Berklee Today

Coda: Unafraid of Failure

Last New Year's Eve, I was doing a sound check before a concert at a local church. There were many people coming in and out as the group warmed up. I noticed a young couple and their son sitting in the first row of pews. The boy was about five years old, and he was listening to our music very intently. When the sound check was over, I walked over to say hello to the family. They told me they couldn't stay as they were planning to attend a children's theater event running at the same time as my show. As we said goodbye, the young boy told me not to be nervous and that if I made any mistakes, it would be okay if I just kept going. I was floored. From the mouths of babes, truer words have rarely been spoken.

I have thought about the fear performers have of making mistakes and have wondered where it comes from. This fear can have a lifelong effect on how we perform in school, at work, and in other areas of our lives. If we are afraid to fail, then odds are we won't take the chances needed to really succeed.

For many, this syndrome starts very early, maybe even before we go to school. I watched my niece show early signs of self-doubt recently. She was to take her first math test in second grade on material that was new to her. Her reaction was to become apprehensive and worry about the negative impact a low grade might have on her report card. I was struck by how that affected her.

A couple of years ago, I attended a Kenny Werner lecture (see this issue's Alumni Profile). What he had to say changed my life. Werner, one of the greatest jazz pianists performing today, was talking about his book Effortless Mastery. As I sat there listening to him talk about the events in his life that led to his writing the book, I began to see many parallels to my life.

I also noticed that as he talked about the pitfalls and insecurities he went through, the audience at the lecture began to relax. I started to think that none of us is alone in the struggle to be comfortable with who we are. We all go through phases of self-doubt. By the end of the lecture, I felt as if a weight had been lifted from me. I knew that it was important for me to try to work with what Werner had spoken about and to incorporate it into my teaching.

Back at Berklee, I began by talking with students and faculty about Werner's philosophy. The wide range of reactions piqued my interest. I have had students who will spend more time trying to find shortcuts and tricks to pass my classes than they will spend studying to learn the material. In this case, I rephrase that famous line, "If you build it, they will come," from the movie Field of Dreams. I tell them if you learn the material, the grade will come.

In academe, a student who seeks the shortcuts or tricks is frequently labeled lazy or not serious rather than fearful of failing. Such words as, "they should know this material by now" or "when I went to school, why we were..." start to fly. But let's be honest. We didn't all walk seven miles to school in the snow, and not all of us studied 10 hours a day. As we get older, some of us enjoy placing our past on a pedestal and our memories go out of focus.

It has been very helpful for me to remember back to when I was in my students' position. I feel strongly that sharing some of these thoughts can help them to relax in the classroom. They live in a fast-paced environment where things appear to have been created instantly. Students don't always get a true sense of development and the amount of trial and error that is required to bring projects to fruition.

It is my opinion that, as teachers, we help to initiate and perpetuate our students' learning anxieties. We may not be the root cause, but we do share some blame. Students perceive critical opinions we form about them or their abilities, and that can lead to a negative classroom experience. In his book Mastering Teaching Techniques, Joseph Lowman states that instructors cannot be held responsible for the differences in ability students bring with them. He does, however, hold instructors responsible for motivating all students--the gifted as well as the barely adequate--to do their best work and to love the learning experience. Teachers have as much power to excite a student's enthusiasm as to dampen it.

It is difficult for some teachers to open up to their students. We have some of the same fears that they have. We may be fearful about different issues, but we all have fears. Some teachers worry that getting too close to their students will lead to a breakdown in discipline or respect. Personally, I feel this to be a risk worth taking. Allowing students the freedom to be unafraid far outweighs the risks that a few will take advantage of the situation.

I am not advocating grade inflation or making it easier for students to pass, but I want students to have positive experiences. This will allow them to become more involved in class without fear or anxiety. Some will still fail; that is a fact of life. But at least they will have been given a fair opportunity to succeed.

In his book Joys and Sorrows, Pablo Casals says, "To be a teacher is to have a great respon-sibility. The teacher helps to shape and give direction to the lives of other human beings. What is more important, graver than that?" Casals could think of no profession more important than teaching. I heartily agree.