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Rehearsals with an audience: Teaching kids to embrace imperfection

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Danny Heitman

(Read caption) Will Heitman rehearses a cello solo at the 'Midsummer Madness' performance at the Governor's Program for Gifted-Children camp in Louisiana.

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I’ve been a father for nearly two decades now, but not until recently have I been invited to a performance that seemed designed to showcase my children's imperfections.

But that’s what happened when I attended one of my 13-year-old son Will’s concerts this summer, and it taught me a lot about what we can do to help kids embrace their limitations, then transcend them.

For the second year in a row, Will has spent his summer at the Governor’s Program for Gifted Children, a 7-week boarding camp for some of the best and brightest youngsters in my home state of Louisiana. Students there can study literature, art, science, and music, and a highpoint of the camp’s closing each year is a final show featuring all the young musicians.

But midway through the camp, when students have only been on campus three weeks, parents are invited to a public rehearsal for the final performance called “Midsummer Madness.”

The intermediate show is called “midsummer” because of its timing, and “madness” because, given the newness of the material, it’s crazy to assume that the children are anywhere near ready for an audience.

But moms and dads get a big kick in seeing how their children are coming along, and the performers embrace the show’s not-for-prime-time sensibility. They learn to laugh at the mistakes they’re making before dozens of watchful eyes – and to understand error as the trial that touches us on the long march toward excellence.

The live-and-let-live spirit of “Midsummer Madness” is liberating for Will and his campmates. They’ve all been officially classified as “gifted” – a label that, however flattering, can carry some pretty heavy expectations. Their peers – and quite a few adults – often assume a level of perfection from these youngsters that no child or grown-up can ever hope to meet.

“Midsummer Madness” allows these bright young people to forgive their flaws a little – and to overlook the mistakes in their friends.

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When Will’s cello accidentally slipped across the tile floor during his classical music solo, for example, he simply smiled and asked to start over. Mild laughter floated through the audience, but there were, alas, no snickers. He casually reprised the piece – his phrasing far from ideal, as even he would admit, but a promising preview of how much better he’d be in the fullness of time.

“Madness!,” one of the instructors cheerfully shouted from the sidelines, repeating the mantra uttered each time a performer flubbed. The exclamation was meant to encourage rather than mock. It was recklessly risky, after all, to publicly play a piece of music you hadn’t mastered – but there was a thrill in it, too, a musician’s form of bungee-jumping.

Which is why, when Will’s brain went blank during his subsequent vocal rendition of the pop song “Radioactive,” he merely smiled and called for help from the audience in remembering his lines.

I’m looking forward to Will’s final performance at the Governor’s Program – the one in which kids put on their Sunday best, then play with a polish that comes only from rehearsing for seven weeks, not just three.

But I’ll always treasure “Midsummer Madness,” a show that reminds us that our sons and daughters – and their parents – are still works in progress.


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