©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
It is not so much what happens that matters as what we think about what happens
—Epictetus, 2nd Century Greek Philosopher
“That does it!”
The teenager was beyond emphatic, forcefully slamming down four vibraharp mallets on the orchestra room side table. Two rolled off and hit the floor.
As school nurse, I had stopped by just in time to witness the student’s overreaction. Raising an eyebrow, I waited. New to this high school, it was the first time Andrea had played vibes with the orchestra. Turned out one of the mallets had decided to travel, sailing merrily out into the audience, having worked itself loose from its mate in her left hand.
“Someone found the mallet and returned it to me after the concert,” Andrea explained, fairly vibrated with indignation from the hair on her head to the zipper on her vest. “She suggested I might do better with two mallets rather than four. Said I might be able to hold onto one in each hand successfully. Can you believe the nerve? Well, that cooks it. I’m done playing vibes, done playing anything in the orchestra. I can tell you that for sure and certain!”
“Something similar happened to me when I was fourteen,” I said, chuckling at the memory. “I, too, lost a mallet. It sailed into the choir loft and whacked the chorale master. I got a similar comment, emphasized with gestures as he pointed to the red mark on the back of his very bald head. In retrospect, I wish my brain had been mature enough to say something humorous like, “Thanks. Guess I’ll need to grow a couple more hands.” But I was too angry and told my father—in no uncertain terms you understand—that I was done playing vibes in public, now and forever.”
Andrea stopped vibrating. “And...” she said, a bit too offhandedly to be truly uninterested.
“My father asked if I seriously was considering giving up an instrument I loved because of the thoughtless and unsolicited remarks made by another brain. He said Lionel Hampton even lost a mallet occasionally and that he typically joked about it, bowing dramatically when the mallet was returned to him, as if it were solid gold.”
Andrea picked up the mallets. “What else did your father say?” she asked, gazing down at them in her hands.
“That anything another person says is only that brain’s opinion,” I replied. “The individual might be serious or making an attempt at humor or might be thinking the comment would be helpful. He went on to say that what you say to yourself is far more impactful than anything another person says to you. So what are you telling yourself about this incident? ‘Andrea, you cannot play vibes successfully. What a stupid mistake. You are done!’ Or are you saying, ‘Andrea, that was unfortunate. However, more seasoned players that you have lost a mallet. You are using hand lotion after you are done playing. You are glad it didn’t whack anyone on the head.’ Choose carefully because your brain believes what you tell it. It only does what it thinks it can do—and you are the one who tells it what it can do. If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
We chatted about the importance of self-talk and the most effective style according to current studies. Andrea looked directly at me. “I have some habits to change,” she said thoughtfully. “I can do this.” She paused. “Rephrase! Andrea, you are more careful about what you tell yourself. You tell yourself what you want to have happen, not what you do not want to have happen.”
“My father died in Vietnam,” she said quietly. “Mom and my brother and I live together. My dad played vibes…he got me started. My vibraharp used to belong to him.”
“So did your father say anything else?” Andrea asked, looking directly at me this time.
“Yes, he did,” I replied. “He offered me a metaphor, an internal mental picture that I could pull up any time I needed it, saying: ‘Those who are willing to ride the bow of the canoe tend to get wet. Others sometimes spray water on them, sometimes in jest, sometimes through jealousy, or sometimes because of outright meanness. And sometimes it may be because they speak negatively to themselves and use that same style when communicating with others. It’s just part and parcel of the journey. Those who ride the bow are ahead of the others in the canoe, however, and have the most marvelous and unobstructed views.” I paused. “How many students in in this entire high school play vibes?”
“One,” said Andrea. “One. That would be me. I’m even using my own vibraharp because the school doesn’t own one.” Pause. “But I don’t like to get wet.”
I laughed out loud. “My father finished describing his metaphor by reminding me: ‘Clothing dries.’ Andrea, you must decide if you believe passionately in what you are doing; if you love playing vibes so much that you are willing to risk getting wet. Just remember: clothing dries.”
I was just about to turn and leave when Andrea said, “I really do love playing vibes. It’s partly my fault one of the mallets took an unauthorized trip.” She laughed. “My hands were likely still a bit damp from hand lotion.”
“Are we related?” I asked, laughing again. “That’s exactly what happened to me when I beaned the chorale master. After that I used hand lotion after a performance.”
Andrea began to laugh again, and the more we laughed the harder we laughed.
The year sped by. Andrea continued playing with the high school orchestra—successfully. I was pleased, since my brain’s opinion was that she had a great deal of innate talent.
Toward the end of the school year I arrived at my office one morning to find a tiny shopping bag hanging on the door knob. Once inside I opened the bag to find it contained a small box. Removing the lid I, a miniature birch-bark canoe gazed up at me from a sea of purple tissue paper. I picked it up, carefully holding its smoothness in my hands. Immediately a host of memories raced each other through my brain like a moving picture: losing a mallet, my father and I paddling a real canoe on the Red River, capsizing near a small whirlpool (lucky we always wore life jackets!); the many helpful metaphors he shared with me over the years, and on and on.
Chancing to turn over the miniature canoe, I noticed two words that Andrea had hand-lettered along the keel: Clothing dries.