Tomorrow is one of two days I dread most each year. Call-backs for the next play. We've had auditions and now I'm having each student come back to read for specific roles from the play.
I really dislike this part of my job. In a way, it's exciting to see the final cast list emerge. It's very obvious who should play each role--only on very rare occasions is there any doubt.
The difficulty is not in discerning who should be in which roles, but knowing how disappointed and hurt some of the kids will be. Yes, it's part of life. Yes, it's the way theatre goes. Yes to all the disclaimers and provisos one can add. But I still hate it.
I imagine that a nurse who gives a baby a shot understands that the shot is beneficial--but I assume (I hope) that the nurse still flinches a bit at the thought of inflicting a bit of pain on a baby--even when it's well-intentioned and healthy in the long run.
That's how I feel. It is difficult for me to express how much I love my students and how deeply I care for them. Being the agent of disappointment--especially when I know the sting of that disappointment from my own time as a performer--is hard.
There will be parents who grumble, complain, and shun me. Meh. That's not exactly pleasant, but my emotional skin is pretty well calloused to that sort of thing and I don't lose sleep over it.
But the thought of my students being hurt or disappointed--that I do lose sleep over.
Painful though it is, this process reminds me of something each time I go through it. I have learned that I cannot make a student into a leading role, no matter how badly I want them to have it. No matter how much I love them and am rooting for them, there is no way I can make someone into Dorothy or Annie or Tevye if they aren't qualified. They either are or they aren't. I'm the judge and have the final say, but really, all I do is validate and make de facto what is de jure. The student is either ready and able or not and all I do is recognize the level of their ability. I have a feeling that this is fairly close to the final judgment. God will not judge us, as much as recognize, and help us see, who we are and who we have become by the choices we've made and the things we've done.
I add to that one further observation. There are a very few students who are brilliantly talented and simply get leading roles based on their brilliance. But that is exceedingly rare. Usually, kids who get the big roles are kids who have worked hard for years. They've taken lessons and gone to camps. They've been in other plays and they've honed their talents through time, experience, and instruction. This combination is hard to beat. Another important lesson, I think.
One of my favorite thoughts is found in a chapter of scripture unique to Mormons. This verse is a revelation given by God to Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the faith. I find the insight into human nature and relationships to be compelling, even outside of the context of the church. In fact, the insights are so compelling and profound, that I feel they are evidence of Joseph's prophetic authenticity in that I don't believe an uneducated charlatan could have made this up--but I digress.
The entire chapter is full of insights into human nature and leadership--righteous and unrighteous and bears studying. However, here are the most important words: "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness, and meekness, and love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge...without hypocrisy and without guile. Rebuking betimes with sharpness (note: that means clarity, focus, not harshness) when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth an increase of love toward him whom thou has reproved...(D&C 121: 41-43
The chapter also gives an idea of the opposite form of leadership, which is to compel and force, and warns us that exercising compulsion or domination upon the souls of humans in any degree of unrighteousness is a serious sin.
As a teacher and director, I have tried (note: tried is the key word here. Attempted, endeavored--not necessar to base my system of discipline and motivation on these principles, even though this revelation was given specifically in the context of ecclesiastical leadership, the principles are universal, I believe. Especially when working with children, which is what I do.
So, I try to build everything around motivating and encouraging as opposed to enforcing and punishing.
Consequently, I don't often get really mad at the kids.
Yesterday was different. It has been a frustrating week in that they have been doing sloppy work at play practice. I don't mind honest mistakes, but detest sloppiness and laziness. My efforts to motivate in a positive way seem to be largely (though not universally) ignored and my attempts at being kind and gentle have been interpreted as a license to relax, socialize and generally do anything but the work that needs to be done.
Yesterday, it came to a head. I didn't lose my temper, but when the whole group of nearly 60 kids was goofing off on-stage, I spoke to them very directly, with much more heat, energy, and volume than they normally hear from me.
It surprised them, and got their attention--and they did very good work for the rest of rehearsal.
By being sloppy and presumptuous when I am gentle and loving, but doing good work when I am stern and strict, they are giving me incentive to continue to be that way. If I were not committed to the other approach, it would be almost impossible to refrain from veering to the enforced/punishment model. I don't want to do that, and I won't.
But I thought it was interesting, this small microcosmic moment. It is human nature to want loving, gentle authority figures--but it is also human nature to ignore that and to pay attention to the harsher, stricter leaders. And that poses an interesting dilemma. In my opinion, it completely explains the difference in tone in the Old Testament vs. the New--God did what it took to keep His unruly children focused and on-task. Could it be that He begins with gentle reminders and then, as they are ignored, goes to stricter, more stern methods?
School starts in a week, but we are already well into rehearsals for our fall play, Fiddler on the Roof. We’ve been working on the opening song this week, a large group number that is made complex by the number of students (just under 60). The choreography itself isn’t very difficult, but it learning it well enough to execute it successfully while singing and navigating around all those people makes it tricky.
This week, I spent a lot of time emphasizing some small, apparently nit-picky things. For example, I did a lot of yelling, “Left, Right, Left, Right” to help them figure out which foot they were supposed to be using at any given time. I also focused a lot on having them time some motions for another song. I’d clap and say, “Position 1. Position 2. Position 3.” And so on.
An alien coming to observe our rehearsal would possibly conclude that I had a burning desire, an absolute need to get these kids to walk left, right, left. In fact, he might think that was the entire point of our gathering.
If the same alien came to my choir class or to voice lessons, it would hear me repeatedly telling students to sing with the corners of their mouths in. “Get your corners in,” he would hear me say—over and over. “Lift your eyebrows. Put your hand on your abdomen. Breath with your diaphragm, not your shoulders.
The alien might report back to it’s leader that on earth they go to class to learn to push the corners of their mouths in, to raise their eyebrows and to use their abdomens to breathe. They also spend a lot of time marching on certain feet.
That would be correct, but incomplete. The alien made an understandable mistake in that he confused ends for means.
The goal I have is for the play to be good. But I can’t tell 13 year olds to “do a good job.” That’s not specific enough. I need to break “good job” down into its molecular components. Then, we have to practice each of those tiny details. Mastery of the details will facilitate the excellence of the whole.
However: while excellence will not come until everyone is on the right feet on the right count, that alone does not make an excellent performance. It’s a start, but without energy, emotion, and passion, the play will be empty.
Same with the corners in choir. Saying, “sing with rich, round tones that resonate in your head” isn’t going to cut it with middle schoolers. I have to isolate the techniques that will contribute to that final goal, and we have to practice. But just holding the corners of one’s mouth in don’t make one a great singer.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the gospel lately. Reading the scriptures and hearing the words of the prophets, it is easy to be like the alien and mistake ends for means and fundamental techniques for ultimate goals.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ consists of a myriad of small, apparently nit-picky rules, regulations, and so on. I assume that’s because our loving Father wants us to have ultimate happiness, which means being like He is. But He can no more tell us to “be like me” than I can tell my 7th graders to “sing beautifully.” Even if there is a desire, there’s not sufficient ability and understanding to get to that point.
So, he breaks things down into simple, basic steps and then drills us on them. But if we get too focused on them, we are in danger of executing a technically correct, but soulless performance.
If we ignore them, though, then we risk being sloppy, undisciplined, and not getting near the standard that He’s set for us.
The trick I'm working on is in finding how to apply His commandments in an integrated, balanced way that helps us become more like Him as opposed to simply obsessing about small things or checking items of a to-do list.