Written by Thomas McGregor
Published: November 13, 2013 at 5:12 PM [UTC]
I was sitting, waiting for my next student to arrive, prepping for what I assumed would be an outstanding lesson with a student who had been displaying marvelous advancement, when Niekole walked in looking weathered by the day. As she made her way to her seat in my studio setting her violin case down, I started to pick up on some uncharacteristic body language that told me she was either nervous or uneasy about something. Niekole is a 12 year old middle school student who prides herself on being unique in every way. This was one of the reasons she selected the violin as her instrument of choice, she confided in me on our first lesson. Though she likes to be unique at every turn, she is not an irresponsible. She comes from a solid home life with a loving and supportive family that are a little unique themselves.
As she began to unpack her violin, I inquired as to what was bothering her. "How was your day today?" I asked. There was a long pose before I received any type of feedback, another uncharacteristic marker. After about 90 seconds, Niekole said "I'm nervous to play for you today," in a low insecure tone. "You don't have to worry. I want nothing but to help you in any way," I reassured her. In my attempt to clearly understand the situation, I inquired further; "Did you have a busy week, making it hard to find time to practice?" "No," she said "I practiced every day for 45 minutes." I beamed, "Really? That's wonderful!" I said with delight. "So why are you nervous today?" I asked directly. "I'm always a little nervous. It's because you are the teacher and I am the student. The idea of being criticized scares me."
This news hit me like a bag of bricks. "Is this something that every student battles with?" I thought to myself as I assured her that I just wanted to help develop her playing to it's full potential, not spark fear of criticism in her. For the remainder of the lesson I intensely focused on every word I spoke and how I addressed each problem, making it my priority to teach with a light informative tone and not a rough criticizing tone.
As the week passed, I proceeded to ask every student if they suffered from the same fear when they came into their lesson. To my amazement, every student I talked to encounters this sense of nervousness when they come into their lesson. Each one speaking to how this nervousness changes the way the play. Pedagogically, I want there to be an edge in the room that keeps the student on their toes when in the lesson. This brings energy and heightened awareness into the lesson. However, if I am going to help develop students into young performers, being nervous to such a degree that it changes their physiology and affects their over all performance is something that needs immediate addressing.
After I had conducted my interviews of my entire student body (65: 35 private, 30 group class) I set out to change this mindset by offering an activity that would shift their focus when they feel the nervousness creep in to their minds.
The following week arrived and I greeted each student with this statement: "How would you like to positively change someone's day?" If there was hesitation, I would follow up with; "Do you remember the last time someone spontaneously improved your day by doing something fun and unexpected?" This second statement rang true for each of my students as huge smiles came to their faces as the reminisced of these seemingly magical events that took place in their past. Once they agreed, I laid out for them exactly what we were going to do. The plan was to play for a random person at a nearby business. "WHAT?!" Was the usually the response I received from this request. "That's right," I proclaimed, "we are going to take your music and spontaneously share it with others." Which was usually met with, "But playing for strangers makes me nervous." "Don't think of it as playing for a stranger," I rebutted, "think of that joy you once received from a random act of kindness, and think about making that happen for someone else." This immediately cleared their faces of tenseness, bringing a smile in some cases.
Every "performance" went just as planned, spontaneously. There were no rules to this experiment of mine. The only contingent I enforced was that they had to completely focus their entire performance on improving the quality of that person's day. This produced a cascade of extremely positive and exciting effects, some I didn't even predict. For instance; not only did each on of my students earnestly give heartfelt performances to the betterment of their communities, but they grew in new ways faster than ever before.
In the weeks following I witnessed the following improvements in my students:
*Increased musical retention
*Ease of classroom flow
*Self-motivated community outreach
*Eagerness to teach others(siblings, for example)
*A greater openness to new musical concepts
*Less stress and tension in the learning environment
*A greater sense of fulfillment
Interestingly there is scientific data to support this experience. Researcher Diane Hedin indicates that the biggest problem students must overcome in school is a lack of motivation (Hedin 1989). She asserts that, "Boredom is probably a function of what seems to many students an unfathomable gap between the curriculum and their everyday lives. Community service [learning] provides the critical missing link for many students, an opportunity to apply academic learning to real human needs and to make the knowledge gained usable in one's thinking beyond the situation in which the learning occurred." (Hedin, 1989 Journal of Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science)
"Service learning", therefore, motivates the student in such a way that he/she is able to see their hard work and talent in the classroom impacting the community the are a part. Furthermore, service learning increases the probability of transference of knowledge into real-world practice. The student is enabled with greater opportunities, through service learning, to expand and connect what they intellectually understand with the people that make up their community. This closes the gap Hedin speaks of, producing a symbiotic relationship between student and community member. With the use of individual talents, great impact and service can occur. No matter the age or level, everyone has a gift to give that will positively impact the future.
I'm a (adult) student myself and I've done the same thing - whenever I travel I take my violin and play in the airport terminal. Its become both one of the most satisfying and improving things that I do as I always get a very positive response from the waiting travelers. Its so important to stop thinking of playing as something we do to the sufferance of others (as it may be when we start) to their pleasure for without that I am sure we can not perform.
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