Sunday, March 08, 2015

Diplomacy 101

I remember an in-class assignment in one of my earlier credential classes. It seemed silly at the time, to spend part of my evening making up "nice" ways to inform a parent that their kid needs to start using deodorant (yes, that was one of the prompts), but in retrospect, it was a fantastic way to introduce the whole idea of diplomacy in teaching. You can't just call a parent and say, "Your kid stinks, buy some deodorant." You're dealing with a human being who presumably adores his/her kid, and may not know that the child who smells fresh as they leave the house in the morning, by midday smells like a locker room. Tact, compassion and discretion are good traits to have.

My dad, a former Air Force Officer, has found himself in various positions of leadership over the years--not just in the Air Force, but when working at the State Department of Education, or as President of the Band Boosters when I was in high school. He has told me of times when someone has excitedly brought forth an idea in a meeting--an idea that was never going to work, for whatever reason. But Dad has learned that you never just shoot someone's idea down. The risk there is that you alienate that person, and they will no longer want to help your cause. Instead, you tell them their idea has validity, and open up a group discussion of the pros and cons. Pretty soon, it becomes obvious to everyone that the cons outweigh the pros, but one very important outcome has been achieved: you have made that person, and others, understand that their ideas are valued and welcomed, worthy of your time and consideration.

In my career, I've taken these lessons to heart, and always tried to approach students and parents alike with diplomacy and tact. Of course, every once in a while a student will suggest something in the spirit of being silly and I will grin and say, "That's...a big NO." We all laugh and move on. But when it comes to the important things--especially performance feedback--I believe in a trick I learned all those years ago in one of those many evening credential classes:

Compliment first, then give constructive feedback.

This is why you'll hear me tell my choir, "Good--we just hit all of those notes we've been struggling with. The harmonies are coming together and altos, you held your part against the sopranos without wavering. Now, what we need to work on is phrasing and expression. Here's what we need to do..."

There are, of course, times where things are just rough from the start, and the kids know it. So I stop them and we all just laugh and agree that this particular attempt was terrible, let's try it again. We discuss what made it not work--maybe people weren't ready or paying attention. Maybe I cued them wrong. Then we fix it.

All of this is a background to why I was upset yesterday when I took two of my girls to perform at a solo/small ensemble festival at Sac State. Each singer was judged by a single adjudicator, an older woman who rubbed me the wrong way from the moment my first singer stepped up on the stage.

This student had chosen "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables as her song, and it was perfect for her particular voice. She's a mezzo soprano, so it showed off the strongest part of her range. The long phrases challenged her to work on support and breathing through her massive nerves. This particular student has a history of being afraid to take risks like this, and I was so proud of her for volunteering to do this, working so hard on her song, and following through. I was almost buzzing with excited nerves for her as she walked up on the stage and handed a copy of her music to the adjudicator.

And this woman immediately said, "I can't give you full marks--this is a pop song. Didn't you know that you don't sing pop music at festivals?" My student was flustered, so I chimed in from my seat in the audience. "She didn't. And neither did I. This one is on me." The judge looked my way and asked, "Well, didn't the festival information tell you that?"

"No. It didn't." I know my eyes challenged her to say more. Since when is a Broadway song inappropriate at a festival? She wisely shut up.

So poor M. She was already incredibly nervous, and this, before she even got a chance to open her mouth and sing. As I sat there fuming at the judge and worrying for my student, M. started her song, looking at her accompanist (a wonderful parent who volunteered to play for her). A few bars into the song, the judge snapped at her, "turn towards me."

M.'s performance certainly wasn't her best, and she knew it. But like a pro, she soldiered through it and kept her emotions in check throughout. Each singer had a mini-clinic with the adjudicator after singing, and this one started off in fine form by telling M. she needed to revisit all basic singing techniques.

Way to go, Judge Asshole. Tell a 17-year-old she has the wrong song, watch her nerves triple right before your eyes, and then refuse to take that into consideration while listening to her sing. Follow it all up with a nice heaping helping of "you don't really know how to sing" (I assure you, this young woman can sing, especially when she's not being treated like a puppy that peed on the carpet) and then end the session with a big smile and an attitude of "you're so welcome, little girl, I'm glad I could help you."

M. left the room in tears. Fortunately, she had a couple of friends with her, and the mother who accompanied her, and me, telling her that she did a great job, that we were proud of her. We all agreed that the judge was rude. Still, I felt so bad that she put herself out there, doing one of these festivals for the first time, only to have the judge be so awful to her.

I understand that this judge is completely unaware of who this young woman is, what her background is, or how she will take all of that criticism straight to heart, and see it as a reflection of herself, rather than of the judge. But I'm not inclined to excuse her--anyone who works with kids knows that each one is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion. All people--young or adult--need to be treated with diplomacy and dignity.

What I saw yesterday was a respected area singing teacher treat both of my girls with a complete lack of both. She didn't seem to understand or care that the first thing that happens to many singers when they are nervous is a decline in breath control. It happens to me when I'm nervous singing for people. It's something we work through as singers, and we develop ways to get around it when singing in frightening situations.

I have a lot of respect for people who have been teaching singing longer than I have, but in this case, I left with none. I certainly didn't learn any new tricks from listening to her talk to my girls, and indeed, her time with them only served to reinforce my belief that tact goes a long way in teaching.

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