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refusing the label

January 29, 2015 , , ,

labelswebFor people to look squarely at their harmful actions and to become genuinely accountable, they must have a platform of self-worth to stand on. Only from the vantage point of higher ground can people who commit harm gain perspective. Only from there can they apologise, or grow.

[As quoted in “Shame Resilience and the Power of Empathy” via Harriet Lerner’s book, “The Dance of Connection”.]

This paragraph stuck in my head and inspired me to examine the power of positive inflection in language. The context of the paragraph was in relationships and domestic violence; for example, when a husband had struck their wife, even though they were aware their actions were unacceptable, they were far more likely to take responsibility for their actions and correct their behaviour if they were standing from a place of self-worth. When asked to join a therapy group of abusive husbands, this husband absolutely refused to be labelled as such; but was much more open to the idea of joining a therapy group of men who had trouble controlling their anger, and were learning strategies in how to positively manage their triggers.

Refusing the label…this resonated with me because it’s in the very powerful realms of language. That, and the concept that “each person must have a platform of self worth to stand on” in order to grow. Language seeps in and sticks, whether we are aware of it or not. I remember words from my teachers and lecturers from over 10 years ago which have taken every moment of that decade to ease and heal; that I may completely step into what ever task I am supposed to be fulfilling, ready to learn + adapt, ready to offer all the skills I have, present and complete. Sure of my abilities and worth. And I love learning!


What about that extraordinary, hopeful + fragile stretch of teenage-hood, when students are developing their identities…what impact do our words have? The answer is…very little, and a monumental amount. Both, paradoxically, at the same time.

So many of our words go right over their heads. But there are tiny snippets of conversation, just a handful of words, which stick ferociously with them. These words are the ones that have anything to do with their worth and identity. I’m a great believer that teenagers have crap detectors, like miniature satellite dishes, installed on their heads, honed to pick up frequencies of worth, value, acknowledgement and achievement. While teenagers may be notorious for not hearing a set of instructions that you’ve said for the eleventh time, and written on the board, and sent out smoke signals and carrier pigeons over, not to mention the interpretive dance you threw in at the last minute, they WILL ABSOLUTELY AND UNDOUBTEDLY hear the words from you which have anything to do with their worth and identity. And usually when you least expect it. They will remember the tiny, off-the-cuff comments, the small snippets of encouragement, the words you thought never made it in, with perfect clarity if they have anything to do with their self-worth and value. Over and over, I am gob-smacked at what students hear and remember…a tiny snippet of encouragement offered on the run makes it into a thank you note at the end of the year as a significant change in their thinking; a Year 12 credits a choice made to something you can’t even remember saying to them in Year 8…the words that really resonate with them, for whatever reason, somehow stick. For a very long time.

And why on earth should that surprise me?! I treasured moments of clarity + encouragement from the teachers I respected, hugged them close + remembered them in times of discouragement and stress.

It made me think of three seemingly harmless phrases which I have tried to re-think when I take a Performance Practice class:

  1. You need to be more confident.
  2. You need to be more musical.
  3. You need to practise more.

All of these seem harmless enough and, truth be told, they are completely merited when used in absolutely the right context, with the right momentum and impetus.

But some of these can be useless or even detrimental…and a student might carry these words in a detrimental way without the slightest idea of you knowing.

I know that as a plucky university student, seemingly fearless, the first phrase bamboozled me completely and stopped me in my tracks. Just be more confident?! Sure! I’ll just switch it on like a tap, together with an instant fake smile and then we’ll all be happy chappies! The thinking is much bigger than just a simple instruction! I can’t just “magic” confidence into my being! I need to step into it, feel it, grow it up!


1. You need to be more confident:

When you want a student to be more confident, you can’t just state this. They probably know this already. They probably want to feel steadier under performance conditions, more in control, but have no idea how to get there. You telling them to just “be more confident” is like telling someone with anxiety, “You just need to chill-out!” Useless and potentially harmful. How to tackle this one? See what makes the student tick. Do they get into the zone for a performance? Helping them visualise the performance in their heads might be incredibly calming and powerful. Are they a sensitive and giving student? The concept that their musical performance is a special message or gift that only they can give, in exactly their way, might help them “say” what they need to say. This is their message in performance-guise, and uniquely them. They get to share it with the world. Perhaps the student needs to see that epic failures in performance is a normal part of learning how to perform…that’s why we have performance practise. It’s not a perfect show every time. And to take away the myth of being perfect all the time is a very powerful tool…I do this by sharing my own story as a Year 11 and 12 accompanist whilst being a full-time classroom teacher; I absolutely must practise, otherwise I do not have the skills to create a beautiful accompaniment. And, as with all skills, confidence…the ability to stand your ground, quietly, joyfully, courageously…is a skill. Skills require practise. They are a muscle needing to be exercised. You can’t just wave a magic wand and “be more confident”. Being human and normal with nerves and a heartbeat is far more fun.

2. You need to be more musical:

I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking to say to a kid who might be giving you all the heart they can, only to hear that they “need to be more musical.” They might not have learned the language of how to translate their emotive ability into articulation, phrasing, shapes, lines and so forth…show them how to listen and copy their favourite performers. Tell them what a phrase can represent in terms of emotive power; demonstrate it, invite the whole class into the discussion process. Bring in recordings and discover what makes for a warm sound, a dark sound…anger, light, joy, intensity…they are all for the learning. Be playful! Trying to describe the character of a phrase as a class can be incredibly enlightening…and effective for musical vocabulary development that extends beyond the word “good”. Draw them into the world of emotive music-making, rather than scaring them off and suggesting they are mute and not giving you their full heart…tap into their emotive humanity with humour, play, quietness, commitment, and you’ll see a whole new side of your class. You need to dare to set the example. You need to be musical as a teacher!

3. You need to practise more:

As blindingly true as this may be, it has the opposite effect if you tell a student this point-blank. Only in very special circumstances does this work…usually upon years of a strong student-teacher rapport and solid foundation of trust.

I would examine this question by asking the following:

  • Do you know what happens in your day? Where does your time go?
  • Do you actually want to play?
  • Do you enjoy any part of your practise or do you resent it?
  • How do you practise?
  • What do you look and listen for when you practise?
  • Why are you learning your instrument?
  • How long do you think it takes you to learn a new skill, craft a new sound, or hone a piece?
  • What is competing for your attention in the hours you’re not at school?

It is surprising to me how little time a student factors into practise, and how much thinking is actually involved in quality practise. Sit with the class and walk them through how you might practise…use a guinea pig student if you need! And practise absolutely must be self-motivated…even if the self-motivation is, “I want Year 12 Solo Performance because I want the skills at the end.” That, at least, is a valid reason. “Because Mum and Dad said I should,” doesn’t count. “I dunno” as a reason is shot down completely by me; I keep asking until they can figure what small fire keeps them going. They don’t have to love what they are doing, although that should be the ultimate. But they absolutely MUST have a reason that speaks of their own motivation and self-worth. It might be a competition of too many commitments killing practise time, the lack of learning behind how to practise, not knowing how to set up and maintain a practise schedule, not knowing how to tap into the pulse of a piece, an understanding of all the different types of practise, or old habits which need to be re-examined to be more effective.

Refusing the label…every now and then, that instinctive, visceral understanding that teenagers have of what they need, and what is total crap, is spot on.

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