290. Great Expectations

If you’ve ever been to an elementary school band or orchestra concert, you may have heard a rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” from his ninth symphony. There aren’t a lot of notes in it, and beginning instrumentalists often don’t know very many notes. And yet it was written by Beethoven, and Beethoven was a great composer, and so that’s great.
Teachers sit in chairs while children sit on the floor, and they listen to the efforts of the young musicians. The music teacher involved knows that the piece sounds somewhat different when performed by a symphony orchestra; it’s not done in unison, and the tempo is faster. Perhaps the music teacher is imagining that sound as the children make their attempts. Children and adults who know how the music is supposed to sound may be struggling to maintain a positive attitude and look. After all, they think, you’ve got to start somewhere. And the kids are trying so hard.
That isn’t my experience at all when I go to the band and orchestra concert at the school where I volunteer. The band and orchestra play a variety of musical pieces – jazz, movie themes, classical, and whatever else the music teachers pick out. Toes tap. Hands clap. The concert really sounds and feels like a concert. The children may be beginners, but that’s not how they sound.
If you didn’t know, you’d think children had had to audition to get into this school. Or you’d think the teachers were internationally acclaimed
conductors who had been brought in at great expense to do an artist-in- residence year. You’d think the sounds in that elementary school gym couldn’t possibly be coming from regular people like you and me, regular children like ours.
I don’t mean to take any credit away from these talented teachers and children, nor from the other ones – the ones who perform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” But I think the difference has more to do with attitude than talent.
Somewhere, many music teachers learn that children are limited by their age – that it’s unfair to expect children to sound better than their developmental stage will let them sound. It’s the same message other teachers get about art, math, reading, writing, movement.
But there’s something empowering about believing in yourself, and/or having someone else believe in you. When I’ve taught well, I’ve seen it happen in children I’ve taught. With me, it usually happened during writing, music, or science. Or children performed a play that was above and beyond what you’d usually expect of children. When it hasn’t happened, I wonder, now, how much attitude has had to do with it.
I still believe in disabilities, and take them seriously. If you can’t walk, you probably won’t dance as impressively as someone who can. And some people do have more of an “ear for music” than others. But belief in the ability to learn is powerful – much more powerful than belief in clumsiness, “tone-deafness,” or any other limitation.

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