by J J Cohen
My pedagogical credo includes a line about the classroom as a laboratory where we experiment and risk fucking up. No creative, theoretical, or scholarly project is sufficiently ambitious if it doesn't chance spectacular failure.
Embracing that risk, unfortunately, doesn't lessen failure's sting. I've been thinking about foundering a great deal today for several reasons: some problems I've run into as a mentor of graduate students; writer's block when it comes to completing my abecedarium for the elements (I've spent the morning agonizing over the thing; it fills me with dread); and a painful episode yesterday that tested my ability to be an adequate father.
My son and daughter study piano with the same teacher, and twice a year take part in a recital that demonstrates their mastery of a few short songs or one long one. The recitals include children as young as six (who are cute as they bang out their tunes) to seniors in high school (who are so impressive in their skill we sit in awe). Most of the performers are somewhere in between, and while small mistakes are plentiful, few dramatic failures occur. Unfortunately one of those involved my son Alex yesterday as he attempted to perform a rather complicated jazz piece. The drummer supposed to accompany him hadn't learn his portion, so was suddenly missing; Alex himself had not practiced enough, and was told by his teacher to omit a middle portion of the piece that seemed iffy.
He nervously texted me several times before his turn came, messages like "I am going to die" and "Do NOT video this w yr phone." His nervousness on stage was palpable. I could see him become increasingly agitated as the dropped portion of the song neared. When he reached its change of key, he froze, lost his place, attempted to find it, froze again, then brought the piece to a quick conclusion. I couldn't watch. I knew what he must be feeling. As he left the stage I tried to catch his eye, but he was trying to hold himself together and looked away.
Alex did a brave job of holding on at the reception following the recital, though I could tell he was close to tears. His teacher patted him on the shoulder and told him to let it go, that it happens to everyone. I could see that Alex didn't want to talk about it; it was too raw. So I didn't say anything. But later that evening, after we'd had dinner with another family and put some distance between us and the events of the day, I came into his room and shut the door. I asked him if we could talk about the recital. I was curious how he felt: did he think that we should just forget about what happened, or was there a lesson to learn, something useful to carry to the future? To his credit, Alex knew that there was at least one: that he'd waited too long to master the song, and so had gone into the recital not as well prepared as he should have. I suggested another: that at age 14 he is old enough to assert himself as a performer. If his teacher tells him to cut the middle of a piece just before a performance, and if he knows that cut will cause him to do a worse job, he has an obligation to tell the teacher that he knows what he is capable of, and that the segment needs to remain. Alex seemed cheered by this thought, that he could take more control of the situation than he suspected, that the world is more his to make than he realized, that he has grown up a bit more than he has given himself credit for.
I'm hoping that last night was a turning point.
With yesterday's recital in mind I turn back to my abecedarium. I suspect the reason I'm having such trouble with the piece -- besides the fact that it is a crazy task to have set myself -- is that I'm trying to fit my current thoughts into verses that I wrote almost a year ago, mostly while in Berlin. They don't speak to me any more, and much of what seemed fun about them then now seems gimicky. I'm thinking a few of the couplets will remain as a reminder of the genre, but others will yield to bare and unpoetic statements about what letter stands for what concept. I wrote recently about sending a gift to your future self by accomplishing work early, but in this case I seem to have special deliveried an albatross. Or maybe that is the gift: that I have enough time, still, to see the potential tyranny in the form I've adopted, to let go of fidelity, invent a little ... and maybe fail. But not, I hope, freeze, at least not without taking the clarity and bravery of my own child to heart.