group came in, I asked them how I generally leaned when talking about them—toward praise or criticism? “Praise!” they almost unanimously agreed and I said, “Yes, that’s true. But only when you deserve it. And it’s a good sign that you feel praised, because it means you’ve worked hard to deserve it.” I then told them what happened in the last class. I admitted my part in it, not being as prepared as I wanted to be, but also reminded them that they had a job to do and needed to really attend to the preparation piece as I showed them a technique and had them play rhythms on their body, speak the part and mimic the technique. I gave my 50-yeard line talk: “I’ll come 50 yards out to you, you come 50 yards out to me and that’s where the learning will take place.” Needless to say, the second class was much better.
I saw the first group again today and acknowledged what happened and told them that I would do my part to turn it around and expected them to do theirs. And whether because they had short memories, or generally trusted me, or were simply motivated from inside to get the music sounding better, they indeed played wonderfully. I shouted out at one point: “You guys sound… great!” And so did the second group. So we all left happy.
The moral of the story: It is perfectly fine to tell kids they sound like crap when they do, as long as you the teacher acknowledge your part in the dynamic and do what you need to do to turn it around. And have faith that they will do their part. And then they do! And note: No external reward or points or pizza party needed. Just the pleasure of mastery and the satisfaction of playing well. The music is its own reward.
Today’s lesson is titled: From Crap to Cool: A Journey Worth Making.