In what feels like a blink of an eye, I’ve reached the halfway point of my master’s degree. As is with every aspect of life, I find meaning in asking a question. What does it even mean to be a master?
When I hear the word “master” my brain automatically loads the words “Pokemon Master” (if there are degree programs out there for this then someone tell me where I can find them because I want to be the very best, like no one ever was). A master is usually someone who is a skilled leader in an organization or a specialist of a craft. The combination of experience and expertise earns them respect and prestige. Chess masters, headmasters, masters of the martial arts, and even artists all hold this illustrious title.
So I ask myself, “what have I mastered, or, what have I begun to master?”
To develop this inquiry, I would like to introduce you to someone who has been very important to my life in Kalamazoo. His name is Matt and he is one of the university cellists I taught this year. Not only do Matt and I share similar interests (Skyrim, Magic the Gathering, etc.), but similar personalities. Thus, we tend to struggle with many of the same challenges both on and off the cello. He has been one of the most difficult students I have ever worked with in terms of his own challenges and my capacity as at teacher to address these issues. Yes, I used the word difficult. Or if you prefer, problematic. Our lessons together, both our individual experience and our dynamic together as a teacher and student, has been riddled with frustration, confusion, and conflict.
I should clarify. To use the word “difficult” is actually a compliment and in my mind, it is the highest compliment that I could give to Matt. But some more context is required to understand what I’m trying to get at here. In the education system, we place too much value on students who know the answer to the question before the question is asked. Many of our so-called “bright students” or “prodigies” do know a lot or are highly skilled. But what they don’t know is that they don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know or they have not really tested themselves by really struggling. One of the reasons I feel okay saying this is because I have been an unintentional victim of this system. I’ve always gotten the “Good Student High” from raising my hand (or not raising my hand) and saying the answer. The methodologies that have been designed to “teach” don’t actually lead to a deeper understand or better skills. Education is a process of discovery and discovery means risk and failure. So if you are just showing off what you already know, then what have you gained other than a petty ego boost?
“If you’re practicing and it sounds good, then you’re practicing the wrong part.”
-Richard Aaron, Cello Professor at the University of Michigan
“If you aren’t confused, you should be worried and you had better find out how to get yourself confused because only by digging yourself out of a pit are going to really understand the material.”
-Kyle Langvardt, Assistant Professor Law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law (and future brother-in-law).
During a particularly difficult lesson during a particularly difficult week, Matt and I had reached a stalemate of frustration. He was frustrated with himself. I was frustrated with myself. He was frustrated with me and I with him. FRUSTATION. It was at that moment that I realized in spite of all the disappointments, all of the failures, mistakes, and bad choices, we are still here. We didn't throw in the towel, something kept us going. In essence, Matt personifies the virtue of endurance because he endures. He has had his fair share of lemons handed to him. And he has even handed himself some of those lemons. Yet he persevered through it all. He persists.
Thus, it was by Matt’s own will and inner strength that he performed a very successful recital program a couple weeks ago. His example and accomplishment led me to experience a steadfast truth. To fail and to persist is as valuable as success and if failure isn’t a figure in your equation, you had better figure out what is wrong. This is what it means to be a master. Not to be someone who can effortlessly execute their goals but to be one who has failed and draws their expertise from this experience. The thing that a master is most competent with is struggle. What they are skilled in handling is not the cello or the bow but with handling failure. In my own life and cello playing, the hardest setbacks have yielded the greatest breakthroughs. I don’t think that it’s going to get any easier. But I do think that I might be getting a little better at it.
Thank you Matt, for all that I have learned from you.