This past Saturday we had the spring concert of the trombone ensemble and tuba-euphonium ensemble here at the University of Mississippi. As you might imagine, it was both an enjoyable and stressful event for me. These ensembles depend greatly upon the presence of every player at rehearsals, yet we are at the mercy of the performing schedules of larger ensembles and athletic bands. This semester saw a greater than usual number of interruptions in our rehearsal schedule, and so as the concert date approached I was quite anxious regarding our ability to put together a concert in circumstances that were less than ideal (this also resulted in me being unable to find time to write a blog post last week). As they always do, though, the students came through and did a fine job. After it was over, I used a phrase that has become an increasingly common one for me, telling the students I was “provisionally happy” with their performance. That’s a strange and I’m sure somewhat annoying way to put it, but let me explain briefly today what I mean.
Ours is a time in which people too often seem to expect praise and reward after expending only very limited effort. Mine was the first generation in which everyone received a trophy at the end of a little league season, yet the truly exceptional players were still recognized as such (I was not among them). Likewise in music, everyone received some kind of recognition for effort, but those giving extra effort or demonstrating advanced skills were appropriately rewarded. All of that is still true, of course, yet more and more I see a tendency in many fields of endeavor to give effervescent praise to students or others whose actual accomplishments are mediocre at best. Social media has worsened this trend, or at least has provided an ever-present outlet for it. Every accomplishment, great or small, is publicly celebrated with pictures, testimonials, and “likes.” Please don’t get me wrong—I am very proud of all the accomplishments of all of my students—but this trend troubles me for a couple of reasons.
First among these is a concern for truth. Call me reactionary if you will, but I am of the “old school” which believes that objective, “true truth” (as Francis Schaeffer famously put it) is a thing which exists independently of my thoughts and feelings about it and can be sought out and known. While one’s appraisal of a performance or accomplishment is somewhat subjective, it remains true that not every performance or accomplishment is or can be exceptional. After all, if everything is exceptional then nothing is! While I always want to affirm my students’ progress and achievements (or my child’s, for that matter), I want to avoid doing so through the use of falsely inflated adjectives. Besides, as followers of the One who referred to Himself as “the Truth,” Christians should perhaps be more concerned than anyone with the pursuit and promotion of truthfulness in all things.
Secondly, cultivating inflated opinions of their abilities would do my music students a particular disservice. Ours is a difficult business, with fewer good jobs than great players, particularly in performance. Only the very best players will find themselves able to play music for a living without some other source of income, and in reality only a portion of those great musicians will find themselves thus employed. While jobs in music education are more plentiful, there is still plenty of competition, and audiences and adjudicators are sometimes rather blunt in their assessments. While it is important to recognize and affirm my students’ progress as musicians, to do so with unmitigated praise would do them a disservice, leaving them both professionally and emotionally unprepared to handle the criticism that will surely come their way throughout their careers.
And so, on Saturday I went home “provisionally happy.” My students gave a good concert which was indicative of their growth and improvement over the course of the semester as well as their determination to overcome scheduling difficulties which threatened our ability to produce a good show. At the same time, it was not a perfect concert, and I have already discussed with students particular areas in which future progress is needed. While affirming the accomplishments that were made, truthfulness and candor demand that I also indicate the challenges that still lie before us. To do less would be a denial of the truth, and ultimately a disservice to my students.
As an aside, I suppose ultimately “provisionally happy” is the best we can hope to achieve in this life. After all, even the good things we enjoy in this world remain marred to a greater or lesser extent by the effects of sin upon all of creation. In that sense, I suppose I’ll have to wait until that great Day to be truly satisfied.
And that is as it should be.