I spent a week teaching at Shell Lake Arts Center this July – my second summer doing so – for the Concert Band Camp week, during which middle and high school aged students come to learn, make music, and do “camp” stuff (swimming, eating ice cream, complaining about the terrible food, etc.).
I remember thinking last year that this camp was a really magical place. I spent the week teaching 11 young horn players more about horn-playing. I went home from that week impressed with the students, but personally unsettled – I didn't feel I'd done a very good job of communicating with my students, I felt distanced from my subject matter, I'd avoided connecting with my fellow teachers and staff on some level, and I stayed relatively safe in my horn-teaching room/bubble/shell.
Something hadn't quite clicked for me.
This summer, I decided to go into the week with different outcomes in mind – I wanted to be genuinely myself (not the “teacher” me or the “horn performer” me, but just me) as often as possible, I wanted to get to know more of the students (rather than just the horns), and I wanted to be open to possibilities.
What a difference.
And not just for me. But for those around me.
I know this because during my week at Shell Lake this summer, I taught not only horn masterclasses, sectionals, and lessons, but also theory and an elective I titled “Positive Performance” that dealt with stage fright, performance anxiety, and nerves. During my teaching, I was honest, vulnerable, and as genuine as possible with the students. I didn't claim to have all the answers or put up my usual professional front. I let them ask any question and I always answered it honestly, no matter what – no matter how uncomfortable. When I was frustrated, I said so. When I was feeling goofy, I was goofy. When I didn't know an answer, I said, “I don't know. Let's find out.”
The first day of the Positive Performance class, everyone introduced themselves in a big circle (more than 30 students). When I asked how many of them got nervous just having to say their name in front of everyone, almost all of them raised their hands; I did, too. The girl sitting next to me raised her hand and asked me, “Are you nervous right now? Because your hand is shaking.” And I answered honestly, “You bet I am. You're all looking at me and expecting answers and information. But I'm fumbling around just like all of you, trying to figure out how to be happy.”
The whole room changed. Everyone in that room peeked their head out of their shell.
My openness encouraged theirs. My honesty gave them courage to be honest. My vulnerability told them this was a safe space for them to be vulnerable.
I know that because all of a sudden, I had many (MANY!) students coming to talk to me in between classes and rehearsals about their anxieties, doubts, confusion, and even self-hatred. I had students write me notes, letters, and emails thanking me for giving them a place to be imperfect and ask questions. Some came into my teaching room, cried, didn't talk much, hugged me when I gave them Kleenex, and then left quietly.
Their openness encouraged mine. Their honesty gave me courage to keep being honest. Their vulnerability let me know that having a safe space is crucial for all of us.
All of these students, in different words, said the same thing to me:
Everyone else knows what they're doing, but I don't.
Imagine if we all felt safe enough to admit this to everyone around us. Imagine if we could open ourselves to friends and strangers alike and articulate our true feelings. Imagine if we didn't put on our masks, retreat into our shells, and mute our voices.
Imagine if we all admitted to each other that none of us knows what we're doing; we are all just fumbling around trying to figure out how to be happy.
Imagine how freeing that would be. Think of the possibilities! We could ask each other questions without worrying about being judged for being stupid, we could ask for help and support when we're feeling nervous or scared without feeling weak, and we could be more empathetic and forgiving of others knowing that they are feeling just like us – alone.
Because, ultimately, we are all alone. We exist inside our internal space, living a rich, complex, and confusing internal life that no one else gets to experience.
We all walk around believing that those around us are constantly judging us – we believe this because we are judging ourselves. What is our belief except a projection of our internal self onto the external world? If we judge ourselves then we believe the world operates in that same way – being critical of our flaws, doubting our abilities, assuming rejection instead of acceptance, and trying to take up as little space as possible so as not to be noticed.
Ultimately, we live life alone – only with ourselves, inside our internal space.
Imagine if we made that space an open, honest, accepting, safe, empathetic, and forgiving space.
Imagine if we created our own safe space, all the time.
How would you connect your internal self with the external world?
Imagine how we could change the world.
Just by being ourselves.
Just by fumbling for happiness.