Updated: Nov 12, 2019
Belonging. It’s hard to know where one fits when in a room filled with strangers from all over the world. We began our communal pilgrimage, all abilities and cultures, eagerly anticipating lessons from world renown masters. I sometimes questioned my sanity as I set myself up to be vulnerable, take risks, and show my musical shortcomings. Would I be able to feel comfortable enough to play my music in a new place filled with strangers, far away from familiar family, friends, and crutches?
A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of participating in what I call my bagpipe cruise. I just picked up the bagpipes after almost 40 years of not playing. Since I had not played for anyone but myself, I played music the way I wanted or could. I had been pretty shy about playing in front of others, especially those who can judge all levels of piping with a critical ear. So, here I am on this cruise, newly learning skills, and I find myself in the hallowed presence of world class masters, well-renowned composers, and many incredible pipers. Instead of avoiding me because I was a beginner, or each level hanging only its own, or making me feel the lowliness of my skill level, they embraced me, encouraged, me, and invited me to join them. It was a wonderfully inclusive experience for all of us.
I remember that first meeting, where we all introduced where we were from and our history with the instrument. Afterward, we spent time meeting and greeting, and all were so fun, interesting, and kind.
The next day, as we ventured out to sea, we were in lessons. I initially hid within full group playing, believing that all were better than I. As we played together, my practice chanter sounded okay; I could keep up, and I was learning and doing. I grew comfortable with the group.
When we broke into small groups; I had to play alone; nerves took over, I apologized for my lack of skill; my fingers didn’t work, neither did my rhythms. My instructor was one of the world class composers and pipers, but he was so very patient, kind, and encouraging with me, even though I gave him such a weak performance. He even let me video his technique so that I could remember and practice.
Later in the evening, Bernie and I saw this instructor in a corridor, and he invited us to join him and his wife for a drink. I thanked him for his patience. I shared with him my goal to attend the Edinburgh Tattoo in Scotland, and he encouraged me to stay with it, finishing with I could eventually play in the Edinburgh Tattoo if I wanted to. This is the same man who heard me fumble through a simple D-Throw telling me that playing in one of the world’s biggest piping events could be in my future.
In many areas, the masters hang together, as do the students, each individual blending easily with those at the same level, yet the levels never intermingling. I’ve seen it in school assemblies where teachers cluster at the ends of the gym, and students fill the bleachers. This did not happen on this cruise. The elite, the average, and the beginners all were one, enjoying recitals, lessons, and appreciation of the instrument we all loved. In addition to piping, we shared time at the pool, bars, and ports of call.
I came home recharged and ready to go, only to find that there were no nearby instructors. I practiced, did some online lessons, and began to slowly lose my self-discipline. I realized that I needed face-to-face instruction to keep me accountable for my learning. I checked for local instructors, and I found none close by. I sat on it for a year until I saw that friends from the cruise (the instructor and his wife) were attending the Highland Games nearby in Dunedin. While he judged, I sat with his wife and explained that I had not been able to find a teacher. During the time they were here, she found one for me.
Fast forward to today. I am enjoying my lessons, and when my instructor and I were talking, I expressed how kind, accepting, and encouraging the bagpiping community is. They are all passionate about playing well and growing. I shared my story (the same one I shared above).
When I finished my story, my instructor replied with a comment that hung in the air and in my brain: “Why would you want to be mean to someone who is trying to learn something that you love?”
This applies to everything.
Oh, the irony! It resonated with me that so many people unintentionally make it difficult for students trying to learn something new under the mindset of requiring perfection. In writing, many stifle efforts with red marks, failures, exasperation, and “snobbery.” Students who become quickly proficient are celebrated, while the others are left behind. The passion of perfection overrides the appreciation of the art. The passion of what could have been an interest and love become one of disdain for something unattainable. Why pursue trying something that is so painful to learn? “I am not good at that.” “I have no talent.” “I do not belong with that group.”
There is a solution for this.
Think about it for a moment.
Think of how we educate our children. Think of the messages we send. We group students so that their peer group becomes their levels. We do that with ourselves, some embracing the new; others hanging tight with the veterans.
In thinking about it from my perspective:
I love learning. I love reading. I love writing. I love bagpipes, singing, piano, and drawing. There are many times when I miss notes, when my drawings look more like scribbles, my writing has to be revised many times (like I’ve done with this piece), and a piece needs to be reread. There are times I have had to unlearn and relearn. I am a student. Yes, I teach, but to do this well, I have to also learn and remember how I grew to love what I do.
Requirements for teaching should include a love and passion for celebrating and sharing the world through whatever subject they teach (in addition to caring about whom they teach). Teachers who inspire have this passion, and it’s contagious. They want others to love it with them.
Then I see those who are harsh when students strive to learn, and yet make mistakes. The initial grade sticks; errors never get corrected, feedback is a percent or a number at the top of the page. They go into class with the “knowledge” that some will succeed, and others will fail. They believe this is okay because it is the way things have always been.
Students who succeed grow to enjoy the grade; others learn to hate the subject and see it as torture. A teacher can turn a lover of a subject into a cynical hater through punitive grading systems, red marks, negative (as opposed to corrective) feedback, or lessons that lack the passion and excitement for the subject. Students never get to redo and run the risk of having to accept a failing grade because they made a mistake. The teacher’s approach to the student and the subject can lose or capture a student in a heartbeat. For me, the perfect teachers, loving their subjects, can turn a hater into a lover simply through continuously encouraging, accepting, and enjoying the fact that someone is trying to learn what they love.
I am not saying do away with assessments and proving mastery. In piping, there are competitions, levels, judges, solo, and ensemble performances, along with many events and parades. One progresses through the levels by going through a process of application, evidence, and skill. It’s more than just one teacher saying, “you’ve passed now go to the next grade level.” Some people stay at the entry level Grade 5; others move up. Folks in Grade 5 and every level continue to improve, learn new music, and can even participate at the Edinburgh Tattoo if they want. All are accepted, encouraged, and valued. Yes, there are elite pipers, yet they have been some of the most inclusive, encouraging, fun folk I have ever met. And when all the levels get together and perform in parades, the Edinburgh Tattoo, or other venues, tunes like Amazing Grace and Scotland the Brave bring joy to all.
My friends, wouldn’t it be perfect if all learning experiences were like this? Our task, as I see it, is to bring the heart, soul, mind, and spirit back into the classroom. We must begin with loving what we teach and encouraging those trying to do what we love. We must help all students love what they learn and strive improve, even when they “master” the skill. We need to enjoy reading, writing, acting, singing, drawing, playing music, participating in government or labs WITH our students. It is not about us and them; it is about all of us.
It's amazing how life lessons come together, and I am so grateful to God for bringing all these wonderful people into my life. Thank you, Josh Blais, for your wisdom, encouragement, and expertise. Thank you, Andrew Douglas and Carl Donley at Piper's Dojo for your lessons and organizing the bagpipe cruises; In addition to Callum Beaumont and Glenn Brown, thank you, Rob and Ann Mathieson for encouraging this beginning piper to stay with it and strive for higher goals. Hoping to see you in Edinburgh at the Tattoo one day soon, and I am looking forward to our next bagpipe cruise in March.