Inspiring those who would rather be left to their own devices

It isn't often I complain about the petty stuff going on around me reflect positively on life's blessings. Nitpicking, criticizing, fault-finding ... the minute anything goes wrong or other than planned, these are the reactions that come almost instinctively to my brain. Consciously, I must force myself to see the bright side, a glass half full rather than empty, lest I devolve into a churlish shrew.

Believe me, this is no easy feat.

A play. A middle school play. A middle school play comprised of twenty-five or so giggly, young, impressionable girls, some talented, some woefully lacking not so talented, all eager to trip the light fantastic, learning song, dance, dialogue, and general theater technique in the span of approximately two months. I say approximately because rehearsals began over three months ago. Some girls regularly skipped practice, and some weeks, the girls took more time to calm down and focus than time allowed.

Drawn by a talented director with a good eye for the stage and having attended some of the school's  past off-key performances, I volunteered to help with the music. Not to toot my own horn, but as a youngster, I performed in many plays, both in school and out, sang and played guitar for pay, and commanded a very exclusive spot in what was then known as "Special Chorus," although today, that moniker brings to mind a far different sense of status.

For weeks, I coached my heart out, going so far as to produce a portable keyboard to demonstrate the right notes for these supposedly malleable tweenagers. Hear the note. Sing the note. Repeat. How hard could it be?

Apparently, a lot harder than I imagined. Okay. So these girls aren't Broadway bound or, for that matter, particularly talented. Scratch that. Many of them have the ability to sing on key and keep tempo, but lack proper training. Three months time could not erase a lifetime of lackadaisicalness.

This shot of our director goofing around with the girls at practice epitomizes my general inner reaction to their musical progress.

Realistically speaking, I would have been happy had they simply made the effort to drum the twelve or so songs into their sweet little brains. All they had to do was repeatedly listen to the show CD. I cheered the ones who showed initiative by loading the music to their iPods, and admonished those who didn't so much as open a CD player. I suppose the latter thought they might learn the songs through osmosis or fake their way through, however, I'm all about high standards and working to one's potential. When pleading and encouragement didn't inspire better performances, I resorted to scare tactics. Do well and receive gushing positive feedback. Mess up and receive scowls.

Little did I realize there would be backlash. I wasn't counting on a contingent of rolling eyes every time I offered honest critique, or looks the other way whenever I entered the auditorium. Not all of them, mind you, just a select group I was pushing to work to their potential. Their slings and arrows were hard to brush off and, at times, I felt like an outsider. But, honestly, that wasn't the worst of it. In a way, this self-possessed, wilt-at-criticism, "it's good enough" group of pansies stopped trying. Dress rehearsal was an utter disaster.

I suppose as a kid, when teachers pushed too hard, I, too, harbored undeniable loathing. So long ago and so hard to remember, yet many years later I am grateful for the work ethic they instilled. Despite inflated self-perception, there were many times that my best wasn't good enough. For the most part, if a teacher said I could do better, I worked harder and did. There was no ego stroking, no hand holding, no lies. "Do better or we will find someone who can," they would say. Can't take the pressure? Your loss.

Much has changed in those intervening years. Children are coddled with so much positive feedback, it makes me want to hurl. Not everyone is cut out to perform, or for that matter, sing, and in that, there is no shame. Children should be taught to discover their natural talents, then nurtured to know that distinction does not make one better or more desirable, just different. If they were taught at a young age to discover their inner strengths, and hone them through hard work and determination, children would be so much better off. Lottie may sing off-key and dance like a spazz, but boy can she play a mean game of chess. Sign that girl up for Mathletes!

As fate may go, this story does have a happy ending. The girls' first performance wasn't as good as I would have liked, but most of the solos did well, and the audience -- at least the ones who I spoke to -- loved it. Backstage, I gushed over the girls who hit the mark, boosted the spirits of those who gave it their all but fell short, and ignored the ones who continued to fall flat despite their innate abilities. My father always said that if you can't say something nice to someone, say nothing at all. At that point, I was beyond scare tactics and could barely bring myself to look the latter in the eye.

Lo and behold, the following night, these thorns in my side, the girls I had pushed beyond endurance and completely alienated, surprised me by turning the corner, giving their best performances ever. They sang on tune, kept reasonably good tempo, and belted out their solos at the right time. I could scarcely believe my ears! Naturally, I had to praise them effusively, even before the final bow. You should have seen their faces light up.  Inside, I felt vindicated.

 Here they are at a practice before the dress rehearsal

That night, I left the school auditorium with a boatload of thanks, a lovely souvenir poster signed by most of the cast, including, believe it or not, my poison protegees, but more importantly, a welling sense of pride.

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