According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, in chapter seven of her book Rising Strong, we are hard-wired to tell stories to explain the world around us. By “stories,” she means our perceptions of ourselves and others. This inclination is so strong that our body actually releases cortisol and oxytocin when we come up with a satisfactory story to explain a situation. Unfortunately, most of our stories are constructed without all of the facts, especially since we cannot read other people’s minds or know all their history. Our stories also reflect all of our own past experiences and the stories we have created around them.
What does this have to do with being a music teacher? Plenty! We tell stories all day long about why a student hasn’t practiced, why a parent spoke harshly to us, how come a payment is late, or even how worthy we are to be a teacher. And of course our students are telling stories to explain their experiences as well.
When a response seems out of the blue, or inappropriate for the situation, it may be a clue that our stories are out of sync with reality. In that case something in the present may have stepped on the nerve of a past story. When this happens it is time to take a deep breath, count to ten, and dig a little deeper.
An example might be if a student erupts in frustration when asked to play a section over again slowly. We might ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen. We could try to placate him or her. We may even respond with our own frustration. None of these responses help the student, or us, to understand what really happened. Maybe they believe they “already played it well enough, and you are being overly picky,” or, maybe being asked to play it over reinforced their internal story that they are “untalented and will never amount to anything musically.”
I don’t think we need to turn music lessons into counseling sessions, but working through some of a student’s underlying beliefs about themselves as musicians could be a critical factor in how long they stick with music, or how willing they are to perform in the future. It may be even more important in the long run than conquering a chord pattern or fingering problem in the moment.
Dr. Brown also suggests that it can be freeing to assume that other people are doing the best they can in the moment. In the case of an upset parent, this belief can help us to respond more calmly, and remind us that we don’t know everything the other person has already been through that day. At the very least you can reaffirm your professional and personal boundaries, if they have been violated, without escalating the situation or taking it personally. There may even be an opportunity to uncover areas where your stories don’t line up, such as the parent believes they are bending over backwards and making great sacrifices to keep their child in piano, but you believe they care way more about sports and helping their child attend piano events comes in last every time. These conflicting beliefs will lead to building resentments on both sides if not reconciled.
I also find it intriguing that, according to Dr. Brown, “Creativity imbeds knowledge. We move what we are learning from our heads, to our hearts, to our hands.” As artists we have a special opportunity to tap into this pathway of learning, and if we can help our students identify their music stories it may help the process flow more smoothly.
Although the overall theme of Rising Strong is how to overcome adversity, I believe this book can help us become more skilled teachers by helping us better understand ourselves, and by helping us dig deeper into the “stories” that our students build up around their musical instrument, their ability to be creative, and their identity as performers.