Steven Banks

Saxophonist. Educator. Inclusion Advocate.

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable"

- Ludwig van Beethoven

SaxHax: The Power of Being a Student

Being a student in the arts can be a truly daunting task. If you are doing it right, the deepest parts of your emotional self are on display and receiving critique. In something so personal, regular scrutiny of your art can easily be confused as regular scrutiny of who you are as a person. Striking a balance of learning openly and maintaining a strong sense of your own values is extremely difficult. I think that constantly thinking about this balance, however, is extremely important to finding your own sense of success.

Let’s start by thinking about some of the most wonderful aspects of being a student of the arts…

  1. You get to learn! - This may seem obvious, but it’s true nonetheless. As a student in the arts, we are constantly gathering and processing information. We learn the finer details of how to play, write, perform, dance, choreograph, and more. We learn the history of our craft and make connections that inform our own careers. The constant state of learning is not only in our own lessons and coachings but also in being aware of our teachers and colleagues. We learn from each other how to walk on stage, how to engage with an audience, how to teach, how to find a sustainable work-life balance, how to take care of our bodies and minds, and so many more things about how to be an artist, but also a human.

  2. You get to challenge your own truth! - I have been in school for nearly twenty years now. One of the best realizations of being a professional student is that you are truly never done learning. What you now think you know and believe to be fact will probably be altered the next day, week, month, or year. Some see this as a frustrating, some ignore it and remain stubborn, but I do my best to choose to approach this as an amazing opportunity and something that fuels my continued excitement for my art. Challenging yourself to consistently reevaluate your thoughts keeps your humble, open-minded, and forward-thinking.

  3. You can practice learning to build trust! - This point is the most interesting to me. A student-teacher relationship is really built on a foundation of trust. In order to learn effectively, we have to trust the perspective of our teacher. That doesn’t mean to blindly accept everything that they say. However, we have to develop that sense of respect for our teachers in our area of expertise and as people. Otherwise, we can’t learn freely. We have to trust that what they are telling us is well thought out and demonstrates their best efforts to help us. If we can’t trust our teachers, then the relationship is not healthy and we are less likely to take their challenging advice seriously. The ability to trust is an extremely valuable skill and certainly applies to our everyday lives.

On the other hand, being an arts student can cause us to…

  1. Forget to think independently - When we first start playing an instrument, dancing or acting, it’s often because of our sense of wonderment with the art. There’s something magical, expressive, and free about performing. However, as we learn more, it is extremely easy to lose that sense of self and sense of love because we are now too busy trying to emulate what our teachers and colleagues say we should and shouldn’t do. We take our teacher's word as fact instead of a perspective. Yes, we should always think very deeply about their perspective and implement their ideas. However, we can’t forget to keep searching with that same sense of wonderment that got us into the arts in the first place.

  2. Lose trust in ourselves - You’re in a lesson and the teacher makes a suggestion. You try to apply the concept without really thinking. As soon as you finish playing, you look at your teacher and say “was that it?!” I think we’ve all done it. It’s important to remember that you have ears too! I would argue that 60-70% of the time, you will know whether you have successfully implemented their request. Of course, if you’re learning a completely new technique, you may need to have more hands-on guidance from your teacher. However, if they’re asking you to be mindful of something or to highlight something slightly different than you were before, then really give it some thought and demonstrate it in the best way that you know how. Chances are that you’ll know whether your attempt was successful or not. Just remember that what you hear/see/feel/think is valid and don’t be afraid to challenge and ask for more clarification if you don’t feel like you can understand how to make something work. Most teachers (good ones anyway) I know would much rather you ask for a deeper understanding for yourself than blindly follow what they are telling you.

  3. Be in need of constant external approval - So many students of art that I know determine their ability level based on what an instructor has told them. If your dance instructor compliments you in class, then you feel like you must be on the right track. If your music teacher says that you’re not improving as quickly as they would like, you feel like you are so behind and might even consider quitting. The problem is that teachers have certain objectives to fill and in some ways their own goals for you as a student that are often not aligned with yours. They don’t automatically know all of the wonderful things that make you unique. Unfortunately, these special things about you are precisely what will make you valuable in whatever field you are in. Yes, there are lots of objective and fundamental skills that we all need to be professionals. However, these skills that you seek approval of do not give you value and relevance in the world. No one can tell you what makes you important, but if you trust yourself and search for what makes you happy, you will find it. There is no form of external approval that will satisfy your need to do something valuable in the world. In art school, this is difficult to remember.

With all of this in mind, don’t forget to…

  1. Believe in your own thoughts and ideas! - Realize that it is ok to be different! This is what truly makes you amazing to others around you. Your own beliefs can be difficult to identify because you live with them every day. They become easier to identify once you start to interact with other people that don’t see the world like you do. Once you find your values, commit to them and let them motivate you. For any saxophonist nerds out there, in my recent success in the Northwestern Concerto Competition, I used a Legere reed and did my entire first movement excerpt using a double lip embouchure. I was nervous about this, but only because doing anything differently than one of the major professors in our field is often so stigmatized. People say “what the heck made you do that?” However, I felt comfortable. I just like to try new things and push myself! This comfort brought my first competition success as a soloist since my sophomore year at IU.

  2. Be open and hungry for critique and suggestion! - It can be very hard to put yourself on display as an artist. However, this is the reality that we live with every day. Realize that critique, as one of my good friends says, is not a critique and an “I hate you.” It is just that person’s perspective. Use the feedback that you get to inform yourself about what is working and what may not be serving the artistic mission that you hope to convey. I think it’s important and natural to be defensive of your own perspective at first. That means that you care and that you’ve invested in your decision. Just don’t allow that initial defensiveness to keep you from growing and thinking outside of the box.

  3. Realize and revel in the fact that you can’t please everyone! - You can’t please everyone. Ever. Stop trying to! Easier said than done, I know. Think of it this way...You can’t please everyone, but you can use your experience of the world to create the most genuine and sincere product that you can. Control what you can, other people will like it or not. If you are genuine and sincere in your art, most people will at least respect that fact, even if they disagree with your methods.

The best of part of all of this is that you can apply all of these concepts to your life outside of your art as well. These things have really helped me in my struggles with mental health in the past year. As I know these struggles plague almost all of us at some point, I hope that this provides some perspective and helps someone realize that they are not alone. Onwards and upwards!