Sometimes, You Just Have to Be There. – Soundfly

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Sometimes, You Just Have to Be There.

The following post is part of our new column, Poorly-Guarded Secrets from the Soundfly Mentors’ Guide. Written by mentor and VP of Learning & Curriculum Development Mahea Lee, this series is intended to assist, inspire, and offer a peek into the types of discussions we have behind-the-scenes here at Soundfly. 

Now that we’re moving into Year Two of this pandemic, I’ve started allowing myself to process and accept the mental and emotional toll it’s been taking on me.

This whole experience has really toyed with my perception of time. It’s also muddied my approach to decision-making, and shuffled my priorities so thoroughly that I’m not quite sure what to do with the hand I’m holding sometimes.

For much of the last year, my mood has flipped frequently and unexpectedly between highly-motivated and regretfully apathetic. One minute, everything’s monotony and déjà vu. The next, I’m doing all I can to catch the sand slipping through the ever-emptying hourglass.

I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but in the last couple months, I bought a violin, learned to make Beef Wellington, and started studying for the GRE. Of course, I can’t quite chalk all that up to existentialism and impulse.

I’ve intended to pick the violin back up since I put it down back in the fifth grade, but it always felt like I didn’t have the time. I think Beef Wellington makes for a beautiful main course on a holiday table free from the need for social distancing. And while I’ve always intended to go back to school at some point, the economic uncertainty of 2020 led me to believe I ought to be making more of an effort to be as employable as possible.

You could take all that as evidence that I’m trying to make the most of a strange and trying situation or that I’m somehow preparing for the future. To an extent, I suppose both are true.

But stepping back, I’ve started to realize that I haven’t really been longing to play a concerto, host a dinner party, or start graduate school. My goals, healthy though they may be, have primarily served as a means for acquiring the escapism my quarantined mind had been craving. It’s as though the world started to feel so much like a fever dream that my subconscious went looking for ways to prove each passing day has truly existed.

Fresh Goals Provide Recognizable Progress

The goals that I’ve managed to stick to lately are related to areas where I’m a relative novice. In times like these, when we’re mentally and emotionally exhausted, it can be difficult to make progress in the areas that matter most in our lives because they’re so important to us.

A few days ago, I spent no less than forty minutes playing the same three-note melody on the violin. Meanwhile, I haven’t touched the Chopin piano étude I started working on last February, in months. I’ve been a pianist all my life, so it’s hard to recognize something like learning a new piece on that instrument as anything other than living up to the most obvious expectations I’ve set for myself. Every practice session is one in a sea of countless others.

On the other hand, every time I’ve held that violin has been a significant moment in my experience with it. The piano knows the details of my life and the inner workings of my soul. The violin’s just happy to hang out.

Ridiculous as that metaphor is, the concept can be applied to other areas of my life, including my work as a music educator.

Being There for Ourselves and Our Students

I spend so much of my time supporting musicians as they progress toward their unique goals, so helping a student achieve something meaningful can sometimes feel like par for the course. While I’ll be the first to celebrate every milestone a music student reaches, on a personal level, I also know I sometimes get caught up in the fallacy that every interaction I have with a student should be in some way epic and life-changing.

And that’s not always true. Instead of simply being in their corner, I often take it upon myself to fill up the stadium; and the truth is that most students don’t need or expect that from me or any other teacher.

I’d like to remind us both that sometimes, and especially as of late, all we have to do is be there. 

Be there to offer accountability when they start giving in to the fear that their goals don’t matter. Be there to encourage them when they feel overwhelmed and run down. Be there to help them work through hurdles and be there to celebrate achievements big and small.

Your students won’t panic if you can’t always string together perfect explanations of complicated concepts you haven’t thought about in years. They know we can’t always find the strength to move the earth for them.

I don’t mean to excuse either of us from going above and beyond for our students (or ourselves). Go the extra mile whenever you can, but know that sometimes, a few bonus baby steps can be incredibly impactful.

Knowing What Our Students Need

There will be times when all a student needs is to have someone ask them about their day, or to sympathize with the fact that they feel overwhelmed and can’t quite figure out why. Sometimes they just need a reason to laugh in spite of the gnawing fears and frustrations that have been keeping them up at night.

Sometimes, they just need to hear someone say it’s okay that they had trouble practicing this week — ideally someone who’s also ready to chat through potential strategies for handling this sort of thing in the weeks to come.

Look, there will absolutely be times when your students will need you to draw on every ounce of your knowledge, every experience mentioned on your resume, and every super power you’ve developed over the years… but those times aren’t every time.

This week, consider sending your students a two-sentence email letting them know you’re thinking about them and their music. Next time you talk to them, make a point of asking what they’ve been working on lately and really listen to their response. Answer their questions and address their concerns, but if you can, find a reason to laugh together too, if only for a moment.

Through those small actions, you may very well provide their day with the sense of meaning it was missing. You may even feel a little less existential yourself. If that doesn’t work, you can always take up the violin… and if that doesn’t work, let me know. I can recommend a pretty good recipe for Beef Wellington.

As always, thank you for being you.

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Mahea Lee

Mahea Lee is a classically trained pianist and composer who has a degree from a jazz school and leads an electro-pop band. Her greatest musical passion is lyrical songwriting, but she's been known to write the occasional fugue. She graduated from Berklee College of Music, where she majored in Contemporary Writing and Production and minored in Music Theory. For more Mahea, check out Soundlfly's course, The Improviser's Toolkit.