Disclaimer: I’m not a counselor nor an expert, but I talk to a lot of kids about a great many things related to their well-being. Here are some patterns of experience paired with elements of mental health that I’ve learned from pro-counselors. This is one perspective that may challenge you and that’s okay. Allow yourself to be challenged, then consider it or never think about it again. It’s up to you.
This past week, I met a man whose daughter was buying a cello. She tried about ten celli and, by the end of the day, she’d narrowed it down to two. As the girl was going through the perks of each one, her father simply asked her which one sounded better. After a brief pause, she looked up at him and said: “It depends on the room.”
Which is so true – different instruments simply sound different when played in different rooms and the same is true with kids. Students are dynamic individuals whose behaviour is often determined by where they are and who surrounds them. A teenager might be goofy in English class, quiet in Physics, pensive in church, or fearful around their overbearing parents.
As educators, we’ll often talk about what a student is like when commenting on their report card or during parent-teacher interviews, but the reality is that we’re only commenting on what they’re like when they’re in our room.
One of my Grade 12 trombone players has said maaaaaaaaaybe ten words out loud over her three years with me, but she’ll howl during a sprawling story in the hallway outside the band room.
My Grade 11 bass player is the queen of sassy comments in rehearsal, but will help the drama teacher at the drop of a hat and always with warmth and a smile.
One of my Grade 10 saxophone players takes a good ten minutes to moisten her reed and get to work, but will crush it in dancing rehearsal and rugby practice.
The truth is that we don’t always know the whole story with people and often times, it depends on what room they’re in.
The original context of that cello story related to mental health and the concept of diagnosis versus looking at root causes of distress. For example: A student can’t present their project because they have anxiety vs. A student feels anxious because presenting in front of one’s peers is a stressful experience tied in with judgement, feeling good enough, putting themselves out there, etc. Of course they feel anxious, anyone would feel anxious about this!
The man who told me the cello story also said this to me: “Of course you have Anxiety, now take the capital off.” I love that.
Some Grade 12 students (or first-year university ones) will start to realize their anxiety and see someone about it, then get pills to help them manage it. As we get closer to graduation, we start to have those conversations about leaving high school. They mention that they don’t know if they’ve made the right decision to take a year off. They need to pick classes for college or university and have no idea where their life is going (which is normal, by the way). They might regret registering for Pre-Med because they really want to be a writer, but their dad wants them to be a doctor and that’s the only way he’ll pay for school. They might be scared about leaving home and moving out, or the opposite: They might be stressed out about staying at home because they just want to move-the-heck out of their house and live their own lives.
When we look back on these completely normal feelings, it’s easy to understand what they’re anxious about, but that doesn’t mean they need to be clinically diagnosed with anxiety. They don’t need pills for it, they need to spend some time with their emotions and listen to their body because the anxiety is their body trying to tell them something.
My teaching partner often says that emotions are felt in the body and it’s something we share with our students regularly. Our body has physical responses to what we’re feeling and both kids and adults wrestle with that. I’ve seen students with perpetual headaches, then I meet their parents and understand exactly what’s going on. What they’re feeling isn’t an illness, it’s a ridiculous level of stress and it’s not hard to see why. Or maybe they have a test they didn’t study for and, coincidently (or not), have a killer stomach ache. That’s not a stomach ache; they’re feeling stress because they didn’t prepare for something that’s important to them. They have anxiety, but they don’t have Anxiety.
If we can recognize that, we can start to unravel what’s really going on inside our minds and bodies. I want to leave it there for this week, but I’ll cover the perils of unpacking in a later installment of “Music Ed Monday.” I’m not saying it’s easy (it’s the furthest thing from it), but the important work of our life rarely is. But alas, for a different day.
It’s amazing how much those feelings of stress relate to decision-making. Many of the examples above are about precisely that: making decisions. We don’t often get stressed about whether or not to choose the soup or the salad at a restaurant (unless you do, and that’s fine!) or what to watch on Netflix, but rather, about big decisions. The gravity of making decisions during important moments doesn’t always feel good (and often manifests as stress or anxiety), but that doesn’t mean we need to avoid them. In fact, we need to do the opposite: we need to embrace them. There is a skill about making decisions under authentic pressure and it’s really important that we develop it early on to make life more manageable down the road. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s stressful… and it’s also called growth and growth is often all of these things too.
Cello – https://i.ytimg.com/vi/Vych-cTtx2M/hqdefault.jpg