I spoke to my piano teacher over the phone the other night, and I told him about some of the things that I found to be trying in my teaching. He listened very earnestly and then told me that I seriously didn’t need to work that hard, that it was important for me to enjoy my Masters experience. I realised that I am at a point in my life where yes, for the most part I do enjoy my studies. I feel lucky to have a really good supervisor, and to be researching something that I feel truly very passionate about, but it wasn’t always like this.
When I was in my primary years, did I enjoy school? Sometimes. There were issues with bullying, there was the want to not be identified as a nerd, or a geek. There was also the want to fit in with a crowd, and the things that I did to fit in were a bit desperate. I listened to Britney Spears to stay informed with what was ‘cool’ and ‘trending.’ And though it was superficial and vein, I suppose my experience wasn’t that different to what other people go through. I wanted to fit in and belong. It’s human to want those things. Though, in saying all that, I do remember the childhood years with some degree of fondness. Digital technology was not really exciting back in those days. The internet was slow and annoying; and not scary or dangerous. I spent most of my childhood reading, feeling lost and immersed in books. My parents supported this habit, and took me to the library to get my weekly fix.
I did very well in high school. Though, I did well because I was worried. Anxiety was the reason for my high marks. Ironically, the subject that made me panic the most was music but practice always put me back into my element. The worry melted away whenever I immersed myself in piano or singing practice.
Later in my undergraduate studies, I truly felt like a small fish in a large pond. Completing a music degree was hard. It was hard because I didn’t go to a private school where there were specialist music teachers, or bands, choirs and orchestras. I put my head down and failed a few times. I worked terribly hard to scrape meagre passes. It was hard, stressful and frustrating. Still, I had a wonderfully supportive piano teacher who read my undergraduate level essays, suggested references to look up, gave me feedback, helpful feedback, marked my practice exams and starred at my harmony assignments with me – to give me more feedback. He gave me this time freely, and I have never forgotten that.
Good marks happened, but when they did happen, I never shared them with my peers. I remembered the envy that I felt when a high achiever boasted about her marks and wonderful achievements. Or rather, I remember the stupidity that I felt when somebody got a distinction in something that they hardly put much effort in. I didn’t want to make people feel stupid. Good marks were lonely, bad marks were ego-deflating.
When I finished my second year of uni, I came to the startling realisation that my life consisted of exams and assignments. Scholastic deadlines. Nothing more, nothing less. There was a loneliness and alienation that came with research. I slaved away in solitude, reading the diaries of dead composers, indulging in the letters that they sent to their loved ones, pinpointing the exact times and locations of the concerts that they held in various parts of Europe. I analysed harmonies, ornaments and instruments for hours, days and weeks. It was interesting… but did anybody care about this? The loneliness started to cripple me. I said then and there that I didn’t want to be an academic. Ever.
I left… to go to culinary school, to work in a kitchen, to get a glimpse of what the ‘real world’ looked like.
Then I came back to music school. Eager and refreshed. Happier. Ready to learn.
I loved it so much that I ironically chose to do a masters degree… two masters degrees.
I am happy now. Prior to this, I never really enjoyed studying because I was either struggling or very anxious. Or both. Sure, I did like learning – I indulged in books, I loved watching documentaries and I did go to lectures, festivals and workshops. I loved learning, but I didn’t enjoy formal education.
I’ve come to the realise that we don’t tell our little ones to enjoy school. School is some big important thing that (apparently) gears us up for later life. School is about discipline, not fun or enjoyment. Maybe we chant this idea because let’s face it; school is tough. Life is tough. But is life tougher outside of school?
High achievers achieve because they are scared of failure. Academic achievement (or lack thereof) generates anxiety, not excitement. The high achiever wants to live up to his/her name and reputation, while the under-achievers struggle, failing in a system that doesn’t suit their personality, temperament, or learning style. We put so much emphasis on individual achievement, and it is no fault of the school system per se. I say this because I am well aware of the fact that I am living in a western society. Western cultures have for a long time leaned more toward the individualist end of the continuum, and less on the collectivist side of the same continuum.
I’m not writing here to say that I think I have some magical solution that would fix the situation, but I want to do something about this. I certainly don’t just want to twiddle my thumbs. I will write more about how I am transforming my own practice as a teacher in the next post. For now, be sure to visit my blog on video games and learning.