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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The power of an apology

I remember pretty much every teacher I’ve ever had. And long before I became a full-time educator, I knew what I thought of every single teacher I studied under. Some of them I liked a lot, some I didn’t like at all, and most of them fell somewhere in the middle, human beings with a hodgepodge of insights and foibles alike.

I’d like to contrast two different conductors I worked with as a student, and the rather disparate approaches each took in regards to that most human of conditions – making a mistake.

Everyone makes mistakes. In theory, no one likes making mistakes, and we all do our best to guard against repeating them – there are enough new mistakes to find, after all! What we do with our mistakes is what defines us as people, as contributors to society. I could come up with a laundry list of great and famous people who have made their share of mistakes and learned from them (or not), but I’m sure that’s not very necessary here.

Instead, I’d like to focus on two conductors, and how each handled personal error.

The first considered himself a conductor of the highest class, and he carried himself with a knowing, omniscient poise. He spoke and conducted with absolute authority, because he was THE CONDUCTOR. As such, he had to be right, because so many people depended on him. Even if something seemed amiss in his performance, surely the percussonists caused some stir-up, or maybe the oboes entered two measures two early. No matter what the case or situation, his imperial authority extended so far that he never allowed a single mistake to be attributed to him, no matter how grave or ridiculous the misstep might have been.

The second conductor I’ll talk about certainly carried himself with less, self-importance, shall we say. He was no less knowledgeable or capable than the first conductor (nor was his professional position any less, though that is rarely the sole arbiter of one’s abilities). His rehearsals were incredibly efficient, and he got the best out of every one of his students - far more, in my opinion, than the first conductor. A large part of his success, I believe, lies in the fact that he was perfectly willing to admit when he made a mistake. It could be as simple as, ‘Let’s start that over, so that I can give you a better entrance.’ Or, ‘Let’s try that again, for me.’

I remember very distinctly the effect that his comments had on me. They did not make me think that he was weak or incapable simply because he owned up to his mistakes (they happened quite rarely, to be sure). Instead, they gave him real credibility. We knew that if he heard something that needed to be fixed, he would be completely, wholeheartedly honest about it. We could trust his judgment, because he was as objective as he could possibly be.

The other advantage his honesty conferred was that mistakes were not a personal matter. There was no blame or emotional ‘baggage’ associated with his pronouncements; what he commented on was simply what he heard, and we would try to fix it because it needed fixing. We wouldn’t be badgered into fixing a mistake because we were guilted into it, or bludgeoned (figuratively) to DO BETTER NOW.

I have long employed this philosophy in my own life – not just as an educator, but as an everyday human being in the world. We don’t all need to be perfect, we just need to try our best, and be honest when that doesn’t quite happen. It’s not only children who can be taken aback by honesty – in this age of take-no-blame attitudes, our peers can be pleasantly surprised as well!

The Music Momma

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