Growing pains at the bench

Growing pains. They are part of the maturing process. They can be physical in nature but many times they are emotional. Even more painful is watching your child or student work their way through the inevitable discomfort of growth. Yet, looking back on my career, it is the moments after unrest that hold the greatest of victories.

Early in my teaching career I had a student who epitomized the word “perfectionist”. She was always prepared for her lessons and implemented every suggestion and new skill with enthusiastic determination. She was well acquainted with success, and it was always well deserved. We’ll call her Annie (not her real name).

Annie flew through the beginner method books and sailed through the elementary conservatory books. She was a pleasure to teach but her music, though technically perfect, was cold and unfeeling.  I tried many times to lead her to inject emotion into her playing. We drew pictures, wrote stories…nothing seemed to get through.

One day Annie bounced into her lesson with a popular piece of sheet music (beyond her level) in hand. She proudly laid it against the book rest and played the piece from start to finish. She had learned it herself and wanted to surprise me. I was very proud of her, but in my mind all I could do was list the things that we needed to tackle…balance, shading, subtle changes in tempo….all of the things a mature student would do to speak to their listener. So I told Annie that I was thrilled with the work she had done but that we were going to take the next steps and make it even better. It wasn’t what she expected to hear. She expected me to squeal with delight. She cried as I tried to explain what I wanted her to do with the piece next. She thought she had played the piece perfectly. I wanted to cry as I felt her disappointment.  I told her to show me how she was feeling right at that moment with her music…but by then she couldn’t even concentrate enough to play. When she left I felt terrible and thought I had made a mistake with this student. I thought perhaps I should have just celebrated her achievement and moved on.  

The next week when Annie arrived for her lesson, she was wearing a pride filled smile. She laid her music against the book rest, said, “Listen to this,” then proceeded to bring me to tears with her interpretation of the piece. I was amazed. This time I did squeal with delight! She nailed the piece and I was so excited that she finally understood what I had been trying to teach her all along.

“Congratulations,” I said, “You have just become a more mature musician. Now use this lesson for every piece. ” After that day, her pieces were not only technically accurate, but also were filled with emotion and colour. I always looked forward to her lessons and to hearing her play.

I can think of other similar moments where  students  have struggled through a tough piece and while I would love nothing better than to leave it and move onto something fun, I have them fight through it (sometimes through their tears and angry outbursts). They come out the other side having accomplished something great and are better students and better musicians because of it. There are also the students who can’t seem to figure out that regular practice is necessary and it takes a tough team of parent/teacher or a poor exam mark to help them realize how much effort is required for adequate progress. All of these little lessons, while directly related to music education, and while painful at the time, are life lessons which shape and mold young musicians into capable, hardworking, concientious adults.

Parents just naturally want to spare their children any discomfort, but sometimes growing pains are necessary for learning and growth to occur. If you find that your child is going through a music related growing pain, listen to your child, support them as they work through the tough time and celebrate with them as they overcome the obstacle.  Then, enjoy watching your child as he/she stands a little taller, having perservered and succeeded!  I say, “when the growing gets tough – the tough get growing!”

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