The room swirled with girls in cute dresses and guys in slacks and suspenders: tennis-shoed young people dancing to the sounds of jazz. Last night I went swing dancing with friends at the Ukrainian Center in Minneapolis. At first the room had seemed frigid, but after the first dance or so I found myself wishing they’d turn up the air.
Now I stood watching the other dancers. To my eye they all seemed to know exactly what they were doing, and they danced with a vivacity that (I thought) I could never attain. Suddenly, before I’d even realized it, my admiration and enjoyment had been replaced by a judgement that I wasn’t “as good” as all those other dancers and a pessimistic assumption that I would never become that good either.
I stood around in this morbid humor for a few moments before a memory from teaching harp surfaced through my gloom.
“I’m sorry,” my student said after trying and failing to play the new fingering I had just taught to her. She seemed frustrated and disappointed at her inability to manage. And I, having been in her shoes, replied, “I am not surprised that you cannot perfectly master this brand-new skill in the first lesson. Don’t apologize. It takes practice.”
Adults, and sometimes even children as young as six years old, seem to expect to be able to perform difficult tasks after only a few repetitions. They become frustrated when they cannot. One of my most important functions as a teacher is to encourage students to continue to work toward mastery rather than giving up before they have any hope for real success. Some skills take a long time and many, many repetitions before they become doable. And they often require even more repetitions before they become easy.
Remembering this on the dance floor last night brought a smile to my face. Why beat myself up for not having mastery over a complicated, half-improvisitory dance (Lindy Hop) after I’ve only taken one basics class and have gone out dancing only a few times since then? Human nature, I guess. I decided right than that I was okay not being an amazing Lindy-Hopper. After I’ve taken many more classes and gone dancing a couple hundreds more times I can evaluated my progress. For now, I can focus on how to improve rather than being unjustifiably disappointed that I’m not “better” already.
For any harp students (or any students really) who experience frustration while practicing or in lessons, I have two recommendations for you.
- Look at yourself in sober judgement. Is it realistic to expect perfection at this stage? Have you practiced whatever you are doing at least a dozen times? Fifty times? Two hundred times? Some things simply take two hundred repetitions before they click. (Let me remind you that they should be careful repetitions, taking time to relax and evaluate as you go.)
- If your skills are not what you want them to be, evaluate what you can do to improve. Maybe it is watching YouTube videos of other masters. Maybe it is taking another class. Maybe it is finding a friend who is working on the same thing as you. Maybe it is reading as many articles on the subject as possible. Maybe it is participating in a workshop. Maybe it is going dancing more often.
What if you have practiced and repeated and evaluated and gone dancing more often and you are still not where you want to be?
- Remember you are human. You are not a machine. If 100% perfection is your goal, get a new goal.
- Take a moment and make sure you enjoy what you are doing. If you don’t, maybe you need a break. You might be able to come back after awhile with a fresh perspective and renewed enthusiasm.
- If you enjoy what you are doing, then persist! Not only is it good for your character, but, believe it or not, you will probably (eventually) get better.
Stephanie Claussen is a classically-trained harpist with over fifteen years of experience performing in Minneapolis & St. Paul. Her new book of harp arrangements, “Lights So Brilliant: Christmas Carols and Tunes for Solo Harp” is now available through Mel Bay!