Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Positive Reinforcement

Miss Tessmacher and I were having a good discussion on the way home today about positive reinforcement. (Yes, we're commuting together two days a week again. Ahhh, my travel partner is back!!) The basics of our discussion revolved around the idea that there are people out there in the world who seem intent on doing their jobs to the effect that they end up discouraging people from pursuing their…oh, their dreams, for want of a better concept.

In my time, I've certainly come across people who don't really have the necessary skills and/or talent to be what they dream of being. And, you know, it's tough. Somebody really wants to be a killer lead guitarist, but lacks the necessary coordination to play the instrument at that level. Even given that situation, however, I find it very difficult to just shoot the person right out of the saddle. I've DONE it - by virtue of assigning students the failing grades they earned at the end of a semester. And, of course, I usually bear the blunt of the "blame": "That supreme cocksucker Dr. Animal failed me!" Not so, of course; the student himself failed, for whatever reason, and it fell to me to put that grade into the system. Sadly, they rarely see things from that perspective…

But I still don't come out and tell that person "Look, you don't have what it takes to be a good (fill in the blank)." I'll probably do the sidestep wherein I ask the student to contemplate a career in a thing that he shows no aptitude for; does this seem like a happy life? That sort of thing. So, it saddens me that there are people out there, in my basic profession, who routinely tell their students exactly that. "You don't have what it takes, give up!" So harsh. As if, to be a performer, we all need to try to be Yo-Yo Ma. Tess said it this way: "Pretend there's a continuum, with amateur musicians on one end, and Yo-Yo Ma on the other. Should we ALL try to be Yo-Yo Ma?" And, ultimately, the answer is no. I think, anyway; I'm sure there are high-octane folks out there who gogogo! all the time and feel super-competitive and driven to be the best, dammit! But, in reality, the continuum dictates that, while there WILL be some folks at that high end, there'll also be people all the way at the other end…and filling all the space in between.

And that's kind of where positive reinforcement comes in. Sometimes, you just gotta look at a student and say "Hey, you may not be Yo-Yo Ma (or James Galway, or Leonard Bernstein), but there's a place for you. Go out there, do your best, and your best will fit somewhere on the continuum." I played in a community concert band for 12 years. It was filled with a variety of people: regular giggers, retired band directors, and, yes, people who took their horns out of the closet, blew the dust of the cases, and saddled up for a 10-week season. The ones at the high-achieving end did it mostly for the money…musical prostitution at its finest. The ones as the low end just had a good time. But they all fit; there was a place for everyone. So, when a person comes to you looking for a little positive impact…give it to him. A person's best might not fit YOUR worldview of what constitutes "excellence," but chances are he'll rise to his own level, and that level will be good enough somewhere. And sometimes…being good enough is good enough.


Blogger Suze said...

I'm somewhere in the middle of that continuum and I struggle with this all the time. Good enough or not good enough? I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses; the problem is, I'm not sure if they're well balanced enough to keep on being a musician, or just start over and find something to do that isn't so emotionally draining. And maybe pays better.

When it comes to my students, though, it's a whole different story. I'm as positive as can be because they know and I know and their parents know that they are not headed for a career in music, and right now it's just about learning what they can and enjoying it.

7:43 AM  

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