My students are composers, singers, instrumentalists - they create. It's their job. Piaget believed that children were like little scientists and that their play was their most important work. So we play and sing and test the world of sound. The children leave class humming to themselves. Their parents complain that they are singing too much at home (and I smile to myself). They are caught tapping rhythm patterns and whistling folk tunes during silent reading time - I say, "Guys, you know there's a time and place for that!" but secretly I am pleased.
It sounds good, right? Almost too idyllic for a public education? It's just a successful philosophy at work. That's all. And when left to itself, it produces wonderful, confident, independent young musicians. But there's a murky "talent" culture that flies right in its face and turns my stomach. Most days I go along without having to think about it . . . but then somebody utters the unfortunate words that make my soul sink a little (nah - that's not overdramatic. not really).
"I have a bad voice." or "He has a bad voice." or "She has a bad voice." or "They should never sing." or "You should never sing."
Takes me right back.
Reminds me of that one teacher who made me feel smaller than small. This teacher could make kids feel like royalty or dirt. Such a charismatic presence. And I knew way down in my heart that I wasn't good enough - I was awkward and not so naturally able. So here I am, almost 30 years old, still telling that judge in my head what-for when it puts on the face of this one teacher and says to me, "Who do you think you are? Why should anybody let you sing? Why should anybody let you play?"
These kids will hear our actions echoing for years. It will either be a life giving thing for them or a loud, empty, clanging ugliness moving around those inner chambers . . . those deeply personal head spaces.
Good music teachers and good music ministers have a few things in common. I've been fortunate enough to know many good music teachers and many good music ministers in my life. On top of that, I've spent the last few years being both of these things simultaneously - seeing the common ground every single day. So I've learned some lessons.
Rule #1 for healthy music ministers and healthy music teachers should probably be: "There's no such thing as a person not worth your time or a voice not worthy of your attention."
Boy, that's a tough one. When we feel pressure to make folks perform and we want everybody to think we're running a "quality program" we get just a bit obsessed with the sound of success - and we will be told by well-meaning people that it would be best to quietly dismiss the ones who are a bit rough around the edges.
I know a child who still hasn't used a proper singing voice. We're working hard to resolve this . . . but it still hasn't happened. The kid wants to tap into that real deal, light, comfortable singing voice - but it's tough! It's especially tough when people have already said out loud, "You just weren't born with any talent." Oh. Words like that make me want to run screaming! They make me sad . . . but it's an angry sad.
Rule #2 should probably be: "Remember WHO has hand crafted the vocal cords of the people you serve. God makes no mistakes."
The day I stop working with the ones who need the most coaching is the day I should be fired. Seriously.
Rule #3 should probably be: "Remember - your students and the people you coach are the people you have been called to serve. Not the other way around."
That sounds silly, doesn't it? I mean - it goes without saying, right? But I see many days in my own heart that I expect the kids to tell me I'm great. And when I worked in a music ministry position, I desired it of people there, too. Needing encouragement is fine. We all need encouragement. But I was called to be a champion of young children and regular people wanting to sing and play instruments for the glory of God. I was called to be a champion of them . . . not to them.
Rule #4: "Maintain a teachable spirit."
Once I was called into the office of a minister and very gently told to work on cutting my verbal introductions to hymns a bit shorter on Sunday mornings. It was the most kind, respectful criticism I've ever received . . . but I had grown so proud that the idea of being told I wasn't actually doing everything perfectly shocked me - and I cried! Broke down and cried! Over such a silly, simple thing.
Bottom line - I am never so good that I have nothing left to learn. None of us will ever be that good.
I feel strongly about this because I see what it does to my students . . . and also because I know that the potential for this kind of behavior is in my own heart. I can see it there. And I fight against it just like other people do.
Sometimes I have a greater desire for the praise of other professional musicians than I do for the health and well being of the people I'm teaching or ministering to. That's sad . . . but it's the truth. And when I see it happening in my own heart I have to say, "I'm sorry, God. I am taking for granted the gift you've given me in this work. I am taking for granted the time you've allowed me to have with these students (or these parishioners). I need your help to see past my own human ambition. Please help me see it clear. Please help me see it how you see it." - just like Brother Lawrence - tell God about the real deal struggle and then move right on in the work. It's the best any of us can hope to do.
Look for the value in others and you will find it. And beyond this, you'll be filled up with the love that follows an understanding of the value of the people you're able to share life with.
When we go through life demanding that others constantly reinforce our own sense of value we always come up empty.
I don't have it all figured out. But I want to keep learning. Don't you?