Stop trying to “get it right”
As summer comes to a close and I prepare myself to go back to school, I begin to think back on my “successes” and “failures” of the previous school year.
What did I do well? Where did I lose my students? How did I not prepare them to get to where I wanted them to go? When they got there, what was it I did, or said, or helped them to discover that made it click?
I’m sure there are many professionals out there who go through this reflective process, or some variation of it. However, I have observed over the past few years that my students lack the ability (or perhaps just the motivation) to reflect on an outcome and progress on to the next step in any process. They are too concerned with doing their assignment the “right way” in as little time as possible, and not as interested in developing themselves as artists. This is extremely frustrating as their teacher, because unlike math where there is often only one correct answer, the arts are intuitive. Much like Justice Potter’s conclusion about pornography, I can only tell them that they’ll know [right] when they see it. Getting to that moment of ‘rightness’ has many paths (that’s true in math as well)–you have to find the path that works best for you. Finding that path is what I’m here for as a teacher.
Sifting through IB assessments and curriculum guides, I am repeatedly struck by two things:
- The importance of the reflection process in art
- The encouragement to take risks and make connections
You may be saying to yourself, “Well, duh! This isn’t exactly revolutionary stuff.” And you’d be right, but the problem that I’m confronted with is how exactly do I motivate my students to embrace the reflection process and take risks, when they come from a culture in which quitting and “hitting the reset button” is the easiest way to correct a situation that’s not going the way they want? While I could very easily go on a rant about the dangerous trends in modern American parenting or the need to transform our education system, that is not the point of this post.
For most of us the problem isn’t that we aim too high and fail – it’s just the opposite – we aim too low and succeed.”
― Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
The Success of My Failure
When I was in high school, I rarely encountered failure. Sure there were parts I didn’t get, math tests I didn’t pass, relationships that did pan out the way I had hoped. But overall, I worked hard and that translated almost all the time into me achieving my goal. It wasn’t until college that I discovered what it meant to fail.
While a sophomore at the University of Maryland, I took a musical theatre class in which every week I had to come in with either a prepared audition song or a scene (duet or trio). There were certain goals for these pieces each week and we were expected to work on our pieces outside of class. As a type-A, overachieving student, I would spend as many hours as I could working on my pieces, meeting with my scene partners or accompanist, and diligently trying to pick out a costume or audition outfit that would earn praise from my professor. I even would discuss my song choices and acting decisions with my professor, hoping that I was going in the right direction.
Week after week, I was criticized–sometimes gently, sometimes bluntly. While I always welcomed constructive criticism, I felt like nothing that I tried was good enough. I couldn’t do anything right–but it didn’t break my spirit.
One class after having a particularly bad mock audition, my professor suggested that perhaps I hadn’t picked a song that fit my voice for the assignment. I named a few alternatives and the professor and I agreed on the piece I would sing the following class as a make up for that week’s bad audition. Again, I prepared and rehearsed, completely driven to succeed in this task.
I failed. There are many reasons why I failed–the song was too rangy for my voice, I was nervous, etc. However, after I finished, my professor had me sing it again, this time down an octave. I failed. Then he told me to sing it again, but up an octave. I failed. He gave me direction after direction, and I continually failed until I broke down and cried.
Now, some may think this was a particularly harsh way to teach a lesson. But to this day, I identify this moment as one of the biggest defining moments in my life. Eventually I passed the class and I earned an A, but the next year when I auditioned for the next level, I did not make it into class. This made me realized that I couldn’t get by just on my hard work and perseverance. I had to go out and work on my skills. I stopped trying to survive class to class, project to project and I began to look globally at what I could to improve myself as a musical theatre actor.
I went out and interviewed several voice teachers and found one who not only fit my learning style, but broadened my knowledge of my voice and how to sing properly. I researched singers who had similar voices to my own and what songs they sang in their repertoire and learned those songs. I analyzed what roles I would most likely be cast in based on my type, voice type, and dance requirements and I added their songs to my repertoire.
Senior year, I auditioned again for the same professor. I went in and sang a song that he had suggested I learn two years before. A song that my voice teacher and I had worked for months on. A little nervous walking in, I went over to the accompanist and walked him through my cut, then crossed center to stand in front of my professor sitting behind the table. After smiling and slating and exchanging pleasantries, I took a grounding breath, signaled the pianist and began to sing “Wherever He Ain’t”. I killed it. After I finished, my professor was applauding and with his mouth a little agape, he said, “Kristina, I have waited four years to hear you sing like that.”
For too long, I had never really been challenged–I was able to coast through just by exerting effort. My college theatre experience finally pushed me to go to a place where I was forced to constantly put myself out there and fail and find new ways of failing better, until I finally succeeded. Only to go out there and do it all over again.
In my class, failure is a necessary part of the process. Art and the development of art, is a lot like a science experiment. You make a hypothesis and then you have to test it out. After you play around with your initial ideas, you have to stand back, look at your work, and REFLECT! Identify what worked, what didn’t. Were you close? Or were you really far off? Asking yourself simple questions will enable you to identify how to proceed from there.
There is a time for a polished product and there is a time for a work in progress. The goal is to refine your work in progress enough that it begins to get that polished shine. In the academic world, “we have become so terrified of failure that creativity languishes. Our fear of failure stunts creativity in our numerous roles, from professional to student” (Cole 183). It’s time that we embrace the F-word known as FAILURE and cultivate our failures to enhance our success.
Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” ~Dalai Lama
Failing as a Theatre Artist
Every year, I encounter a parent who has some level of concern about their child’s ability to land a particular role in one of our school shows. In these cases, the child (or the parent) is not content to just be a part of the cast, he or she wanted a certain role and they didn’t get it. Almost all of these students have gone on to major in theatre. This always amuses me, because this kind of “failure”–to get cast in a desired role–is perhaps the form of failure most actors are continually confronted with, and the one they often have the least control over. Sometimes, you don’t get the part because you weren’t prepared enough. But more often in my experience, you didn’t get the part, because someone else fit it better. If you’re the kind of actor who is kind, pleasant to work with, always prepared, dedicated to your work, talented, AND a team player–you’re more than often going to make the show somewhere if the director knows these things about you. Trust that the director knows where he or she needs you the most–where your talents will most greatly aid the production as a whole, and embrace the role you get. If you didn’t get cast at all, there can be many reasons why. But I always encourage my students to inquire about how they could improve their auditions and I encourage you to do the same, if you have the opportunity. Whether you’re an actor or not, the act of asking for feedback will not only provide you with knowledge, it shows your commitment to improve yourself.
Failing at the audition is only one part of the process. Just because you have the part, doesn’t mean you’ll keep the part. Usually in the educational world it does, but that’s not how real life works. If you’re not hacking it and someone else can do it better, you’ll like be replaced. So don’t just sit on your laurels–keep working through rehearsals–prove that you were the right person for that role.
Some Words of Advice
In conclusion, I just want to offer some words of advice about how to succeed at failing:
- Pursue your idea until it fails–then figure out why it failed and TRY AGAIN.
- Process your failure in whatever way is best for you. For me that’s writing about it or talking it out, but you might process best by drawing or taking a break or working something else. Whatever is right for you is right for you.
- Seek feedback from anyone you can.
- BE HUMBLE. Don’t expect to succeed every time, and be humble when you do succeed.
- Keep some sort of log about your process. That might be a journal, a blog, some notes to yourself–whatever works for you. It’s good to see what you tried in the past and remember why it didn’t work that time. Who knows that ‘failure’ from three years ago, might just be the right process now. Timing is everything.
Cole, Sarah. “”Fail Again. Fail Better.” Failure in the Creative Process.” Athens Journal of Humanities and Arts, 1 July 2014. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. Click for Source.
Teller, Danielle, and Astro Teller. “How American Parenting Is Killing the American Marriage.” Quartz. Huffington Post, 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. Click for Source.
Robinson, Ken. “Changing Education Paradigms.” Ken Robinson:. TED, Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. Click for Source.
Quote from Samuel Beckett. Digital image. Yes Woman 2014. WordPress, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. Click for Source.
Chinese Proverb Quote. Digital image. 30 Quotes On Failure That Will Lead You To Success. Life Hack, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. Click for Source.
Creative Process. Digital image. The Real Creative Process. Cummings, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. Click for Source.