What I Learned From the Students at Florida State

What I Learned From the Students at Florida State

In a word—openness.

In many more words—they helped me to figure out what I believe is the most important quality that is essential to becoming a great musician.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of an audience and perform. When you do, you are essentially saying “This is what I know.” When I was a student at Juilliard, I cultivated this courage by closing down and defending my outer shell. I approached performing by gritting my teeth and grimacing and bracing myself against my fears, then I propped that whole mess of anxieties on stage and called it confidence.

I carried this “confidence” with me into the teaching studio. I displayed it whenever I watched a colleague use a technique I hadn’t yet learned: instead of saying “How do you do that?” I allowed the moat to circle around me and pulled up the drawbridge. Nod my head, smile sagely, pretend I already know how to make a snare drum roll that smooth. I was embarrassed to admit to not knowing—it made me feel exposed and vulnerable. Fortunately there came a point when I finally received the memo that I was there as a student and not as a teacher. Sending out the soldiers to guard my fragile ego was not the way to learn and I slowly began dismantling the castle to let some knowledge in. I began to get comfortable admitting ignorance (ok that’s a lie; I was not comfortable about this). But I did it anyway.

The students at FSU came in for our masterclasses with this openness already on display. They also displayed their truly blazing technique and their mature musicianship. They’d been taught the vital skills of always showing up on time (which on Planet Music means quite early) and being prepared at the first rehearsal. And technique and musicianship and being nerd-early and being prepared are important qualities. But how did they get there? By being open. By displaying the genuine curiosity they showed me—their willingness to consider new suggestions and ideas.

Essentially, learning means first saying, “I don’t know.” A baby doesn’t pretend to know how to walk—he watches others do it, lurches around on wobbly legs, falls down, gets up. But for those of us in the ultra-competitive world of professional music, admitting ignorance can be scary. It takes guts to say “I don’t know.”

Of course there’s also a lot of practicing—you can’t just be open and absorb new ideas through the skin. It takes hours in the practice room to consider and then implement them. But without openness, without the curiosity to learn more, learning stops. Time spent posturing is time spent with the door closed.

In my three days with these students, that was the quality that leapt out at me—their receptiveness to learning. They showed me that when performing a piece, instead of saying “here’s what I know” you’re saying “here’s what I know now; there’s always more to learn.” They showed me that openness might be the most important quality to foster in students, regardless of subject.

These FSU students are also truly great people, wonderful to talk to and thoroughly enjoyable to spend time with. They are genuinely curious and open about the colleagues and friends and adults around them. It’s not just a great quality for musicians. It’s a pretty great quality for human beings.