I’ve been reflecting the last few years how teaching past your 30th year is simultaneously easier and more difficult than ever. I don’t suspect this blog post is going to answer why. But it is going to be an exercise in trying to articulate the difficulty.
A couple of years ago, Tom Brady spoke about how much easier it is to do your job with the benefit of years of experience. “I have the answers to the test now. You can’t surprise me… I’ve seen it all. I’ve processed 261 games, I’ve played them all,” Brady said. “It’s an incredibly hard sport, but because the processes are right and are in place, for anyone with experience in their job, it’s not as hard as it used to be. There was a time when quarterbacking was really hard for me because you didn’t know what to do.”
I’ve found this to be the case. I’m analytical by nature, and I’m analytical by practice. Everything I do passes through the filters of “why” and “how”. Through my guest conducting as well as my 20+ summer music camps alone, I don’t think anything new can be thrown at me in the rehearsal room. Through trial and error I can recognize vocal and technique issues on command and solutions to them that are effective the moment they’re applied. This sounds incredibly egotistical to write, but it is not due to intelligence or expertise so much as it is through what Brady alludes to: experience. You discover what doesn’t work, what is moderately effective and what is effective on steroids. Moreover, you can adapt it all to any situation. Belligerent students, eager singers, trained, untrained, doesn’t matter. I’ve seen it, I’ve addressed, and I know what can work in virtually any scenario.
So why is this getting more difficult for me?
I think there are several reasons. The first should be obvious: I don’t have the energy I used to. I run, I mountain climb. I think I’m in decent physical condition. But it’s remarkable how much energy it saps from me to do what I used to be able to do without even having to think about it. In my late 40’s I had to begin to alter how I guest conducted because it was apparent how I could not sustain the energy I used to be able to. I think I’ve effectively been able to make this transition, but it’s been remarkable to me how much I’ve had to make that adjustment. The trick has been to give as much of myself as ever, but to do so in a different delivery system. One that conserves what I’m able to do physically but honors what the students deserve. Same in my day to day classes. I know I’m physically less active, but I’ve tried to get creative in how to bring the same energy level I used to bring, just now through different means.
The second and more substantial reason this is more difficult for me now has to do with a favorite quote of mine from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” My horizons have diminished it seems, and it’s taken a real toll on me. Once upon a time I had a crazy vision of having a music (specific) requirement at the High School I taught at. That goal got realized at my first job in Vermont, and again at YHS in 2004 and it remains my proudest – and happiest – accomplishment of my career; it’s everything I hoped it would be and more. At York 19 years ago, I also had a vision for a designated music wing and an auditorium that would allow us to showcase student accomplishments to a unique degree. Check and check. I am that rarest of music teachers in northern New England in that I get to run my program in facilities I actually got to design. My horizons over the years were laid out before me and over time I was able to see them through. The problem is that at age 53, those horizons are now behind me. I’m finding it exceedingly more difficult to do what I do specifically because the Emerson quote is holding true: I’m getting tired because my old horizons are gone and they haven’t been replaced.
I can give a third reason this is more difficult for me. Perspective has allowed me to discover that the world does NOT, in fact, revolve around the tenors singing the B flat on measure 57 in perfect unison and intonation with perfect tone and technique. And I’ve had a REALLY tough time being okay with that. Unlike my value system in my 20’s and 30’s in particular, world hunger is not solved, and world peace is not attained, by singing the anticipation chord on the second half of the third beat in measure 47 of Morten Lauridsen’s Dirait-on in absolute perfect intonation and balance and tone. At some point I realized – and I realize this now more than ever – that it’s about the kids. And it’s a pretty powerless feeling; when you are truly empathetic to the needs of your kids as people, you realize how powerless you actually are. And that saps more energy from me than anything else I’ve experienced. Every 504 meeting reveals layers to a student whose issues you know are impervious to merely singing in tune with a mature tone and proper technique. Every insight to a student’s life outside of your classroom yields emotions, actions and reactions that have little if anything to do with your job description. Certainly much more than anything you’ll be evaluated by the evening of your concert! The big picture becomes more apparent with every passing year. That’s a GOOD thing, by the way. But it also makes me feel more helpless all the time. And it’s incredibly draining.
I think I’ve gotten over reflecting on “the good ol’ days” too… I have VERY deep seeded reflections of years past. That’s another blessing and curse of being in this profession for so long. I truly adore my alumni. They are among the greatest blessings of my entire life. You not only remember those wonderful students from years past, you remember their successes, their concerts, their contributions to your program. But living in the past is as regrettable as it is easy to do. Staying in the present has sometimes been a challenge for me. I never saw that coming. It’s not that I don’t love and value my current students as much (I do!), it’s that former ones were never stacked up against as many other years of students, and we tend to put the former ones up on a pedestal. That’s all okay as long as it’s kept in perspective. Keeping the perspective is the challenging part as the years go by.
So I’ve discovered that the longer I teach, the more difficult it does become. But the second half of the Tom Brady quote is an inspiring one: “Now I really know what to do, I don’t want to stop now. This is when it’s really enjoyable.” I’m in constant search for that. My hope is that in my daily approach I can find energy, strength, enthusiasm and joy. So much gets in the way of finding this. But there’s so much in place that allows me to find more fulfillment than ever before as well. Perhaps the greatest challenge of my latter years is focusing on those things that provide for me the greatest joy, focusing on the here and now, loving my current students exactly as they are and realizing that all THAT is the horizon in front of me that I have yet to conquer.