While remembering aspects of my childhood, I cannot overlook a period of eleven years that dominated my time away from school. I took classical piano lessons. Since my first two years of lessons were with a teacher that allowed me to run all over the keyboard without the least care about counting, at the recommendation of my mother’s co-worker, my mother enrolled me in lessons with a STRICT teacher for the next nine years.
May L. Etts was the President of the National Piano Teachers Guild. She had a studio in the old Carnegie Recital Hall for her very accomplished adult students and she provided lessons for children out of her home in Queens, New York.
One of the things I remember about her is that during her annual spring student concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall and Carl Fisher Hall in New York City she would go ballistic when a child (who did not know yet) said, “I am nervous”, backstage.
Up to that point we had put in at least four months of specialized practice to memorize our ensemble numbers, with the last four weeks consisting of three or more weekday afternoon and weekend rehearsals. Many of these rehearsals found us in terror or near tears as we fumbled the keys. Things intensified the week before the concert with her slamming her hand on the piano while yelling and making us play over and over again.
The night of the concert, the seasoned students knew that she would be another person from the drill master to whom we had become accustomed. As I look back, the time had come; we were prepared well; we were at the point that our best met the best that she could impart; and “the show must go on”. She was calm, quiet, and even reassuring, but the one thing she ABSOLUTELY would not tolerate was the use of the word "nervous". She taught us to honor our feelings by describing verbally how we felt inside without giving it a label. For the young children backstage, she would help them to describe it as little butterflies flying in their stomachs.
Words matter. Some are infectious and pejorative in nature. They will tear at our self-confidence and destroy our abilities when under pressure, like a contagion of “nervousness” in young children backstage before a performance. Even if only one student was affected, it would destroy the result of the ensemble’s endeavor during the performance. Miss Etts could not afford that.
Today I give you an opportunity to be mindful of your words and how they affect you.
Dr. Ethel Drayton-Craig