N. is a very sweet girl. A student of mine for the past couple of years, she’s in her early teens and attends a private religious school with no band program to speak of. During a typical week, the only opportunity N. has to play with others is during her lesson, so we play a lot of duets. We do this as a break between exercises, and sometimes we sight read duets outside of her method book. I consider her level to be “Advanced Beginner with Holes in the Foundation”, so we spend time in the lesson reviewing fundamentals, and then I challenge her with duets or solo repertoire.
In my studio, there are many opportunities to perform for others: in studio classes, recitals, and at “social functions”, as well as with Guest Artists and at the Fall Musicale and Spring Recital. Most of my students participate in their school bands, so even as new students they know a few kids and families at these events, and they’re used to playing in front of others. N. is not used to playing in front of others, and for the past year and a half she has approached each upcoming performance with what appeared to be a mixture of dread and near revulsion. She is very soft-spoken and shy, and to compound the effect she is very petite and likes to stare at the floor. I decided to give her time, hoping that as she became more accustomed to performing and got to know the other students a bit better, the problem would resolve itself. It didn’t.
And then a friend recommended I read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. I am currently about halfway through this book, and I’m telling you, light bulbs are going off all over the place. They gist of the book, so far, is that people are hard-wired to be an introvert, an extrovert, (to varying extremes), or even ambiverts (in the middle of the spectrum). American culture puts far too great an emphasis on extroverted qualities, to its detriment. (Cain presents powerful evidence that the Great Recession of 2008 occurred because there were too many extroverts in power at the major banks and investment corporations, and that these hard-wired risk-takers weren’t listening to the warnings of their naturally more sensitive and cautious introvert coworkers.) Introverts are introverts, and while they can learn to emulate and adapt certain desired (in this country) extrovert qualities, Cain questions whether they should. The point seems to be that perhaps introverts have much to offer as they are, and we should value this and allow them to do what they do well.
This book was in the back of my mind about a month ago, when my students began choosing their repertoire for next month’s Spring Recital. (Yes, it’s taking me forever to read it. I keep getting distracted by awesome fiction. Curse you, Luminaries!) When N. came for her lesson that week, I asked her how she felt about doing another solo with piano accompaniment. She answered, eyes downcast, with a soft, “I really don’t like it.” For someone like N., standing in front of a large group of people performing a piece of music feels a lot like putting yourself up for slaughter in front of a circling predatory herd. (There is science behind this. Read Quiet.) So I asked N., “How would you feel about performing a duet or two with me, instead?” I wish I had photographed the look on her face. Because it said, “I didn’t know that was an option, and why haven’t you offered this sooner.” And also, “Oh, thank God!!!” And “Yes, plllleeeease!!!” So, I agreed and we spent some time picking out a duet. We had great fun sight reading, and N. told me she would feel so much more SAFE standing up in front of all those “predators” if she weren’t alone. (Even though she’d played with an accompanist, her mother – an accomplished pianist – she still felt very alone out there in front of the piano. I think all performing musicians can relate.)
Since this lesson, N. has become a different flutist. She is N.Magnified! Let’s call her “NM” for short. Instead of entering the studio with her head down and her feet almost shuffling, she walks in with confidence I have never seen before. She laughs and speaks out in lessons, and while she has always asked THE most intriguing questions (sometimes causing me to have to quickly research an answer), she now looks me right in the eye when she does so. And her tone is fuller, and her technique is more confident and fluid. I think it’s that she no longer perceives the upcoming performance as a threat, and I’m seeing the real her. The unafraid N. NM.
In her most recent lesson though, we broke a barrier I didn’t expect to break for another year. The soul barrier. The point where a student who has developed a beautiful tone, and has some technique to support her expression, begins to take real risks and play in a truly expressive manner. The reason it takes so long to do this is that it’s SCARY to bare your inner-most self to an audience/herd.
We were polishing the duet for the recital. (We’re going to put it away and let it marinate a bit, and bring it back with more flavor for the recital.) I was trying to get NM to project her sound a bit MORE than before, but she was still holding back. We talked about breathing in large amounts and practiced doing that well before her entrances, in a way that felt good. We talked and practiced airspeed. We aimed our sound at the duck asparagus server on the opposite side of the room. (This duck has never, ever, served asparagus. But it makes a great target for my students and me.) We tried everything I know, and I was running out of ideas.
I find that inspiration strikes me when I’m just about out of old tricks.
The song “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen had been in the news that week, due to John Travolta’s hi-LAR-ious botching of singer Idina Menzel’s name. Unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard this song, and you are aware that every girl from age 4 to 14 in the country has been singing it, at the top of their lungs, at least a few times a day. (My husband reported to me on Monday that he saw a couple of little girls playing on our pedestrian mall. They were running in circles, keeping themselves directly opposite one another, and were belting, “Let it go!”, “Let it go!” over and over and over . . . The song sticks.)
In case you are one of the .5% of Americans who haven’t seen this movie, I will tell you that the song is about empowerment. The character is tired of hiding her talent (which is making things freeze or creating ice out of nothing or whopping people flat with ice rays, you get the idea), and she has kind of a blow-up which results in injury , mayhem, and much property damage. So she takes to the hills (BIG, icy hills) and along the way she sings this song about not hiding anymore, and letting her talents out, and she sort of accidentally-on-purpose builds a really fantastic ice castle. She decides to live in it, alone and safely away from civilization (herds again) (I would like to rent it for a few weeks), and at the end of the song slams the door, and like a teenager delivering her final “blow” of a temper tantrum, delivers the sassy line, “The cold never bothered me anyway.”
So, fortunately NM is familiar with the song, because I started singing it, in a sort of slightly warped version that created a counter-melody to her line in the duet. And the more I sang it, the more she LET IT GO. Her sound soared! (I think I saw the duck asparagus server shiver a little.) And it was beautiful, and she’s not yet studied vibrato, but there was the slightest hint of shimmer in her sound.
When it was over, we just stared at each other for a minute or two. And laughed. And breathed. And I finally asked, “Well, what was different?” And she responded, predictably, “My tone.” And then I asked her what else was different. What I meant by this was, “How did you make it different?” I was looking for a response to do with air intake and speed, and jaw and lips, but she said, “My posture. I’ve never felt taller.”
Like the character in the song, N had been hiding her talent. In N’s case, the motivation was not to protect others, of course, but to protect herself. In removing the threat, I inadvertently allowed N a safe space to let it go, and become NM. And then NM+. And one day, when she is ready, and in control of her powers/talents, she’ll return to interacting with the villagers, as a new person.