Apologies for the absence of Flute Friday these past couple of weeks. I have been under the weather lately and avoiding all non-critical responsibilities. But today I am back and ready to share my thoughts with the internet world.
Last weekend I saw a remarkable film that brought me back to the days when I was young, ambitious musician (with a bit of an edge), competing in a field of flutists whose backgrounds were very different from my own. The movie was I, Tonya. I know what you are thinking: What in the world does figure skating have to do with music? How can you relate to such a weird, crazy story? Whoa – did your ex try to injure another flutist?? (That’s messed up!) Luckily, the thought of harming another musician never crossed my ex’s mind (If it had, I would have gladly handed him over the cops ASAP), but growing up without a lot of money and being surrounded by other kids who often reminded me that I was never good enough are two themes with which I can absolutely identify. I know that I am not alone. As an adult, I realize that there are things that we can learn from this film (and from our own experiences) to better help those students that show incredible talent but do not have the resources or support that may be readily available to other students. As coaches, we must find ways to encourage our students to reach for the next level despite whatever obstacles, personal or professional, stand in the way. Today’s blog is dedicated to all of us that have overcome hardship and to any students who may facing their own tumultuous circumstances. If you believe you can, if you put in elbow grease, if you tune out the haters, if you keep working towards greatness no matter what, you will eventually achieve your goals.
Like figure skating, music is a competitive “sport” (if you will) where the refinement of physical skill is juxtaposed against individual, creative interpretations of art. We are ranked in competitions and in orchestral seating assignments with a 1st (gold), 2nd (silver), or 3rd (bronze) depending on how our playing is judged by a committee. Different committees will judge us differently. We play the same canon of pieces just as figure skaters use the same types of standard jumps and flips in their routines, and our success is not only judged by how well we execute various techniques, but also by what we add to the expression behind the notes. Our fields, in many ways, are very similar, both requiring numerous hours of practice to attain mastery. There are also a number of etiquette rules in both figure skating and music that we learn along the way. For kids that may not be exposed to proper etiquette in their home or school life, these guidelines are much more difficult to master than children whose parents can afford to regularly take them out to restaurants, dinner parties, trips, and other social gatherings. I think that one of the most important similarities between figure skating and music, however, is the financial cost of success. This is where children who come from lower income families often find themselves alienated from their counterparts. Skates are expenses. Flutes are expensive. Private lessons with talented coaches and teachers put parents on the hook for monthly expenses that rival the power bill, the phone bill, and other essential monthly family expenses. I began learning to play the flute on an old school Bundy model flute that my parents purchased from a pawn shop for $100. Did that stop me from practicing harder that the other kids in band class whose parents had purchased shiny new Yamaha models? Not one bit! Kids without resources to buy the best equipment or study with talented teachers sometimes find themselves having to work much harder for the same results as kids whose families can afford the best of the best. Yet, it is that inner fight that gives some of the truly talented students the ambition, or grit, to rise above their circumstances. (Merriam-Webster defines “grit” as, “ firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”) They have to find a way to make it work with less. It is not easy, but the reward on the other side is worth more than money. The confidence that is attained with success is priceless and essential for building bigger dreams and achieving loftier goals. I, Tonya reminded me of what it is like to have grit in the face of obstacles. In the movie, they also referred to it as having an “edge.” In real life, folks often use words such as “unorthodox,” “ambitious,” or “scrappy.” Whatever it is, the drive that propels kids with financial or social obstacles forward is irreplaceable and, in a word, magical.
I remember watching this real life drama in the figure skating world unfold and, even as a child, thought that Tonya Harding was treated unfairly and that barring such an incredible talent from the figure skating world was a huge mistake. She took responsibility for knowing what had transpired and for her honesty, her dreams were taken away from her as the sport simultaneously threw away a very talented athlete. She was mixed up with a bad crowd who did not care about her or her talent – only themselves. Only cowards, like the band of thugs that hurt Nancy Kerrigan, could do something so awful and unprofessional. These cowards had Tonya trapped. It was an obstacle that she simply could not skate away from. What was the message that young, scrappy girls were left with as they watched these events transpire on the nightly news? Honesty does not matter – they will still take everything away from you if given the opportunity? That message just adds more fuel to the fire. “Prove them wrong,” was the message I took away from that story. Whenever someone told me I was not going to be able to do something, that is when I went over the top to show them I could. As an adult, I feel that my grit has disintegrated. Yet, when I see a student with that same type of ambition, doing what they can to excel with limited resources, I am inspired to be the very best coach I can, providing them with the encouragement they need to rise to the next level.
As teachers, we have a responsibility to support gifted students, no matter what their backgrounds may be, and tailor our teaching methods to suit their individual learning styles. There is a fantastic moment in I, Tonya, taken directly from the real life 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which really sums up how we need to approach talented students with grit. Tonya Harding was the first woman skater in history to land a triple axel in a competition during her free skate at the 1991 U.S. Championship. The split second after she landed this amazing jump, complete with a larger than life smile on her face, the commentator (who I believe was Dick Button) enthusiastically exclaimed into the microphone, “good girl!” When your students accomplish their goals, celebrate their successes with them. When they prove others wrong, and rise to the top, let them know how proud you are of them. One of the things that separates my experiences as a young flutist from Tonya’s experiences (fact, or fiction) is that I was nearly always surrounded by people who supported me. I had great teachers and a great family that did everything they could to send me to top, even when money was tight. During the other times when kids seemed to be heckling me or telling me that I wasn’t good enough, or when other teachers brushed off my accomplishments as “flukes,” I used their words as reasons to try even harder next time to prove them wrong. The haters gave me my grit. Be that support system for your students, because they may or may not have a decent support system in their personal lives. Encourage them to prove the haters wrong and harness that magical sense of grit that will help them achieve their goals.
Did you overcome social or socioeconomic hardships to become the flute player you are today? Do you have experiences teaching students with incredible talent that rose above their circumstances? How did you show them your support? How did you help them rise above their limits? Please comment below!