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I Can DO This!

Deborah A. Sheldon

There are many ways we give others insights into how we view ourselves. For example, many e-mail programs allow users to create a personalized signature that appears after the text. Some use the signature to provide information such as title, address, phone and fax numbers, and other e-mail addresses. Others use the signature as a personal “stamp” characterizing their personalities or sharing a philosophy. Some reveal aspects of themselves that might not have been otherwise apparent.

In a signature used by an undergraduate, I found this quote: “We are the music-makers, the dreamers of dreams.” He had attributed it to Willy Wonka. Those familiar with the story of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory know that the title character truly is a music-maker and a dreamer of dreams, but attribution to the quote rightfully belongs to poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy:

Ode The Music-Makers

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of the dreams
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and the shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

Indeed, we musicians are the music-makers and the dreamers of dreams. In reading this young man’s signature and its attribution, I was moved that he would think of himself in such terms. It instantly became a wish; at that moment, I wished that all band and orchestra directors would view themselves in this light. And my wish went a step further: that they would also become the givers of dreams.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see ourselves in this way for all of the “have-to’s” we endure. The mountains of details involved in our profession can often be overwhelming. Many things get in the way of the pure experience of music and music learning, detracting from the joy of something more beautiful. If details take control, the romance of music making becomes a “by the way.” We have days when we’re really good at handling details and keeping them in balance with our real purpose. And then there are the days when we’re not so good at it. It’s a metaphor for life some days we have it and some days we don’t.

Handling details so they don’t get in the way allows us to stay attuned to things that make the job worthwhile, like finding moments of awareness in our students. For example, perhaps a child is having difficulty with a fingering. You’ve worked on it together forever, it seems. He’s doing everything you ask but he just isn’t getting it. Then you give one more instruction, and TA DA! His eyes get wide, and he looks at you, not terribly sure if he really did do it right. You reassure, and get him to do it again. He can! He’s finally succeeded, and it’s great for both of you, this fantastic “I can DO this” moment.

If we’re not vigilant, we risk missing the “I can DO this” moments because we’re so wrapped up in administrative details that threaten to consume us if we let them. Easier said than done, yes, but a few rules of thumb could help.

  • Become disciplined. Prioritize your tasks, create an achievable work list for each day, and follow it.
  • Clean house. Rid yourself of unnecessary administrivia. Many organizational details are needed, but we might find that we have created work that is time stealing, wheel spinning, and non-productive. Decide on the tasks essential to program administration and those that are extraneous.
  • Distribute the workload. Among the many details associated with maintaining an instrumental music program, some are routine and appropriate for distribution among student leadership. Identify tasks that are readily handled by capable students, and allow them the privilege of assisting you. Initially, it will take time to train them, depending upon the task, but the time will come back to you.
  • Streamline communications. Touch mail (snail and electronic) as little as possible. When you receive mail, read and act upon it to the extent possible. Set aside time in the day, even if it’s only a short period, to take care of these communications. It might not be enough to handle all the business of the day, but by maintaining a schedule, you’ll be surprised at how manageable most of the paperwork becomes. By keeping the size of the piles controlled, facing this work daily doesn’t seem so overwhelming. Learn to be brief and to the point in your communications.
  • Decide when to “go to bat.” Evaluate the impact of issues on you and your program. Some will be of immediate and great concern, warranting your attention, while others have tangential meaning if any at all. By discriminating wisely, our limited time doesn’t become scattered and unfocused.

Those “I can DO this” moments happen often in our lessons and rehearsals. Let’s not be so mired in the non-music-making details of the job that we miss these occasions. We must be in “dreamers of dreams” mode to listen, reinforce, remember, and enjoy. To be so wrapped up in the sometimes-overwhelming details of everyday stuff is to do our students and ourselves a disservice.

Renew your charge to be the music-makers, the dreamers and givers of dreams by taking time to catch and savor these moments. They will keep you fresh, energized, and alive so you have the wherewithal to approach yet another rehearsal with a positive spin. We might find that as we look more closely, our students’ “Aha!” experiences might just begin to outnumber the “Uh-uh” experiences.

We are the music-makers and must be the dreamers and givers of dreams. When we become simply pushers of papers and trudgers-through of details to the exclusion of a more visionary approach, we deny ourselves this great part of the job. By handling details with savvy and efficiency, we can be the movers and shakers of the world. It is important to remember that “for each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth”. Let’s be there, in heart, mind, and, body, for the births of dreams in the music we make, in the lessons of music we give.

DEBORAH SHELDON is Associate Professor of Music Education at Temple University. She earned her bachelor from Mansfield University, her master’s in music education from The Pennsylvania State University, and her Ph.D. from The Florida State University. She is co-author of The Complete Woodwind Instructor and The Complete Brass Instructor in addition to writing several articles and book chapters on music education and research.