I learned a key lesson about coaching storytellers from a Hungarian music teacher.
It was September of 1979. I sat in one of my first ear-training classes, terrified that I didn’t belong there.
After all, I was just a folk guitar player and folk singer, often accused of singing out of tune. The few times I had auditioned to sing in a choir, I had been refused. To be sure, I loved to sing, to perform for children and to teach folk guitar.
But the other nine students in the class were all classically trained, having grown up singing in choirs, taking piano and other instrument lessons, playing in school orchestras, and all the rest.
So why was I beginning a full-year music course? Why had I quit my work and put everything else in my life on hold?
Because these teachers were from Hungary, where every school child is taught to sing in tune, to read and write music, and, in general, to develop their musical intelligence. And this was my last chance to study full-time with master teacher Lenci Horvath, who, after 5 years in the U.S., was slated to return to Hungary permanently the following June.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t deathly afraid of being the slowest student in the class of ten - of being the dunce who holds everyone else back.
The Hopeless Student?
This particular day, we began our two-hour ear-training class, as we always did, by singing over some simple folk melodies we had already worked on. We sang each melody first as a group, then one person at a time. Lenci gave us individual hints about how to sing each tune more accurately and musically. She listened to each of us apply the hints as we sang, then moved on to the next student.
After a while, she asked us to sight-read a new melody, a bit more complicated than the rest. Each of us did pretty well until it was the turn of a student named Charlotte to sing it by herself. Charlotte came to a place where she needed to sing “do - mi”. (These are the first and third notes of a major scale.) But Charlotte sang the wrong notes.
Lenci, relaxed as ever, asked Charlotte to sing “do - mi” a couple times by itself, then to sing the melody again. Charlotte stumbled again.
Lenci then had us all sing a song we had already learned, a song that began with “do - mi”. She asked Charlotte to sing the words of the song in her mind when she came to the “do - mi” notes in the melody. Charlotte still sang the wrong notes.
Undaunted, Lenci asked Charlotte to add the note of the scale between the mi and do, to sing “do re mi”; Charlotte did. Then Lenci asked her to sing the melody again, adding the “re” note between the “do” and the “mi.” Charlotte did. Now Lenci asked Charlotte to sing the melody once more, but just imagining the “re” note in her mind. Charlotte succeeded, but failed again at singing the whole melody with the original rhythm.
Lenci tried two or three other, equally brilliant ways to help Charlotte succeed. But Charlotte failed each time.
We nine other students began exchanging glances at each other, rolling our eyes about Charlotte’s inadequacy. I remember being glad that Charlotte was clearly the slowest student - not me. She’d be holding back the class, not me.
The Frustrated Teacher?
At this point, Lenci began to sound a little frustrated. We rolled our eyes some more; of course Lenci was frustrated; she was dealing with an inferior student.
Then Lenci spoke, beginning, “There must be some way….”
Mentally, I filled in the rest of her sentence, expecting her to conclude “…that you, Charlotte, can try a little harder,” or “…that you, Charlotte, can be put in a slower group.” In anticipation of Lenci’s criticism of Charlotte, the rest of us smirked some more.
But Lenci finished her sentence: “There must be some way that I can help you better.”
We were all stunned. Lenci wasn’t upset with Charlotte; instead, she was upset with herself, for not helping Charlotte succeed.
After her brief expression of frustration, Lenci came up with yet another brilliant teaching strategy, and that time Charlotte triumphed.
A New Understanding
At that moment, Lenci turned my concept of teaching upside down. For her (and for all the Hungarian teachers), I realized, when a student failed, the teacher would never blame the student. Instead, a student’s failure was the sign of a teaching failure.
Lenci’s worldview was alien to my entire educational experience until that moment, but it helped me see my own expectations of school: First, I had assumed that there would be one or more “dummies,” who would be scorned. Second, I had felt the need to scramble to be sure that the dummy wasn’t me. Third and most significantly, I had assumed that the student was to blame for failing.
I saw all those expectations and, for the first time in my life, I realized how harmful they were.
Sitting there in shock in ear-training class, I vowed silently to try to become the kind of teacher that Lenci was.
Lenci-Style Storytelling Coaching
35 years later, I have decades of experience in living out Lenci’s premise: that anyone can succeed - at music, at storytelling, at anything you are willing to work hard at and can find good helpers for.
In particular, you can succeed at storytelling. If you are facing a difficulty at this moment, you’re to be congratulated, because you have found the place where you can get help to improve.
As your coach, it’s my job to help you overcome your difficulties, to see you through to your success.
In fact, it’s not just me coaching you. It’s me, Lenci, and all those who have, like Lenci, put into practice our belief that every human is essentially creative, filled with artistic intelligence, and capable of artistic success.