Stage Fright (Pt. II)
Beginning: 2:54 p.m. on Saturday, April 4th, 2015
Listening to: Edvard Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 8 and Anonymous 4 with Bruce Molsky
Reading: Ovid’s Metamorphoses; The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations by Michael M. Kaiser; and Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland
Last week I described Keiskamma Music Academy‘s high school recorder ensemble in performance and named strength of the collective as the main factor underlying their success. I want to devote a second post to the topic of stage fright and recount what occurred when individual students were challenged to stand apart from their peer group and perform past their safety zones.
Starting in primary school, students became used to rote learning and parroting their teacher as a group. Limited resources typically drove teachers to work this way, conducting classes like an extended “call and response” and drilling students on lessons in the hope that enough information would be retained. It usually wasn’t the case that each learner would have his or her own copy of the textbook or workbook; during school, teachers and students had to rely upon a handful of classroom copies. In grades 4 through 7 at Hamburg Primary, desks were arranged to enable a book to be shared by small groups. This was in theory enough for members to complete their classwork and copy out homework for the following day. In grades R (kindergarten) through 3, classes were arranged in rows with one book kept at the front for the teacher’s sole use. Students built early vocabularies this way in both Xhosa and English; they learned the names of the months, seasons, sums, times tables, and how to write. In this environment, mistakes easily went undetected, as did variation and individuality.
In music lessons, students lacked confidence in learning passages of music on their own and performing without the support of their peers. Rank beginners felt especially out of their element and required patience when coaxed to notice and address mistakes they would normally be permitted to overlook in a group. The primary school classroom environment carried over through high school, making music lessons a rare opportunity for students to receive individual attention. Even the youngest students received copies of their own music books and were expected to bring these home, care for them, and practice. I realize that, along with how to play the recorder, we were in effect introducing students to a new way of learning. It was painstaking but ultimately rewarding work: the older generation of seasoned high school performers was proof of what a small amount of individual instruction can accomplish.
Still, our high school students maintained their preference for the group. When I began working with individual players in lessons, I was perplexed to receive regular requests that I play along when working on new music. Older students continued to lack confidence and made frequent mistakes in playing musical passages they would otherwise be able to sight-read perfectly in ensemble. Perhaps the teachers before me relied too much upon playing along, either out of frustration or belief that this would streamline student progress and make the most efficient use of time in lessons. Working to improve the individual playing level of our high school class, I learned to hold out and use playing together as an incentive only after students made the effort to sight-read pieces on their own. Rather than using my playing as a guide for what was right and what wasn’t, we looked at different sections of a piece, questioning where rhythm and notes were off, and then worked phrase by phrase to make corrections. Slowly but surely students learned to recognize problematic passages, keeping track of where there tended to be mistakes and ways to figure out solutions. I am very fortunate that the students I taught were willing to adapt to me and cared enough to attempt learning counter to their very culture. The new lesson environment challenged students to work on a level where they couldn’t be as comfortable, where both stage fright and self-critique emerged. Without a doubt, there was initial resistance; but, for our high schoolers, it was clear that their commitment to Music Academy ran deeply, countering frustration.
Months into my work for Keiskamma Music Academy, a project began of of nominating and preparing students for the Eastern Cape Eisteddfod, an annual festival that called for young participants throughout the province to submit performances and works of art for graded evaluation. Fortunately, work started after I had gotten to know my students’ weakness and strengths and also gained a sense of their feelings toward the repertoire we were working on in lessons. After conferring with fellow teachers and asking each student to see if they wanted to participate, it was agreed that older students in grades 11 and 12 would be allowed to focus on their final exams, while younger students with lighter workloads would be encouraged to compete in that year’s Eisteddfod. Our nominees were Wonke Mapuma, grade 8, and Sambesiwe Mavela, grade 7.
At the Eisteddfod, our students performed before a panel of judges to receive grades and comments. Wonke Mapuma earned a Bronze Award for his performance on clarinet and a Silver Award on recorder. He was praised for his “confident playing” and “attention to dynamics.” Over the year, Wonke had excelled in both his clarinet and recorder playing, tackling high-level UNISA repertoire at a relatively young age. Sambesiwe Mavela earned a Double Gold Award for his performance on recorder and was praised for his “understanding of genre.” Sambe’s Double Gold was the highest award a Keiskamma Music Academy student has received at the Eastern Cape Eisteddfod to date.
The 2014 Eastern Cape Eisteddfod was the first solo competition either Sambe or Wonke had participated in. To prepare both students, technical mastery of pieces was bolstered by coaching for solo performance. Knowing each student’s strengths as players by the time of preparation allowed us to directly address their tendencies in light of stage fright. One student was gently reminded not to rush during more virtuosic portions of a piece. I also coached students before performance to feel grounded and focus on their bodies whenever they felt their energy and focus shift too much to their fingers and heads. As a final preparation, we also asked Wonke and Sambe to perform likely the most difficult task of all: playing their solos in front of peers. Again, common practice for Western musicians was something alien to students accustomed to communal music-making. The trial of playing for other students benefitted Wonke and Sambe’s performance before judges. Apart from results, there was added benefit in the group being able to see what individuals among them could accomplish and take inspiration from it. In this case, our ever-improving class could still find strength in numbers while witnessing examples of strength apart.
Trailing off for now,