Show Your Work
"Show your work."
You know that phrase -- from math tests, on which giving the correct answer wasn't enough. It always annoyed me. Why do I have to show you how I know if I'm giving you the right answer and you can know that I know that way? It's so much faster!
Now, as a teacher, I understand. The right answer is not what I was meant to learn -- I was meant to learn the process, which would then give me the right answer. How can a teacher assess if I've learned the process? By requiring "show your work."
That makes sense.
When we study a musical instrument, especially in the early stages of learning, it frequently seems like all we care about is the right answer. The "right answer" is, of course, to perform the music correctly, the way it was written, with the right notes in the right order at the right time with right dynamics and articulations and phrasing.
Often we soak up this idea so well that even as the teachers we get confused and think that the right answer IS all that matters. We lose focus. We forget that we are the teacher and we revert to being the student. Consciously or subconsciously, we pass on what we learned -- get the right answer, again and again, and you will finally get __________________ [fill in the blank: an A, an award, a diploma, a scholarship, a job, a big paycheck, a label of "successful," etc.]. We sometimes forget about that other important part -- the process.
How do we show our work through our art if it's not about the performance? What does it look like to show our process? How can others assess our understanding; how can we assess our own? Do we have to share our practice sessions as well as our performances? Do we have to take a pre-test and a post-test -- perform sight-reading, then perform after practicing, then compare to see how much we learned?
Maybe. Those are not terrible ideas.
But students, as well as professionals, don't always have the luxury of showing our work in that kind of way -- when we audition for our school band or for a professional orchestra we are judged solely on our performance. So, as teachers, we have to train our students that the end product is important.
What I try to instill in my students is that the process is still the MOST important thing and then the right answer, the good performance, will inevitably come. Practice doesn't make perfect -- practice makes permanent. When we practice, if we beat ourselves up over mistakes then that becomes a permanent part of our process. If we treat our mistakes like the tools for learning that they are, then our process becomes quite different. Either way, we might get the "right answer," but one way is much healthier and sustainable than the other.
For myself, as well as my students, I constantly reiterate that HOW we work on our musical endeavors reflects how we tackle other areas of our life -- and the how is way more important than the outcome, in the long run. If we judge ourselves harshly for missing a note in practice, think how much worse we will judge ourselves if we miss a note in a performance. Think how harshly we will judge ourselves if we don't do well on an important test in school. Or how we will react when we experience our first real failure. If practice has to be perfect, the stakes for everything else get even higher. And when the stakes are that high all the time, humans break down. In music that can mean performance anxiety, audition failures, or even quitting. In other areas of our lives it can mean eating disorders, depression, anxiety, addiction, self-harm, and other dangerous ways of releasing the stress of impossible standards.
It's not our job -- as teachers, as musicians, as humans -- to eliminate mistakes and protect ourselves and others from failure. It's our job to learn how to deal with them, learn from them, and move on with more knowledge than before. That's what makes us better, stronger, more creative, more adventurous. That's what makes it way more fun.
If we don't enjoy our work, our process, then why would we want to show it? If our work is self-torture through judgement, shame, and disappointment, why would we want to risk performing and feeling those same things from others? Our performances reflect our process, just like the right answer reflects correct problem-solving.
I believe that when we, as performing artists, are fully invested in our performance and are also enjoying it, we ARE showing our work. When we can share the full emotional expression of our art -- even flawed -- our work has greater impact and communicates at a more powerful and personal level.
We all have to make sure we are genuinely valuing the work so we can show the work. The answer will come. And of course it will be right.