Saturday, December 10, 2022

Pit Stop in Purgatory

I took on the job of mentoring a friend/ colleague/Orff student last year without any promise of sufficient pay or a contract that I signed. I could claim altruism here, but who am I kidding? It was—and is— entirely selfish. I need to keep being around kids, teaching kids, continue to hone the craft of teaching. I need to feel useful and I love the daily conversations that come up with my mentee Yari after each and every class. And continue via text, e-mail and voicemail recordings most every day. An ongoing  Socratic dialogue in our mutual field of music education.


Of course, my greater experience makes me look good as a teacher, is felt by the kids as they greet me warmly in the hall when I pass by and even audibly cheered when I was introduced at the recent Grandparent’s Day concert. Heavenly food for the fragile ego always wondering if it’s truly worthy.


But kids are kids and kids are flawed human beings and relationships are fluid and constantly changing and one can never be the perfect teacher any more than one can be the perfect parent or spouse or son/daughter. So when I taught a class the other day and suffered the slings and arrows of some oppositional 8thgraders who never quite settled into the needed attention groove, I stepped over that line into annoyance and mild scolding of them. Yari was on the side gleefully watching and thinking, in a schadenfreude  way, “Oh yeah! So happy to see them treat you this way! It’s not just me!!” And after class, he gave me some critiques and suggestions as to what I could have done better. And he was right. In that moment, the mentor-mentee roles were reversed and happily for both of us. 


The next day, after each of us went home and did some deep thinking about how to steer the energy in a better direction, he began the class, I joined in and near the end, I stopped and said to the kids:


“Do you feel what’s happening here? Yesterday, I felt like a teacher and you felt like the students and there was tension between us, some pushing and pulling going on that made neither of us feel good. But now, I feel like your attention is razor sharp and we’ve crossed the teacher-student line to becoming fellow musicians all in the same band. And doesn’t that feel fine. I don’t know whether the music sounds great because of your focus or your focus sharpened because the music sounds great— I’m sure both are true. But this—this is what we’ve been aiming for and bam! bulls-eye! Of course, we can’t always achieve it, but now that you know what it feels like, please remember it. Beautiful work, people!”


I’ve never seen Yari happier after class, so uplifted and refreshed by his success. That’s what can happen when the band is singin’ and the music is swingin’. That’s what we signed up for when we answered the call of music teachers.


But the next day, on his own, Yari worked with another 8thgrade group on a great Milt Jackson tune called “A Thrill from the Blues.” And he faced that same oppositional, scattered, unfocused energy and send me a long voice mail dripping with disappointment.

So I wrote back:


• Sorry to hear about the ragged energy, but again, don't take it too personally. Naturally, it doesn't feel great, but good to remind yourself:


   -     They're kids.


   -     It was Friday afternoon with the World Cup playing.


   -    They're not yet at the point musically when they can feel “The Thrill from the Blues"— 

        with  "yet" as the key word. Like the other group,  they need to get to the place where they 

        play  well enough that the music is singing back to them. Patience.


-      Be confident they’ll get there and do your part (as we both did with the other group) by thinking about the details that will help them  improve.


     Blame yourself just enough to think about those details. Blame them just enough to

expect them to—and give them the tools to—make a getter effort. In both cases,

keep the blame small.


-      Remember that sometimes we all have to  take a pit stop in purgatory before we  get to heaven.




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