“You didn’t make it.”
It was not said with love. It was not said nicely. It was not even said in a pleasant tone of voice.
Still, I realized it was true. The annoyed, bespectacled woman in the passenger seat was my official driving tester, and she was simply stating the facts. I had driven badly.
Granted, she had been stern and gouchy the whole time, making me extra nervous. And now she scratched some final Xs onto her clipboard, opened the door, got out of the car. I slunk into the Motor Vehicle Department after her, awaiting the official verdict, dreading having to do it all over again.
There were good reasons I failed. I had driven over the speed limit in a 15-mile-an-hour zone. I had turned once without a signal. And the cardinal sin, I rolled backward going out of the driveway leaving the parking lot. Sitting on that hill, trying to get the timing right with the clutch, I knew I was dead before I started.
I felt guilty and ashamed. I was clearly unprepared. What had led to this embarrassing debacle?
Being Honest About Failure
Looking back, I realized that the car had something to do with it. My Dad had a Chevy S-10 Blazer, a terrible car, and a manual transmission. For me, learning to drive on a manual was not the answer, because it was above my level of ability as a freshly minted 16-year-old to cope with all the timing issues AND pay attention to the road at the same time.
(This manual was also extra hard to control. It jerked, it jumped, it cranked. It was universally acknowledged to be a junker model. Many of the Chevy S-10s were recalled, not a proud legacy. We eventually got rid of it.)
Could a different child have performed better? Probably. For me though, it was the wrong tool, at the wrong time.
The reality, hard as it was to admit, was that it was above my level.
I needed to drive an automatic. A manual could come later, after I had passed the driver’s test. My family and I realized this, so I practiced with our other automatic car and later passed the test.
A recent recital failure
The failure lesson stuck with me, and I find it resurfaces from time to time.
When we do recitals in the Suzuki method, we try never to give a student what she isn’t really capable of doing. It causes artistic injury when a child strains to perform above their level, and then chokes from nerves.
I had a stark reminder of this at our recent recital. A middle-school student was first on the program for a solo. Her piece was at her level technically, and one she knew well. But when the moment came, nerves got the better of her and she blanked out. After trying to start over, she still couldn’t do it.
Doing things in the right order
Even though the piece was well within her ability, she wasn’t really able to handle going first. She bravely kept her chin up, however, and played a number of ensemble pieces successfully later.
I asked her if we had done things in a different order, would they have gone better? She said yes. If we had played her ensemble pieces first, and then she got up to play a solo, it all would have gone differently.
Just like me driving the wrong car in the wrong order - I needed to start with automatic and then graduate to manual - this student did things in the wrong order and it messed up her process. That was my fault, not hers. She was only following instructions I gave her.
Modeling open communication about failure
Fortunately with some gentle praise (and rounds of applause for her effort), and some processing about how to do it differently next time, this student survived the experience and was better for it.
In her lesson I talked with her about rehearsing even more than she thinks is necessary next time to prevent nerves from causing her to forget things (advice I wish I had been given before my first driver’s test). But importantly, I also shared that I learned something too. That I would change the way I did things as her teacher next time, so as to better empower her to succeed.
Talking openly and genuinely with kids (and colleagues, employees, friends, and spouses for that matter) is a way to build trust. It can turn a failure into a long-term success when we are willing to acknowledge a failure and share how we learned from it.
For my middle-school students, this is an especially important time in their life to see such behavior modeled by the adults in their life. It also allows them space to process logically and rationally why something happened the way it did, so as to make an intentional and different choice next time.
I'm glad I failed that driver's test
So here’s a thank-you to the grouchy woman who failed me. You could have been gentler, I suppose, but it wouldn’t have stuck with me all these years later and made me a better teacher.
Fortunately playing violin is less dangerous than driving a car. As parents and teachers, we can be honest about our failures and what we have learned from them, whether in driving or in music.
Our students need that from us in order to cope with their own failures and turn them into successes.
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See video from our most recent recital here. (You won't see the failure incident, but you will see ensembles where the student is successfully playing. Most of these students have started within the last 6 - 24 months.)