Anyone who knows me knows that I love sports. In fact, with the exception of golf, I have a hard time walking past any television with some sort of sport on it without sitting down and talking trash. It follows that I listen to a lot of sports talk radio, and perhaps because the news out of Washington and Sacramento continues to worsen, it’s just about all I can tolerate on my long drives through the LA sprawl. One of my guys is Jim Rome. I used to hate him and his parsed phrasing! But now I love the show. The other morning, he had on Memphis men’s basketball coach John Calipari, and my life is better for having heard him talk.
Playing is easy to love. It can be lots of things that humans like: it’s edifying, an ego stroke, a proving ground, a chance to express yourself, something that makes you elite. This is as true of playing the cello as it is of playing football or basketball. Teaching, which is what coaches are supposed to do, is not as immediate and sexy as playing, and in my long haul as an educator and sports fan, I’ve found that many who call themselves teachers and coaches lack the drive and direction they expect to elicit from their pupils. I know string teachers who just listen to the students and point out mistakes. I see coaches who yell and scream at the kids to do something, never realizing that anger provokes fear before it nets results. I hear musicians complaining that they have to teach. That, my friends, is called stealing. Since the onus is on the student to progress, lesser music teachers fail to take responsibility for the quality of the service they provide. Perhaps if learning happened through osmosis it would be enough to sit in a room with a good player who offers no traction, no direction. It is stealing to take a student’s money and then fail to deliver an approach. Like their coaching counterparts, music teachers who do that are irritable cheerleaders, not instructors.
Calipari came on and talked about his tenure at Memphis, and by the way he spoke, I could tell he was a teacher. First, he was quick to point out that he was still learning; his team stumbled a bit until he made some changes at the point guard position. “That was my fault.” he said. He screams and yells alright, but it’s to say “Come on! Let’s go!” or curb immature or dangerous behavior. (college should be a man factory: turning boys, dudes, and even the dreaded guys into men) I saw a lot of my approach, and what I want my teaching to be in his tone. He asked his players what should have been a rhetorical question: something like “Do you guys ever feel like you can’t stop competing? Like you can’t let it go when you’re not breaking your personal best?” He had recently started a running regimen at the age of 50, and was disappointed that he was 34 seconds away from 4 consecutive 10 minute miles. He was amazed when none of his players felt that same motivation. That’s the problem with talent and skill. It fools us into thinking we’re done growing, or are no longer students of our craft. What I’m seeing more and more is that practicing is about character. Being good at the cello is novel, but being good at practicing the cello is the nobler end.
This week presented me with much challenge; the specter of an upcoming recital provokes some pretty pronounced defense mechanisms among my students. I am working to be patient while some very clever, wonderful people throw up smokescreens of disclaimers, excuses, rationalizations, sometimes overflowing into tears. Since the work that needs to be done challenges these things, I have the task of disarming these artifacts of personality in order to accomplish the simple, exacting adjustments these people have hired me to make.
Good coaches know that you have to address the person in order to get results. Basketball is easy. Make the shot; here are the angles that work. Don’t let the guy you’re guarding make his shot. Put your arms like this. Cello is easy. Four fingers, twelve notes, a few octaves. If that’s all there was to it, then I would be out of a job AND everyone would be a cellist. Basketball games would be 0-0, every time. But as it must be, the things that make defensive players drop their arms are the same instincts that cause chaos in their relationships. The cellist who hurries difficult things during practice is surely haunted by other ills of inattention and impatience. If we are only end-result driven, then this is what you’re left with. Incidentally, you get a pretty lowly end result because you want it so badly you cannot muster the will to actually succeed at the real deal: getting good at the effort.
Which is a big reason I have recitals for my students. To offer them the false notion of an important end result to illustrate what we’re really going for here. What is truly exciting for me is how many of my students get it. After a jittery week of freak out practice and fantasies of both triumph and defeat, they discover the benefit of just working. Chop wood, carry water, a teacher of mine used to say. The students who do that enjoy success in performances but are not nearly as touched by the head-swelling effects of applause and a nailed shift. Still others quit just before the recital, or trail off just after, while others make it through but are bruised and don’t participate again.
As a student of the cello, I see that as I temper myself in practice, so too does my life change. I used to feel a flush of regret or self loathing when telling old college pals that I make my living teaching. End result fever, I call it. Most people, and artists chronically, feel the need for a life observed. For results that people can see or hear. Hanging on the wall, available on Amazon.com, coming soon to a city near you. Teaching does not offer too much of that, and it’s a good thing. The tricky part is to gear up for a performance with the humility and focus of someone unobserved. As I listened to the coach on Rome’s show, I was reminded of the responsibility a teacher has to exemplify what we expect of our students. How else do you know that it works if you’re not doing it yourself?
It’s not that my practice sessions aren’t wrestling matches with my own “artifacts of personality”. They absolutely are, even after all of these years. I just know what I’m up against, and have gotten pretty good at chopping wood and carrying water.