P. E. Trauma and Music Trauma

By Miranda Wilson

I’m bad at just about every sport. This certainly due in part to lack of effort. In a larger part, however, it’s due to feelings of loathing for it since having unpleasant childhood experiences in P.E. classes.

I’ve read a lot about the trauma associated with physical education. In some ways it’s a relief to know that I’m not alone in my experiences. In others, it makes me sad to think that a subject with the potential to bring health, joy, and longevity often creates emotional and physical anguish instead.

I’m not saying all P.E. teachers are awful, but there are serious problems with the way P.E. is often taught.

  • Physical activities such as push-ups are used as a punishment for wrongdoing. This is, frankly, as offensive as making children write lines or read from a dictionary as a punishment.
  • Team sports are used as a popularity contest when children are allowed to pick teams. I hope no one does this any more, because it causes so much harm. When I was a child, I was always picked last.
  • P. E. classes are a breeding ground for bullying. A child wouldn’t be allowed to taunt other children for being bad at spelling or mathematics, but apparently it’s just fine to taunt and mock those who aren’t good at sports. In my childhood, this particularly horrid form of bullying was not only sanctioned by P.E. teachers, but actually encouraged.
  • P.E. teachers often assume that kids know the rules to all the sports, even though unsporty kids like me quite often don’t. Then you get yelled at or made fun of for messing up.
  • Sporty people are seen as morally superior to bookish nerds like me. Being called “lazy” is not fun, especially when you know you work very hard…just not at things that are valued by the in-crowd.

I’ve been thinking and blogging about this topic recently because my daughter started to have some trauma of her own. She has one of those shouty P.E. teachers (think drill sergeant, only without the pleasant personality) who makes her hate everything to do with sports. I really didn’t want this to happen because it took me until age 24 to start exercising due to adverse experiences with P.E. in childhood. I got quite emotional and considered calling the principal of her school to complain about the shouty P.E. teacher. I even considered calling the shouty P.E. teacher herself and telling her to stop inflicting P.E. trauma on my kid, but wasn’t brave enough because I’m afraid of P.E. teachers.

I even considered telling her that P.E. sucks and the couch is much better.

And then I realized something that stopped me in my tracks. Music teachers are just as capable of inflicting trauma as P.E. teachers.

For example:

  • The old-style piano teacher who whacked kids over the knuckles with a ruler for making a mistake. (This is probably illegal in most countries now, but I know lots of older people who had this experience.)
  • The school choir teacher who tells a kid singing joyfully and off-key not to sing — “Just mouth the words, dear.” This isn’t illegal, but should be.
  • The modern-day “genius” teaching in a conservatory who perpetrates the most shocking emotional and/or physical abuse on students. This is completely illegal, but they get away with it because of the classical music industry’s cult of genius.

My father, a singer and singing teacher with decades of experience, often welcomes students who have experienced music trauma, usually in the form of being told they can’t sing when they were a small child. In adult life, they usually aren’t aiming to be professional opera singers, they just want to learn to unlock their voices enough to sing in a church choir or am-dram production. To experience music as something fun, social, and creative. Which they currently can’t do, because a person told them they couldn’t sing and literally took their voices away.

This is as ignorant as it is cruel. In reality, small children quite often can’t control the pitch of their voices, but learn to sing perfectly well in tune later. Due to the ignorance and insensitivity of just one authority figure, a child who’s told they can’t sing may refuse to try ever again. The gift of music will never again be something they can freely and unselfconsciously enjoy.

Music is for everyone. I’m pretty sure that’s going to be engraved on my tombstone.

So why, I asked myself, do I persist in believing that exercise isn’t for me?

What if I allowed myself to approach exercise in the same way I do music: with small everyday goals, incremental improvements, and long-term habits? What if I taught myself to do it the way I teach students to make music, with clear guidelines and nonjudgmental encouragement? What if I took the approach that all skills are learnable?

It was time to take action, or at the very least time for a new mid-life crisis, so I decided to do something I’ve been procrastinating over for several years: Couch to 5K. It’s a way of teaching yourself to run over a period of nine weeks, three sessions a week, that alternates walking and running in progressively longer segments. A lot of non-sporty people swear by it, and I only attempt forms of exercise that are advertised as being good for the non-sporty.

Being more of a fan of the great indoors than the great outdoors, I am very fond of my couch. This was a big, big step for me. I downloaded the app, pulled on some exercise clothes and running shoes, and drove to an athletics field at a school in my town that’s open to the public.

When I got there, I felt a huge surge of reluctance. Was this a stupid, delusional, doomed-to-failure thing to do? Would the other people running around the track make fun of me for being a bad, slow runner? Would they call me a loser and lazy and mimic my terrible, uncoordinated technique? Would I instantly injure myself and end up worse than I started?

I very nearly got in the car and went home to my couch.

The only thing that stopped me was cussedness, plus the fact that I’d just told a bunch of friends what I was about to do in the hopes that it would hold me accountable.

Even so, the minute I began the first segment of running (as opposed to the longer segments of walking), my whole body seemed to scream “Please don’t make me!” My feet didn’t seem to know how to strike the ground, my ankles felt floppy, and I was quickly getting out of breath.

Then a strange voice appeared in my head that said “It’s OK to be bad at this for a while.”

I don’t like being bad at things, and quite often will decide something I’m not instantly amazing at is boring and not worth doing. In this case, however, it appeared that my choices were between badly and not at all, so I decided to sit with the unpleasant feeling and find a way to run that didn’t hurt or feel bad. I decided to apply the principles of cello technique to it: economy of movement, release of unnecessary tension, breathing.

I got through the first day. I got through the second day. 25 more days to go.

© Miranda Wilson, 2021. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.

One thought on “P. E. Trauma and Music Trauma

  1. Good for you! I have seen a lot of smart people who had “smart kid syndrome”, in which they learned to do things very easily, but were not necessarily taught what other mortals need to do–learn how to learn, how to tolerate frustration, tolerate being bad, being stuck, not knowing what to do. Those skills are as important as any other–maybe more important in some cases. So good for you for sitting with not being great at something you’ve just started! (I, of course, would know nothing about any of this, because I can do anything I try perfectly the first time, as you know.)

    Liked by 1 person

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