by Carrie Lee O’Dell
Every Wednesday night for the past seven weeks, I’ve gone to a small studio space in a repurposed warehouse close to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for group violin lessons. Along with eight other people, I try to coax sounds out of my instrument without calling to mind the sound of a disgruntled cat. Sometimes, I’m successful. Often I’m not. This is, of course, frustrating. It’s also fun and challenging. It makes me use parts of my brain that haven’t gotten much exercise in recent years. When I manage to drag my bow across a string with just the right pressure, it sounds beautiful, which is immensely satisfying. I’ve learned more than just some scales and a short simple song in this class, though. It’s reminded me of the experience of being a student, of learning something from scratch. When you teach something you’ve always been fairly confident doing, it’s important to have the occasional reminder of what it’s like to not know.
Of course, my experience of choosing to take a group music class is hardly a perfect allegory for my students’ experiences in college writing. I sought this class out; many college students look for ways to avoid freshman comp. The stakes are low if I don’t do well—failure to master an instrument that by all accounts I’m picking up nearly forty years too late will not keep me from getting into my desired course of study or prevent me from graduating. I’m not being presented with new rules and restrictions on something I thought I’d already learned. The worst thing that can happen to me is public embarrassment at the recital. The recital that’s open to the public, is a few days away, and will be filmed for Bantam Studios archives. The recital that I’ve invited friends, some of them audio professionals, to attend.
Just a moment. I have to take some really deep breaths.
My students, on the other hand, face higher stakes, or at least they think they do. Who hasn’t had to talk a student off a metaphorical ledge when the paper they thought was A work was barely in C range? Or the ubiquitous plea for a gentlemen’s B so they can get into the business school? It’s easy to get frustrated with a student who is convinced that a low or even average grade means that you’ve condemned them to a future of scrubbing truck stop toilets, but something that my struggle in learning to play an A major scale and “French Folk Song” (don’t ask which French folk song—that’s the name of the song) has reminded me of is that we all want to be automatically good when we’re learning something new. We’re a little hurt and disappointed in ourselves when it turns out we’re not wunderkinds. I was hoping against hope that I’d be a natural.
Why violin, you ask? I’m fulfilling a family destiny. No, really. I’m not playing one of the rental instruments the studio offers. I’m literally learning to play on a family heirloom. My great-grandfather, Virgil C. O’Dell, was an amateur luthier. He worked for the post office during the day and made fiddles during his spare time. When he retired, he went full-time. I have one of his earlier instruments, dated 1912. Here’s the fun part, though: no one in my family plays the violin. No one. Virgil didn’t even play. He could tune his fiddles, but he was a woodworker, not a musician. It’s not a stretch to say I’m the most musically inclined member of my immediate family, but saying that isn’t saying much. I have notoriously bad rhythm—if everyone else is clapping on the two and the four, I’m on the one and the three. A couple of weeks ago, I tuned my E string a full octave too low. It was still playing an E, but the wrong E. When I read music, I have to squint at the staff and mutter “Every… Good…. Bird… Does…Fly” to figure out the note. When I leave class, I consider what grade I’d give myself right now if I was being graded. I know the song back and forth. Solid on the fingering needed to make the notes happen. Sometimes a note rings out that is clear and pure and sweet. Usually the next note sounds like nails on a chalkboard because I got distracted by the good note. Some nights I’m as high as a B minus. Many nights, I’m a solid or even a low C. The MSU FYW grade description for a C paper includes the phrase, “The prose is generally readable, although sentences are not always clear, and errors are sometimes distracting.” That’s a pretty accurate assessment of my musical ability right now.
This has not made me go easy on my students when I grade their work, but it has made me consider how I can be sensitive to their experiences. I can be sympathetic and acknowledge progress and thank them for hard work, but a C paper should get a C. Even if the student worked really hard. But as FYW instructors, we need to occasionally remind ourselves of what it’s like to learn and sometimes fail. That can be pretty uncomfortable. We all do our own writing. We attend professional development workshops to look for ways to improve our teaching. These things are important, but they are asking us to build on skills we already have, not learn something completely new. We’ve also been doing this long enough that we understand that if something doesn’t quite work in the classroom or in our own writing, that it’s okay. You have to try to see what works, but that’s a terrifying prospect when you’re first learning, even more so if you think that your whole future is at stake. We need to revisit the beginner experience so that we remember the sharp pain of failure, the disappointment in discovering you’re not a virtuoso, and the crippling fear that you’ll do something wrong. We need to remember these things so when we say that this is all part of the learning process, it means something.
That crippling fear part? My recital is March 19 at 3:00 at Littlefield in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I’m really hoping you’re all busy with something else, but I’m playing.