21: The Power of Encouragement

21: The Power of Encouragement

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

The Power of Encouragement

Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.

~Truman Capote

While my dad has been a tremendous influence on me throughout my life, it was a few simple words of encouragement that have stuck in my mind for thirty-five years and guided me at crucial moments along the way. I doubt that Dad would remember uttering these words, but for me, those words meant everything.

When I was in grade school, we held season tickets to a series of cultural performances in Springfield, Illinois during the winter season. We only had two tickets, so whichever parent had less work would take me to the event while the other stayed home and prepared to teach the next day.

Since my dad had no papers to grade that night, he was the one who accompanied me to the ballet. I’ve long since forgotten the name of the company, but it was a traditional ballet in which the men wore leotards and the women wore toe shoes. Dad and I had seats along the side of the balcony close to the stage. More importantly, we had a bird’s eye view of the orchestra pit where twenty musicians peered into their music stands.

I had started taking violin lessons a couple of years earlier in the fifth grade. My parents painfully listened to me practice, no doubt wishing I had chosen any other instrument. They had already taken me to hear a few orchestras by that point, but what the musicians were doing in the pit below was different. They were accompanying dancers to the strains of Tchaikovsky or Chopin or Mozart. They weren’t the center of attention, but they were the backbone of the performance. As their bow arms flew back and forth across their instruments, I was mesmerized.

When it was time for intermission this one memorable night, Dad and I roamed the halls of the high school where the performance was taking place.

“What do you think of the dancers?” he asked.

“The musicians were really cool,” I responded. Not being old enough to focus on boys, I was unimpressed with male musculature. And having taken dance lessons long enough to have tried toe shoes myself, I thought the women were enduring torture. I was also opposed to those silly leotards.

During the second half of the performance, I spent more and more time focusing on the musicians. Their heads lifted in unison at crucial junctures of the music, and they craned their necks to watch the conductor, a wiry young man whose glasses seemed at the point of falling off his nose and whose tuxedo seemed to be made for someone much larger than himself. Then suddenly he laughed, and his right hand flew to cover his mouth. Several of the musicians turned around to look at the stage, and I did too. One of the female dancers had tripped, and one of the men was offering a hand to help her up. Embarrassed, she hurried back into a pirouette.

The mirth among the musicians was obvious. The dancer was unhurt, so their laughter wasn’t malicious. They were merely relishing the beauty of live performance where anything can happen and small details distinguish each evening’s effort. Because the musicians weren’t the focus of attention, they could enjoy a special camaraderie as they silently communicated among one another. They were part of something special.

After the final applause, we lingered. My dad gave me the chance to clamber down to the orchestra pit where I could see the black folders of music and the dust on the lights of the music stands. I was too timid to talk to any of the musicians, but I watched as they wiped off their instruments and chatted, satisfied, I assumed, by a job well done.

“You could do that if you wanted to.” I hadn’t noticed that my dad had come to lean over the rails alongside me.

“What do you mean?”

“You could become a musician and travel along with a ballet company yourself. Do you think you’d like that?”

At the time I was still struggling to play an A scale with all three of its sharps.

“Sure. That would be fun.”

“Well, you’ll have to keep practicing.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation or the drive back home. What stood out in my mind was the simple phrase: “You could do that if you wanted to.” My dad was actually telling me that I could grow up and be as proficient as the musicians we’d just heard and become a part of something just as wonderful. For a girl of thirteen, it was a heady thought.

At the time I had little confidence in myself, so my dad’s words shook me. That night I thought of his comment over and over again. “You could do that if you wanted to.” Hadn’t he heard my awful violin practicing? I knew darned well he had. Didn’t he know how hard it was to play an instrument well? Of course he did; he’d been a trumpet player throughout school. Yet he had faith in me even though I had none in myself.

This one comment did not cure my self-doubt, but my dad’s belief in me has served as a guiding light ever since. When I was struggling as an undergraduate to learn German and Italian and Spanish at the same time, the comment morphed to, “You can do this if you want to.” It stayed with me as I learned to cope with teaching fifth graders in Mexico and learning mariachi music by ear. It stayed on my shoulder while I wrote my dissertation. No matter what I chose to throw myself into, I knew the task wasn’t beyond me. It was simply up to me.

As things turned out, I grew up to become a writing teacher, but music has always been a favorite part of my life. Today I play with a local orchestra so that I can enjoy the beauty of classical music, and I moonlight in a mariachi band, where camaraderie is as important as performance. I may not have become an itinerant musician, but I’ve always been grateful for those powerful words of encouragement that are still with me today.

~D.R. Ransdell

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