I recently had an experience that helped focus some thoughts I've had for a while now. Let me start by describing the experience.
Our big school musical was the week of Valentine's Day. During that time, I saw some wonderful things, both on and off-stage. But there is one particular that moment that sticks in my mind.
During our final dress rehearsal, one of the performers gave what I can only describe as a flawless performance. It was simply perfect, from the inflection in her lines to her choreography, to the energy and feeling with which she infused everything she did.
Watching her brought me such joy--partly because I was proud of her, but partly because she was in her element. She reminded me of an otter swimming or a bird flying. She was doing what she was born to do, and doing it with joy and verve. It was a wonderful thing to watch and it had a profound impact on me. The audience loved her, and she enjoyed great success--in addition to the internal satisfaction of a job well done.
As I watched her, I thought back about the journey that had brought here to that point.
She had come to a summer theatre camp as a rising 6th grader. She had a nice, sweet voice, and at the end of the week, I suggested to her mother that she start taking voice lessons, and she did.
For the next three years, this student and I worked almost every week. During our lessons, I corrected her breathing, the placement of her vowels, and posture. We worked and worked worked. She practiced, came and got critiqued, practiced some more, got critiqued again...and on and on.
This student worked on her vocal technique and she continued to come to theatre camps. In fact, she attended just about every camp she could. She worked and worked and worked. For years. And years.
This student put in hours that cannot be counted, and gave a consistent effort that cannot be calculated. Hard work and effort turned talent into skill, and skill into instinct.
Beyond her hard work, she showed a consistently good attitude. She was cheerful and focused, never causing any problems, or drama in any way (nor did her parents, and that's quite important as well). She was part of the team, never showing any kind of attitude or entitlement. She supported her peers and always gave 100% to whatever she part she was given. Large or small, she performed it as if it were the most important role in the play.
In fact, when we had try-outs for this part, she wanted a different role, and wanted it badly. I know she was disappointed when the casting was announced. But she had formed habits over those years--habits that now directed her actions.
And that is what I want to focus on. Her tremendous success was the result of years and years of hard work, and of hundreds of good choices made consistently. These choices and work created habits that made her success a natural outcome.
And so, part of my joy was seeing her succeed so beautifully. Part of my joy was that of a teacher seeing a student succeed. But part of my joy was seeing how years and years of effort and good choices had paid off.
To be clear, hard work and good choices are not always rewarded with such great public success. However, great public success does not ever seem to come without them.
I've been messing around a bit with the trailers for Luminescence. Here's sort of a second draft. What do you think?
Lately, my big thing has been our spring play: Seussical. It's a pretty big production--140 kids in the cast and then a crew of about 10. I'll post more pictures later, but I love this one. It shows the sketch of the set design along with the finished thing. It's so cool to see it move from page to stage!
This is going to be short because the big musical is this week. Dress rehearsals followed by performances, so that's occupying most of the bandwidth here at bradenbell.com.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a "Love and Logic" seminar by Dr. Charles Fay. This was really good. Most conferences/seminars I've gone to were lame to "meh." This was exceptional. It has already changed my teaching and parenting.
One of the concepts Dr. Fay discussed really resonated with me. He talked about considering whether our word was "garbage" or "gold." Garbage means that your words are empty threats. "You kids stop that right now or you're going to be sorry!" as opposed to "If you are unable to sit in the backseat without fighting we will turn around and go home, instead of the going out to eat."
Specificity, clarity, detail all help with making sure that kids know your word is gold. And then, of course, follow through. This is the one that is hard for me. But I tried an experiment and did a few things in my classroom where I set forth an expectation and the consequence. I realized as I did, that I had been inconsistent with the application of consequences. I just really love my students and don't like coming down on them.
Here's the thing. I already know this principle. It's a very basic principle. I know it, but I had slipped and become sloppy. It's easy for that to happen.
But as I thought about it, I realized that my word was garbage. At least it was pretty muddy. So, I've made a few efforts.
1. I don't say anything unless I really mean it.
2. All my consequences are specific and clear.
3. Whatever I say, I do. And no amount of tears, puppy dog eyes, or promises of future reformation sway me.
In the last two weeks that I've been doing this at both home and school, I've noticed an enormous difference.
Okay, I can't keep quiet any longer. I tried. I really did. But, I read some snarky comments about LDS (Mormon) fiction recently that got me going. For the purposes of this blog, I am defining "LDS fiction" as books written by LDS authors for LDS readers, published mostly by Covenant, Deseret Book, Cedar Fort, and Walnut Springs. These books might deal specifically with LDS themes, or they might simply be books from various genres that are consistent with LDS standards. I'm not really talking about the work of LDS authors who write primarily for the national market.
Whenever I hear someone dismiss LDS fiction as trite, or poorly written, I wonder if the speaker has actually read much lately. In recent years, there have been LDS books exploring a number of serious subjects, from a gospel or LDS cultural perspective. Many of these books are written by seasoned authors who have great skill. I wonder if the people who make this assertion have checked out the website for the Whitney awards, or the new releases page of LDS Storymakers.
But let's leave that aside for a moment. Have you ever complained about the content in a book or movie? Have you ever said, "Why do they have to put that stuff in and ruin an otherwise good movie/book?"
If you have, then read on, because I have a way you can directly contribute to the creation of a positive alternative.
But first, let me bore you with some history. Pick a great artist in any field--Handel. Mozart. Shakespeare. Michelangelo.
None of these artists just emerged. Let's take music as an example. Western music began with Greek guys strumming on lyres. Over the centuries, they invented musical modes, observed mathematical rules about music, discovered scales, and so on.
Eventually, some monks started chanting sacred texts. First they improvised, then they figured out a notation system. Then someone added two parts--then three and four. French troubadours adapted the form for secular texts and a guy named Mauchet started to compose motets and Masses and love songs.
In the Renaissance, Dufay, des Prez, and Palestrina all pushed the art to new levels. Along came composers in the Baroque era. Pachelbel's Canon in D, Handel's Messiah, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Bach's amazing, intricate masterpieces. These artists gave us sublimely beautiful music that nearly everyone recognizes today.
But this great music did not spring out, fully-created. It evolved over hundreds of years. It happened because some unknown monk somewhere got an idea. It happened because of trial-and-error and continued effort. It happened because people either improved existing forms, or rebelled against them and did something else.
The great music we love today would not have happened without what went before it. I've listened to Medieval polyphony. Unless you have a taste for it, it's not going to be something most people like. But it was the necessary step to get to music we do like. None of the later stuff would have come either. Bach, Beethoven, the Beatles, Billy Joel, and Beyonce all came about only because of what happened earlier.
The development of art takes time. It also takes a few other things.
First, it takes lots of mistakes. This is true for individuals as well as entire disciplines. Every mistake is critical because it teaches us how not to do something, and that is something artists have to learn. Understanding what doesn't work is critical to learning what does work. So, someone has to make mistakes. Maybe even big ones. But mistakes actually improve the quality of the overall form because others learn from those mistakes. Each artist builds on the successes and failures of those who came before, and those who are around them.
The second point flows from the second. You need a critical mass of people working in an art to really have that art form grow. You need people to make the mistakes, to experiment, to inspire or provoke each other, and so on. The more people working in a field, the more the cream is going to rise to the top. While there are some exceptions, if you look at periods of great artistic achievement, you will notice that there was usually a group of people involved, feeding off of each other. Very rarely did great art happen in isolation. That's not an accident.
So, to sum up: art does not happen in isolation. Art, and individual artists, need to time to grow, the chance to make mistakes, and a critical mass of people experimenting and learning.
We understand the spiritual principle of "line upon line." We understand that we cannot run faster than we have strength. Physically and spiritually, first we crawl, then we walk, then we run.
Why should it not be the same with the growth of individual artists, and entire art forms as well?
And all of this takes time. I think there are some very good books out there, and more are coming. Have we hit "masterpiece" level yet? Not in my opinion, but I've read some things that are very good. There are currently a lot of people writing, working and learning and growing.
Still, for the sake of argument, I will concede that I have read work by LDS authors that is pretty weak. To be fair, I've written some stuff that was pretty weak (Note: this is partially due to the economics of small-press publishing and the expense of editing, but that's another topic).
It would be nice if the only people who ever wrote were good at it, if the first book of every author was amazing (or the second). But that's not reality. In order for us to have our geniuses emerge, there will be some stuff that's not nearly as good. You can't get the former without the latter. Moreover, even those geniuses might have some misses.
If you compare, for example, Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare's earliest works to The Tempest, his last, you will see a major difference. The only reason anyone does Titus anymore is because it's by Shakespeare. It's not a great play.
As authors improve with each book, the quality of LDS fiction also improves. It takes time. In historical terms, Mormon literature is not very old.
If, while that improvement is happening, you don't like the product, that is fine. Writers need to succeed on the merits of their work. Another thing that benefits art is honest critique. But in my mind, criticism, even rigorous criticism, is different than dismissive sneering.
But if you have ever grimaced at the content of a contemporary book or movie, if you have ever wished for a positive alternative to what New York and Hollywood churn out, then here's a thought: that stuff won't change. The producers are making lots of money and have millions of satisfied customers. The only way to change the culture is to provide alternatives. Culture doesn't change because we want it to, and it cannot change unless there are alternatives.
It's easy to dismiss the work of LDS writers as being banal and trite. But in doing that, we might miss something really good. But even if some of it is on the cliche side, I think it's worth remembering that there will be some inevitable misses as LDS writers wrestle to create work that is of high quality and consistent with Gospel standards. Lots of misses. But each of those misses might be an important step in the development of both that writer, as well as the entire art form.
There have been some misses and there will be more. But there have also been some wins, and there will surely will be many more as more and more authors write. In the meantime, I suggest that the best thing any of us can do is try to support people who are out in the trenches trying to make a difference. If you read a book and like it, tell people. Rate it on Amazon/Goodreads. Talk about it on your social media. If you don't like it, fine. But can we at least be a little patient and not sneer?
Things are crazy here at bradenbell.com which is why we haven't been around much. Our big winter musical opens a week from Thursday, so there is a lot going on. Sets are being built and painted, costumes are being sewn, props are being finished, programs are being printed and so on.
I always send out a letter to the parents of the cast at this point, based on over 25 years of directing this age group. At any rate, this is specifically addressed to parents of students in this play. But I think it is equally applicable to other activities in life, so I thought I'd pass it along for whatever it may be worth.
As we go into these last two weeks, let me thank you for the hard work so many of you have already, or will be devoting to making the play wonderful for the kids. These next two weeks are always magical as all the elements come together.
They are also stressful--at least historically speaking. So, I'd like to just toss a few thoughts out.
As the play gets closer, it will apparently fall apart. It always does--and then it comes back together. Please don't make a fuss about this as it will stress your child out even more.
You will likely see tired, and stressed children, especially in middle school. They will wonder how they'll get their assignments done and there might be tears and angst--and then it will all be over and everything will be just fine.
As a parent, I went through this with my daughter for three years and six plays. There were some times that she didn't do well on quizzes or assigments the week of the play. But she still got into high school.
Now that it's over, some fatigue and a lower score on a few assignments really don't matter. In fact, the lessons she learned about resilience and about toughing it out continue to bless her life.
Even more, the memories she has of those plays are wonderful treasures for her and they keep giving. As a parent, I think the growth that came from these experiences was worth a few minor sacrifices--although that doesn't mean it's easy at the time.
One of the biggest differences between adults and adolescents is that adolescents have virtually no emotional depth perception. That is, they generally don't have the experience to be able to discern if something is a big deal or if it's just a momentary snag.
Consequently, one of the greatest services adults can do for them is to provide them with perspective: "Yes sweetheart, I know you are tired. I know you are stressed. And yes, you might get a B on this quiz. And life will go on and everything will be just fine."
By opening night, the adrenaline generally kicks in and everything ends on a high note. Before that, they will get tired and discouraged and grumpy. You can do them a great service by helping them not blow small struggles into major crises. You can also do them a great service by not trying to make their life easy. Developmentally appropriate difficulties help develop strength, resilience and confidence.
On that note, I'll remind you about what we talked about in the parent meeting: please do not ask teachers to make accommodations to homework, academics, and attendance expectations because of the play. Being in the play presumes that the student agrees to keep up with their academic work and we need to be very careful not to put the cart before the horse.
I'm excited to see the kids bring this all together and emerge triumphant, stronger, and wiser very soon!
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