The first cello lesson I taught in Seattle was with a woman in her mid-forties. We'll call her Susan. Susan is a truly petite (4'6,) soft-spoken, mom with a pretty lively daughter. Her profession put her in a pretty consistent context of silence, sensory touch, and listening.
Susan had already been playing cello for a couple years, so had the general technique down. After we warmed up and got comfortable with each other, she played me a couple lines of a solo she had been working on with her previous teacher.
It sounded pretty good. In tune. Correct bowings. Posture straight and somewhat relaxed. I could tell her previous teacher was good at her job.
It was, in the technical sense, perfect. But…
Me: "Susan, Can you play it again for me? There seems to be something missing. Let's see if we can find it together."
[Played again, almost exactly the same way with the same sound.]
Me: "Wow that was exactly the same. That’s impressive. It's hard to replicate sound like that. But it still sounds like something's missing. Your cello sounds scared of making sound. So let's work on your tone today."
I won't bore you with the details of how to create good tone, that's for another blog post.
What's most important in this story is what happened the following week...
Susan: "I really got a lot out of what we talked about last week. I practiced that tonalization stuff a lot."
Me: "Wonderful! Well, let's start today out by warming up with a C scale while thinking about creating that really good beautiful tone."
We play it together. I began by playing a little quieter than normal so I could hear her. You see, the previous week she was SO quiet I had to change everything I did. I talked softer & played softer, just so I could hear and communicate with her well.
[Remember this was only my 2nd lesson after a several year hiatus of teaching, and even before then it was just for fun and in highschool. Some might even consider this my 2nd lesson to give ever.]
And a few notes into the C major scale I realized, she was right, something really did stick in our previous lesson. I could really hear her! And it sounded gorgeous! So I increased my own volume to encourage even more "oomph" from her cello. It worked. She sounded almost impossibly awesome.
When we finished the 2-octave scale, she looked up at me with tears in her eyes.
after playing a C major scale. tears. in. her. eyes.
You guys! The only time I'd ever cried over scales was when trying to play a 4-octave G-flat major scale. (I still cry over that one.)
Okay back to precious Susan with tears in her eyes.
Me: (Praying to God that I wasn't about to get sued for emotional duress...) "Susan, what's going on? Did I do something wrong?"
Susan: (With tears now running down her cheeks and with the most astonishment one could muster...) "No, no. That sound... It’s so big! & It's coming from me!"
Me: (I was now in tears too…) "Yeah! It is! You made that sound! And it did sound beautiful."
I don't remember clearly what was said next, or how the rest of the lesson went. I don’t even remember which song we were working on, but I do remember thinking a couple of things after our lesson concluded.
First I recognized that Susan has gone her whole life being shorter than almost everyone around her. If there's a power play or stress occurring in her life, she hushes up and listens. And here we were sitting eye to eye. We were the same height while sitting. And I was asking her to speak up. It was easy for her to do because 1) she had all the tools to do it, 2) I wasn't asking HER to speak up, I was asking her CELLO to speak up.
I sensed from her tears and how the lesson went after, that that tearful moment was from living her whole life as the one who is shy, quiet, petite, short, and easy-to-please.
The tears were probably from having her secret-dream come true, and being shocked by it because she didn't outright ask for it.
I mean think about it. You've wanted something your whole life, but you've never felt like it was the time or place to ask for it. Maybe you've never even formed the words with your lips. One day, you're just going along with life and BAM! Someone hands it to you.
I would cry too!
Okay. So the second thing I thought was, "wow. I was so NOT ready to receive that kind of response from just playing through scales. The C major scale nonetheless. I hope I said the right thing and did the right thing."
I've had way too many of moments like these with my students. I don't go seeking them, but I am super sensitive when I experience them. Every time it happens I just cross my fingers that I don’t say or do anything wrong.
So all this brings me to my point. What would the world look like if music teachers knew how to handle moments like these? Could they ever feel empowered to support their students during an emotional break-through or rough spot? The teachers I know do what they can, which is to usually respond in fear. I don't think that's the answer. I even know a teacher who has put “No crying” into their Studio’s Policies.
When I was taking private lessons, I had a few awkward tearful moments with my teachers/professors; usually because I was disappointed in myself, or too hard on myself or just flat out stressed out with life. I remember feeling like my tears were this huge taboo. I would hold them back for almost 30 minutes until the urge was too big and strong to hold back or swallow. The awkwardness of my tears feeling unwelcome made me forget why I was crying in the first place.
Emotion can be a really messy thing for folks in a technical profession.
What do we do for the students who have severe low self-esteem? [I encourage them to see that hard work pays off and the work is worthy of their pride.]
What do we say when you can tell their family problems are hurting their progress? [I'm not a therapist, so the only thing I can speak to is their progress. Ask them to focus? Suggest using the instrument to be a release mechanism? Maybe bring it up with the parent? What if they’re an adult and don’t have a parent?]
What do you do when a student is so shy they can hardly think straight? [I either try to make it as fun as possible or just simply play soothing music. Am I free to ask why they’re so tense?]
How do you respond when a student brings up their love life in the lesson? [Again, I'm not their therapist, so I don't feel comfortable giving advice. Instead I funnel that emotion, be it happiness or sadness, into the songs. But could I do something better and more helpful?]
Learning an instrument from scratch at any age speaks to the WHOLE person, but I'm only trained to speak to the PART of that person... Do you see my predicament?
Yeah. Me too.