Do our schools offer an environment where students learn to perform better or just a stage for them to show-case what they already know?
Last week I was held spellbound by the virtuoso performance of a fourteen year-old pianist at our Summer Concert. Accompanied by the school orchestra and playing entirely from memory, his interpretation of the first movement of a Saint-Saens Piano Concerto was remarkable for its maturity and its passion. It earned a rapturous and richly deserved ovation from an enthralled audience.
Musicians know all about hard work. For every moment in the spotlight, every second of appreciative applause, there will have been hours of repetitive, often solitary practice. Even for the most naturally gifted there are few short-cuts. When the world-renowned Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti visited the school a little time ago, she had this to say about starting out:
My elder sister and I began playing at the same time – just five minutes a day for the first month or two – which made things easier because we could practise together. As a child getting started was always the hardest thing for me about practising, but once I got going you could shut me up in a room for two hours and I would be happy to keep playing. I never really took part in any other activities because my Mum encouraged me to focus on the one thing I really loved. Having been brought up in difficult times herself, she was quite strict and determined that I should always give 100%.
Reflecting on the inspirational performance of that young pianist, I am persuaded that there are some important lessons for us to learn from his successful approach to mastering the techniques that made it possible. When you are centre-stage working so closely with an accomplished orchestra and its conductor there is no margin for error. If you are to play with intensity and sensitivity your focus must be complete. How can you lose yourself to the music if in your head you are desperately scrambling to remember the next sequence of notes? You have just one opportunity to take this audience with you. You have to get it right on the night, this night. That’s a lot of pressure on a fourteen year-old.
That he succeeded and did so with such aplomb bears eloquent testimony to both his talent and his temperament, but it also tells us a great deal about his work ethic and the approach of his teachers. I can easily imagine that each minute on the stage represented many hours of dedicated practice; frustrating hours in which he made mistake after mistake; experimental hours in which he tried out – and discarded – a thousand variations; perhaps the occasional dark, daunting hour in which the thought arose that he might never master this piece. And exhilarating, exciting hours when he could feel the music in his fingertips and he knew it was all coming together at last.
How often in our schools do we give our students the licence to make mistakes and learn from them, the opportunity to try out and discard a range of ideas and approaches, the time to overcome the fear that this is something that might be beyond them?
Writing in the Guardian newspaper recently, Eduardo Briceño suggests that schools are too often seen by students and their teachers as performance zones rather than learning zones. He argues that, because they are under pressure to cover content broadly rather than deeply, teachers are often in too much of a hurry to arrive at the correct answers in order that the class can move on to the next bit of the syllabus. As a consequence there is rarely time to expose mistakes, let alone to examine and learn from them, and students quickly come to understand that they are expected to speak out only when they know the right answer.
They also sense that peers, teachers, and parents will think highly of them only when they do something correctly, leading them to fear and avoid challenging themselves to learn new skills.
In other words, our students are too frequently finding themselves up on stage under the glare of the spotlight and, as is only natural, they are turning to what they already know in order to please their audience.
If students see school as a place to show what they already know and minimise mistakes, rather than as a place to focus on what they don’t know, how are they going to substantially learn and improve?
We can find an equally apt analogy in the world of sport. If we don’t give children the opportunity to sharpen their basic skills in repetitive drills and exercises, if we don’t allow them to try out tricks and flicks and fall flat on their face occasionally, if we criticise them for over-ambition rather than applaud them for having a go, how can they hope to develop as players? Good coaches understand this and seek to cultivate a nurturing environment in which young sportsmen and women can build the confidence to take risks and make mistakes – and derive enough satisfaction and pleasure from their progression to make the time spent getting there worthwhile.
There will come a time when performance really counts – in the concert hall, on the pitch and in our schools. Faced with examinations or other high-stakes applications of learning, students will need to eliminate mistakes, hit the sweet spot and show just what they can do. But for the rest of the time, we should encourage them to focus on the skills they have yet to master and on the subject areas in which they feel least secure. They have to know that they can over-reach and we will catch them when they fall. If we can do this for them our students will learn how to learn and when the time comes they will step up with all the confidence and assurance that comes with mastery.