How to Incorporate and Embrace Failure in Your Music Studio
by McKenzie Clawson
Failure is difficult for my many of my students. Every time I try to stretch them by asking a difficult question or introducing a new technique I can see the fear in their eyes. Their minds freeze and their muscles tense and all of a sudden they can’t play at all.
I’ve had transfer students who have had bad experiences at recitals and refuse to perform again. I try to teach my students the importance of failure almost as often as I teach them the importance of intonation.
I want them to be willing to try things that are hard for them (in all aspects of their lives, not just violin), and I know that won’t happen until they are willing to make mistakes.
I understand how my students feel because I am the same way. I am a recovering perfection-aholic (oh, how I wish that was a word.) Several years ago when I was just starting to build up my studio I was talking to my teacher about my fear of doing it wrong. I was worried that I was going to ingrain in my students some serious technical bad habits. I was painfully aware of how little I knew about teaching compared to all the master teachers who taught me. Her reply completely changed my attitude. She said, “You’re going to mess up your students sometimes. Just accept it and move on.”
When I decided that it was okay to make mistakes I actually started teaching better. I was willing to make subtle course corrections week by week instead of insisting on ideas that did not work. Most of my students have stayed with me long enough to fix any problems I’ve created. Others moved on to other wonderful teachers who can fill in my gaps. And that is okay with me. Going through this I decided that I needed to actively teach my students how to fail so they didn’t up an anxious mess like me.
If you are willing to come with me and take the leap (or stumble) into teaching your students how to embrace their mistakes, here are some ideas to keep in mind:
Keep Your Self-Esteem to Yourself
If your sense of worth is wrapped up in your students’ success as a musician, it will be much harder to give your students room to make a few of their own mistakes. Your self-worth comes from what you do (not from what they do). Sometimes amazing teachers have students that don’t play very well. If they want to perform a brand new song at show-and-tell, don’t try to talk them out of it. It doesn’t make you a failure when they play badly. (And they may learn the importance of performing what they already know well.)
Keep Your Priorities Straight
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Suzuki is, “It is necessary to be concerned about the importance of educating a really beautiful human spirit.” On the occasion where I feel like I have to choose between creating an incredible musician and teaching kindness and patience, guess which one I want to choose.
Model Good Behavior
If you make a mistake (play the wrong note, explain something in a really convoluted way, call them by the wrong name…), laugh about it and apologize. Show them that you make mistakes all the time and that it is just part of life.
Explain What Their Mistakes Taught You
Explain to them that the crazy scratchy sound they just heard came from a stiff elbow or the out of tune shift came from a tense thumb, etc. I’m constantly telling my students that mistakes are information, not character judgments.
One Point Lessons
When you are focused on fixing a bowing or posture or whatever it is, resist the urge to fix anything else at the same time. This can be so hard for me, especially if there is an intonation problem. Allow them do some things badly so they can focus on doing one thing well. Give them a little bit of space to work through the problem. It’s okay to give nonverbal reminders of other aspects of performance (a gentle touch on their thumb, playing the spot with the correct intonation) but try to use your hands and keep your mouth shut.
By no means do I think that you should let your students play badly long term. I embrace imperfection in the day to day practicing and week to week lessons as a tool to create beautiful sound (and beautiful souls) over the course of years. Beautiful music simply takes time and while we all wait, we can have patience with our own imperfect selves.
Do your students have a fear of failure? What have you done to help them overcome it?
About the Blogger:
McKenzie Clawson has taught students of all ages, from preschoolers to retirees, in her private studio and as adjunct faculty at Utah State University. Ms. Clawson has been influenced by all of her teachers, especially Rebecca McFaul of the Fry Street Quartet and her Suzuki Teacher Trainers, Cathy Lee and Allen Lieb. She lives in Logan, UT with her husband, Bradley Clawson, and their baby daughter.
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