Careful the Things You Say

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate

In Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, there’s a haunting song that warns us:

Careful the things you say,

Children will listen. 

Careful the things you do,

Children will see,

and learn. 

Click to listen to my recording of “Children Will Listen. 

In my work as a private singing teacher I have had many students come through my door the past 17 years.  Each individual has their own goals and reasons that brought them to lessons.  There is a thread of story, though, that is heartbreakingly common especially among my adult students: when they were a child they had been told not to sing.  Most of the time it was an off-the-cuff comment from someone they respected.  Unfortunately, many times it was a school music teacher.  They dutifully obeyed and mouthed the words, and from that point onward did whatever they could to not let their true voice be heard.   We are often unaware of how an insensitive comment might land, and most children haven’t yet developed the skills to not take it personally.  To cultivate the lifelong learners our society needs, we must stay aware of the words we use.  Children must be encouraged to explore new things, and the subsequent mistakes and successes celebrated for the learning opportunities they are. 

My students come to lessons because they know deep down that they are more than the label of “not good” another person gave to them.  They each inspire me, but one student will always stand out as The Bravest.  This adult came to me determined to overcome a fear that she felt was holding her back from being fully herself.  She grew up in an environment where the disease of perfectionism was rampant, and early on it was pointed out to her when her singing attempts were not immediately correct.  Singing anything required her to make mistakes (no matter how slight) when learning a new song, and that was unacceptable.  She loved music and listening to others sing, though, and always felt left out by not participating.  Her main short-term goal when we started lessons together was to sing “Happy Birthday” to her father’s answering machine.  She had never sung “Happy Birthday” to anyone. 

A few months later, with practice and lessons and therapy all joining together to boost her confidence, she successfully made the recording.  We continued to work through the school year, and by the end of the spring she joined us in our formal studio recital singing a solo beautifully on the auditorium stage.  Considering her professed greatest fear was burning to death, and singing in front of anyone was a close second place, this was a momentous achievement.  The performance was accompanied by a lot of tears and determination, but she overcame the inhibiting ideas from her childhood and to this day continues to dive deeply into the adventures of life. 

If there is a silver lining to this tale of misplaced words, it is the perseverance of the human heart.  My students have built up the courage and allowed their curiosity to lead them to do what they can to feel good about making music.   The transformational possibilities of song, which they love so dearly and are constantly drawn to, inspire the fortitude they need to overcome their fears.  Music is something they want to participate in to the best of their ability, whatever that happens to be. 

There’s an even better story that could be told, though.  This one starts at the beginning, where all children are allowed and encouraged to fully engage in the learning process in whatever way they can.  When someone makes a mistake, they will be praised for trying.  We need to be brave and bold to try new things, to propose and explore new ideas.  Fear should not be built into failure.  Life is filled with making mistakes, and if we are taught to learn everything we can from those mistakes we will all go further, faster. 

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