Anxiety or Honesty? Both.

It is odd how certain topics bubble to the surface in the sea of noise on Facebook, at least within my own relatively small and somewhat skewed sample of associates.  (Read: tons of musicians, teachers, artists, freethinkers, and some others).

Also, it is odd how much people care about these topics for a day or so. There is a lively, maybe heated exchange of comments, and then it fades.  Back to cat pictures, polemic political rants, cute photos of your kids, some slightly blurry food pictures, then a new topic emerges.  Repeat. 

A recent example: tons of posts and reposts of articles about Anxiety in college students, and how it appears to be worse than ever.  How they can’t take criticism without breaking. Lots of hand wringing, pearl clutching, grandiose statements, mild arguments, gross generalizations, and “kids today” type statements are bandied about, and then it’s the next day and nobody seems to be talking about it. 

I for one do not want to give up on this topic.  I have a unique perspective in that I teach private flute lessons, one on one, so my contact with my students is far more intense than a “typical” college professor.  And, in the Arts, we are often dealing with the depths of someone’s very being when we are dealing with what we do; so “intense” is an understatement at best.

Case in point: yesterday, I had a frank conversation with a student about a recent performance, and it resulted in an emotional, tear-filled reaction.  The general flow of it was this:

ME: What do you think about your performance last night?

Student: I thought I did great, and there were some moments I really went for it musically and it felt pretty good, and I didn’t miss that many notes, so it was OK.

ME:  Yes, but…your intonation was terrible, you missed far more technical details than you realize, all of your releases were not good, you did not balance on your feet the way we have worked on, your tempos were way too fast, your dynamic range was, as we have discussed, not at all interesting as you simply cannot play loud all the time, (insert a few more points here) and overall, you kind of brutalized a great piece of music while reverting to a lot of really bad habits that we have spent a semester trying to undo.  I expect a lot more from you, and we have a long way to go, so get ready to work even harder. 

Student: wilts, tries to keep composure, cries

I know at this point many of you will stop reading and say “well, you are just an asshole” while some of you will cheer for me as some sort of Gordon Ramsey like soothsayer, but look, it’s not an uncommon moment in the development of a student, in this case, a graduate student majoring in flute performance. 

What does this have to do with anxiety?  Well, a great deal of what I am reading about anxiety in teen and college students dwells on the idea that they simply cannot take the level of criticism it requires to really learn.  Granted, there is more than a little truth to Branford Marsalis’ viral youtube rant about how students today are more interested in saying they are doing something and being told they are great for doing it instead of really investing the time and really hard work to actually do it- but I wonder if dismissing ALL students like this overlooks an important point: there are more students than we realize who are not coddled, and yes, not so anxious they can’t function without falling apart when the slightest bit of conflict or truth comes their way. 

 Maybe some of them are raised to be emotionally honest and not hide their feelings.

 And maybe my student was used to getting away with a glib dismissal of their mistakes to cover as we all do, but when that was pushed aside and I pushed deeper, the reality of the situation was clear and they felt bad.  Really bad.  Tears, bad feelings, deep breath, time to pick it up and keep trying.  And try harder. 

That has nothing to do with Anxiety. I think a lot of what we label as “kids are so anxious” is simply kids being emotionally honest.  Because they are raised that way.

And I for one think that is for the best. 

I think back to moments in my own development, and I think of some of the ways my teachers/mentors talked to me.  If I am honest, I can think of many occasions, some profound and life changing, some just every day, where people talked to me in far more brutal terms than those I use today.  Hell, I once had a conductor call me a “fucking idiot” in a rehearsal.  Oh, and he called me the exact same thing in conducting class a few weeks later, kicked me out of the class, and said I needed to go back to my dorm room and study the score one note at a time because I was “too stupid” to understand it.  

I broke in private in those moments.  But I never broke in front of the teachers.  “My generation,” using that term loosely, was not taught to be emotionally honest.  Especially the males of the species.  Previous generations had it even worse.  Gone are the days of ruler-wielding piano teachers, tyrannical conductors (mostly gone) and the like, but everyone over 40, before you cast aspersions on your young students, think back to your training and your experience.  Were you emotionally honest? If someone tore you the proverbial new one, did you react?  Of course you grew from it, but what if you said what you really felt in the heat of that moment, got it out of your system, and did not dwell on it after that?

There are coddled students today for sure.  But there are tough students today as well.  Before you simply dismiss everyone half your age or younger as “anxious” or “soft,” take a minute to look back on your own education and think about it. 

You probably should have cried a lot back in those days, but you did not realize it was ok.  Don’t discount the strength of your students for doing so.