Failure as Fuel

Yesterday I heard quite a few of my students play in a way that made me feel like a failure as a teacher. Incorrect rhythms, wrong notes, a lack of phrasing and musicality … it was hard to listen to.

My first thought was: “what am I doing wrong?”

As a teacher - and perhaps even more so a teacher the in arts - it’s easy to absorb students’ performances as your own. You hear an error and think … what should I have done to help them past that? Am I glossing over the details in lessons and letting these things slip by? Am I not being clear enough in my expectations?

There are a lot of questions that float through one’s mind when faced with the realization that you may be really, really bad at something that you thought you were doing pretty well.

SO, I went back up to my office, cried a little bit at my desk while eating plantain chips from Trader Joe’s, and decided to reach out to some of my mentors and friends.

One mentor sent me an article he had recently read -

Building Bots and Confidence by Joseph Williams

This piece has some great insights in to harnessing failure and using it as fuel, and discusses the idea of resilience. Failure is really just an opportunity for growth - a way for us to see our deficiencies more clearly - and a catalyst for re-evaluation and change. Failure is really only a failure if we don’t learn from it.

They did you a favor! They showed you where your weak spots are!
— Aron Lee

Another one of my mentors talked about math and the equation of teaching.

There are two sides to every equation - and students need to uphold their end of the bargain. I can put all of my energy in to giving them good instruction and sound approaches to practicing, but if they don’t put in the time on their own then the equation remains unbalanced.

He said that it was good (in a way) for a my first question to be “what am I doing wrong?” because it shows that I care. At the same time, however, I can’t be responsible for other peoples’ actions, no matter how much I try to help them prepare.

Then I took some time to think about myself as a musician.

Is every performance I give better than the last? Emphatically NO!

Did I have excellent teachers who guided me and taught me well, and yet I still gave poor performances? Emphatically YES!

Just because my students didn’t perform their best yesterday, it does not make them bad students - and it does not make me a bad teacher.

I’m not completely free from blame. I believe that my most important job as a teacher is to teach my students how to practice (and ultimately how to function as musicians outside of academia) - and their performances yesterday are an indication to me that some of the practice techniques I’m hoping to instill in them are being lost in translation.

But, at the same time, I can’t practice for them. I can give them as many tips and tricks and concepts and approaches as I have in my own toolbox - but if they sit down in a practice room and decide not to use them, there’s not much I can do about that.

I’m choosing to use this failure as fuel. This week in lessons, we’re going to do some deep dives in to how my students are spending their time in the practice room, and how they are going about learning new material. But I’m also going to evaluate how much information I am actually giving them versus how much I think I am. I still struggle with the whole implicit versus explicit thing … but awareness is the first step to recovery, right?