Tuning guitars and other matters of self-discipline

7 Sep

We recently did belt promotion testing at our school. It’s always great to see students prepared, excited, nervous, and coming through in the end.

Or not coming through.

Yes, sometimes students have material – often a board break or two – that they were not able to successfully complete at their test. Or, they just can’t remember some material under the pressure of testing. Or, they are not performing a technique the way we’ve coached them, and I know they can do it better, but they’re trying to skirt around it at their test. So, they have to practice for a couple more weeks or so before they can reattempt that material. Particularly at middle and higher belts, they might still then have to again attempt it at a second or third occasion down the road.

Students that are newer (of any age) or younger might get a bit more help, a few more hints, an extra chance or two (or four) at a promotion test. Testing is also oftentimes teaching, and it is confidence building, even at the same time that it is a challenge and milestone to pass. For some of the students, with too much tension they might just snap, as would a guitar sting turned too tightly in the tuning process. They may get overly discouraged. They may feel more poorly of themselves, when that may be a big problem to begin with.  They may quit, and then lose out on all of the potential benefits of what our martial arts can offer. Yes, I want to keep them motivated, keep them enrolled and keep them developing.

Recently I’ve been feeling as if I’ve watered down student expectations for class participation and promotions a bit over the past while, resulting from a variety of causes and motivations. I won’t explore those now.

I do have a continual self-dialogue that goes on inside my head and heart about not watering down expectations of students. It IS martial arts, after all, and its unique benefits don’t come from it being simply fun time. However, those expectations are a bit of a flowing dynamic, depending on particular circumstances.

I figure it’s fortunate that I have that dialogue; hopefully it means I’m not slipping too far into pure feel-gooded-ness. (Reference the recent satirical story on youth soccer without a ball.) Nor am I stubbornly adhering to some hard-nose standard of “punish them all and fail most of them.”

We don’t want to snap the guitar string, but we also want to make sure we tighten it enough; otherwise, it may still be a string on the instrument, but then it flat and dull, not useful, bright, and melodious.

Back to our promotion testing.  The finale of the night in our youth testing was three of our best, highest ranking students testing at the same time, after sitting for an hour in an ever-increasingly warm dojang.  Two girls, eight and nine years old, one boy, ten years old. I made myself clear up front that they would be challenged, they would only get so many chances, that they would either pass or not, but that I would be proud of them in any case.

Three great test efforts. Three hot, tired kids. Almost all material completed. Three promotions yet pending.  Three disappointed kids, who should be very proud of what they put forth, and even more proud and pleased when they complete the missing requirements.

I wasn’t being overly hard on them to make up for any recent laxity (well, perhaps a bit . . .). It was a fair and proper, if not unique, challenge for kids on the cusp of Poome (Junior Black Belt). They will complete their breaks, they will have learned to persevere and overcome. I will be even more proud of them then, if that is possible. They are fantastic kids and students who – did I say it already? — make me very proud.

And then, at that time, the strings on the instrument will be in perfect tune, making beautiful music and new, more challenging melodies.

To all of the institutions and parents who might have agreed with the Ontario soccer federation (if it existed), you might need to learn to play — and tune —  an instrument. I’m still practicing, and it’s dang hard to get that tuning just right.


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