Monday, January 14, 2013

What Marcel Tabuteau and 4-year-olds can teach us about the oboe

Last week I began a volunteer stint with our local cross country (nordic) ski organization.  Even though I'm relatively new to skiing,  there was a huge need for teachers to the 140 or so eager young skiers who signed up for lessons. And, due to my great sabbatical this year I have more flexibility with my time and thought it'd be a great way to serve my community and combine my love of skiing and teaching.

So in my volunteer role,  I'm an assistant skiing teacher.

To a class of 30 or more beginners....

All 4-year-olds.

Seems like the perfect job for a childless oboist/college professor, right? I amusingly decided that it would be just like teaching beginning reed-making to college students.  Ha!

The first class was an organizational nightmare of a smallish space crammed with 140 kids, their parents, registration sheets, determining age groups and ability levels for the kids, name tags, skis, boots, ski poles, gloves, missing gloves, etc, etc, etc. One of the first things I did as a "teacher" was to assist one little girl who needed a name tag.  Her father was in charge of (and swamped at) the registration table and she otherwise needed an adult to help her find what she needed. In the midst of all of the confusion we managed to find a name tag (let's call her "K") and then headed out to be with the other beginning skiers. On our short ski over to the rest of the class members, K cheerfully declared,

  "I might fall.  But that's OK,  because I know how to get UP!"

Her comment portended that I was about to learn something important from this experience. It also cemented my belief that in every teaching situation I always learn more from my students than what they likely gain from me.

Our 90-minute class began in rapidly-diminishing daylight and balmy 20 F (-7 C) conditions.  Our great lead teacher enthusiastically took the budding skiers through warm-ups, drills, etc.  In my role as "assistant"  teacher,  I mimicked the lead teacher's movements and tried my best to keep the students attentive, moving (to stay warm) and away from eating snow. Then, as darkness fell we learned to FALL down. The students were already quite practiced in this endeavor! But more importantly,  we learned how to GET BACK UP. There were NO tears, NO frustration, just  determination. Of course,  there was some distracted now eating too...

As we headed back to the warming hut/ ski chalet,  I was the "leader" of the ski train,  the engine who would lead this squiggly line of young skiers back to their parents.  I looked back and watched as most of the kids glided on their skis for a few steps,  then inevitably fell. But as soon as they were down,  they immediately GOT BACK UP and took a few more ski glides before the next fall and rise that would continue their learning endeavor.  The cute little skiers on the trail reminded of a hot pan with popcorn cooking. At unexpected moments, you'd see the sudden POP of a skier going down and bouncing up JUST as quickly.

In my next oboe practice session,  the ski experience was still swimming (skiing?) in my head. It reminded me a of story about Marcel Tabuteau, my oboe "grandfather"  who was the inimitable former oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and teacher who is credited with creating the US-American school of oboe playing. According to my fuzzy recollection of the story, he was having a conversation with a student who was having difficulty learning a new concept or was having a low moment in their playing. Tabuteau says (in his wondrously thick French accent): my, friend,  the difference between you and me is that when things get difficult,   I know how to pull myself up faster.

That story has always stuck with me,  because it reminds us that falling or failing is a natural part of learning.  Frustration and despair doesn't have to be a part of the equation if we don't let it. More important than the fall is the drive to GET BACK UP. The faster we get back up, the sooner we may fall again,  but the sooner we can get to that warming hut!

 We WILL fall,  but know how to GET BACK UP.  Thanks, little "K."

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

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