Music is a window into the soul. I don’t know if I made that up or read it somewhere, but the phrase came to mind the other day, and it sounded good enough to remember. In just a few words, it explains why music is so wonderful, and why it is so intimidating. Why so many kids love it and are afraid of it. It is easy to find students who listen to music, who have favorite songs, and who can’t get through even a day without their phones and ear buds for listening to music. Listening to those songs, and even moving and singing along, is fun. Listening to someone else sing their song, and looking into the window of someone else’s soul is fun and safe. A student will often relate to a song, but it’s still the recording artist that’s laying it all out for the world to see.
Singing and writing one’s own music isn’t so safe. Students are concerned with how they will sound, what others will think, and what they want or don’t want others to know about them through their song lyrics. Being a singer or a songwriter takes courage, especially when done in front of peers and others know you and who you will continue to be with for many days, possibly years to come. Yet most students really do want to be good singers, they just don’t want everyone to hear them before they have done so.
While some of these apprehensions come from the personal and expressive nature of music, much of the reluctance of adolescents to sing comes from the stakes being made unnecessarily high. Students, particularly those not in performing ensembles but enrolled in general music classes, must be able to experience making failed attempts that don’t carry negative consequences. We should want these students to try, to make their best effort, and to get out of each attempt all they can, including, and perhaps most importantly, the desire to try again, and to improve with each attempt. To this end, attempts, at least at the early stages, should be valued more than results. With every attempt, the teacher should identify what the student succeeded at, and use those successes to encourage and motivate further attempts. There is a place for pointing out errors, and making corrections, but these should be done in proportion to the confidence that the student has built up, and the successes the student has enjoyed. Coming off a confidence building attempt from which the student has found motivation to go further and to do better, corrections can be given as a means to an end that the student is now motivated to achieve.
Progress like this is slow, and cannot be sped up by quick prescriptive discourse from the teacher, or expectations that the student will instantly implement the plan. No, this kind of progress will happen at a different rate for every student; the rate at which each student feels ready, confident and motivated to move on. It cannot be made to conform to a performance deadline, semester calendar, or the voice of impatience found in teacher or student. This kind of progress must advance slowly, steadily, and strongly—the way of a good friendship. Good teaching is always found where student and teacher develop a mutual rapport and trust in which it is okay to make mistakes, because they are valued as indispensible teaching and learning tools, and in which challenges are kept to a manageable level with careful planning by the teacher. Well-planned learning experiences should be positive and focused from moment to moment, keeping a balance between success and challenge that both encourages and motivates. They allow time for students to make repeated attempts, make mistakes, solve problems, and ultimately work their way through the process until performance goals are achieved. Teachers should not try to help the student or spare them the hardship of working through mistakes and making repeated attempts, because the greatest benefit to the student is in the learning that happens during the challenge, and the gratification of victory when the challenge is met. A “rescuing” teacher short-circuits all of that, and leaves the student cheated out of a deep learning experience, and the opportunity to know that they, and not the teacher, have accomplished something worthwhile.