Insights on Role Modelling

My wife and I were in Houston last month on business. We took the opportunity to visit with our son Elliot and daughter-in-law Yvette who live there. Elliot is a music performer (drums) and teacher. Yvette is a project officer.

During our visit with them, Elliot recalled that I often spoke to him when he was young about some of my role models. As a father, I said a lot of things to our children to encourage and instruct them. That my words actually made an impression was heartwarming.

I took the opportunity to further explore with Elliot the notion of role models. Here is a bit of our conversation:

Robert Thirsk: The other day you recalled some of the role models that I upheld to you as a child. I was delighted to learn that some of the people who made an impression on me when I was younger also made an impression on you. What do you remember me saying?

Elliot Thirsk: You upheld Terry Fox for his personal drive and dedication to a cause, and for individual accomplishment.

You spoke of Grandpa. I knew Grandpa and loved his sense of humour. But I didn’t know much about him as a person. After he died, you told me about his character and passed on some of the humorous stories about him. I know that he taught you that anything worth doing is worth doing well.

RT: Yes. The other thing that Grandpa often said to me was “with privilege comes responsibility”. I passed on that advice to you and your sibs as well.

ET: The role model that you most consistently cited was Bobby Orr.

We watched videos together of Bobby Orr’s career highlights. They were entertaining. But once in a while you would pause and rewind the video to make a point. “Look what he did there,” you’d say. “After Orr scores, he acknowledges the player who passed him the puck with a fist bump. He doesn’t over-celebrate. He skates back to the bench with his head down.” That gesture taught me humility and team spirit.

You emphasized that selflessness is important; that an assist is more important than scoring a goal. If I had two goals in a roller or ice hockey game, you’d encourage me to get three assists. If I had three goals, I had to get four assists. Because teamwork is important.

You also pointed out that if someone on the Bruins was having a goal drought, Bobby Orr would pass the puck to him even if Orr had a better scoring chance.

You would encourage me to do the same. If there was a kid on my roller hockey team who was new to the game, you would tell me to pass the puck to him or to shoot it into the net off his shin pads. So at least he would get on the scoring sheet. Having scored a goal instills confidence in new players.

Bobby Orr was also an example of perseverance through adversity. He played at a high level in spite of all his knee injuries. I recall a video we watched in which Pat Quinn demolished him with a crushing check along the boards. On the next shift, Orr was back on the ice. He was shaken up, but still giving 110%.

A young Thirsk family meets Bobby Orr. Elliot is at bottom right.

RT: You are right. Bobby Orr is someone I greatly respect. In one of those highlight videos, someone says that while Bobby Orr was a great hockey player, he is an even better human being. How true.

Another person I upheld to you was Jean Beliveau for his leadership abilities. While he won many Stanley Cups, Beliveau said that his greatest acheivement was being voted by his teammates to be captain of the Montreal Canadiens.

Was someone not from your generation relatable?

ET: Beliveau was relatable; however, you did not encourage me to cheer for anyone who played for the Canadiens! But you often mentioned that Beliveau was a phenomenal hockey player and leader, and yet so humble.

RT: Is upholding role models to children a useful way to parent?

ET: Yes. Due to the demands of your job, you couldn’t always be at home. You had to have some other means to instill character in your children from afar. When you were training overseas or flying aboard the Space Station, I still had the Bobby Orr videos to watch and reflect.

My hockey coach Dave King viewed sports and life in a similar way as you. He was a friend of yours and espoused similar values. So, when you were training or in space, I was still playing hockey and still being exposed to those life lessons.

Elliot as a Peewee hockey player, with his proud father.

RT: Yes, during one of my extensive periods of heavy travel, you became the assistant coach of the high school team under Dave King. That relieved me. That meant two or three times a week you would be in contact with Dave, hearing his thoughts about sports, teamwork and life. That was reassuring to me.

In addition to showing you videos, I also tried to introduce you to accomplished, well-grounded people. I have much respect for Diana Krall. I recall once over dinner, you mentioned to her that you were interested in a music career and wondered how you should direct your educational path. Diana advised you to repeatedly take your skills and experiences to the next level. Don’t stop once you’ve reached a level of mastery or comfort. Keep pushing yourself.

What are the limitations of role models? Role models, like all of us, are humans and therefore imperfect. We all mess up. Ben Johnson and Lance Armstrong let us down. How do you handle that?

ET: That’s the risk of idolizing celebrities. It’s scary. A role model could have serious personality shortcomings.

However, we can still regard the Lance Armstrong list of accomplishments for what they are and be inspired. Armstrong, after all, still won the Tour de France five times in a row. He overcame testicular cancer. Yeah, he cheated; but he must’ve had some positive attributes to have accomplished what he did.

Tiger Woods was the greatest golfer ever. He then got a DUI and his marriage fell apart. But he still accomplished all those incredible things on the golf course. That’s admirable.

RT: Many people are rooting for Tiger Woods now. It’s not so much the failure, but rather how you recover from the failure. Tiger is making a big effort now. We would like to see him regain some of his former stature.

When you think of some of the celebrities who have failed, what was it that sunk them?

ET: It was usually a flawed personality trait. If a person is obnoxious, for instance, then they’re not going to have a successful career because of a lack of quality connections with other people. A lot of famous drummers are technically excellent and skilled performers, but they don’t get a lot of gigs because they have poor interpersonal skills.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who are not the greatest talents, but are solid foundational drummers and are really nice people to work with. They get so many requests for work that they have to turn many of them down.

RT: Would you rather work with someone who has a nice personality and only 80% of the skills; or with someone who has 100% of the skills but is tough to work with?

ET: I’ve worked with a lot of abrasive people, but it’s usually only for one night. I can tolerate their bad behaviour for a couple of hours but then hope to not hear from them again in the future.

If I need to work with a musician over weeks or months, I insist that they have a pleasant personality.

RT: Do good role models need to be well known? To be celebrities?

ET: It’s true that well-known role models are the most relatable. But, no, I have role models who are teachers and hockey coaches and are unknown outside of my local community.

RT: Can you tell me about a couple of your former teachers and how they impacted you?

ET: I had two awesome drum teachers in college. The first one was a genius – one of the best drummers I’ve ever met. But his teaching technique was methodical and linear. He had me do a breathing exercise during the first fifteen minutes of every lesson. This approach didn’t click with me. He also insisted that I play everything on the page perfectly before I could move on. I thought this approach was inefficient when I could’ve been advancing to other things.

My other teacher was more non-linear. He would ask me what I wanted to learn. I’d say that I’d like to learn how to play the double bass, for instance. He’d say, “Okay, let’s conceptualize this.” We would start with a concept and then see in how many tangents we could go with it. In other words, I had the opportunity to shape the learning exercises in my own way.

So, I learned how to become my own drummer and not a carbon copy of someone else. The latter teaching approach worked best for a student like me. The second teacher became a role model.

RT: Do you stay in touch with these local role models?

ET: Yes, somewhat, but it’s a different kind of relationship today. I still don’t have the playing ability of my former teachers but we often work together now as peers.

RT: Are you a role model?

ET: I don’t know.

RT. Mom and I hear nice things about you from the staff of your music academy as well as from the parents of your students. They say that you are stellar; that you are making a difference. You are teaching these young people the technical aspects of music as well as the necessary personal traits.

Besides technical skills, what are the personal attributes that you need to be a successful teacher?

ET: Adaptability. Every single student I’ve had is unique. No two are the same. You have to be creative as a teacher in your approach. One student might be a visual learner. Another might struggle with sight reading. Someone else might comprehend a new concept simply by hearing it once. Someone else might be gifted with a photographic memory. Someone else might have a learning challenge. Teachers need to be creative in their approach to instruction to handle whatever strengths or shortcomings a student might have.

Compassion and empathy are also important. If I am working with a group of students in the setting of a camp or a rehearsal group and notice one student who seems to be isolated, I reach out. She or he may feel isolated because of skill level or social awkwardness. I need to be the person who shakes their hand and welcomes the little guy to come join in. And I indicate to the other students that they also need to reach out to the isolated kid.

RT: What are the personal attributes that you need to be a successful musician?

ET: Awareness and adaptability are important parts of teamwork, especially in the setting of a live performance.

I need to be aware if a band mate is dragging or rushing, and have the ability to pull them back or to push them forward. I need to be aware if the bass player is playing only down beats, while I’m play up beats; or if he is playing in swing time, while I am playing in straight time. One of us must change what we are doing. I must adapt on the fly or get them to adapt. Otherwise, we will clash and it won’t sound right.

RT: What about practice? When you were young, we encouraged you to practice. Do you struggle with that with your students today?

ET: Yes, every one.

RT: Every one? Is there not one budding star who can’t wait to get home from a lesson to practice or to try something new?

ET: There is no one who practices as much as they should; me included. No one in the world.

There are certainly many students who are enthusiastic. But their practice also needs to be productive. When I was young, I found it more fun to play along with one of my favourite recordings than to practice finger control for three hours on a practice pad.

But if you don’t play along to your favourite records and make practice fun, then you are not going to want to spend time on finger control. So, it’s a healthy balance between fun and fundamentals.

RT: That’s also Bobby Orr’s mantra. He thinks that we’re drilling kids in hockey too much.

Bobby learned his hockey by playing shinny with a puck and a bunch of friends. No adults were around; just kids wanting to have fun. It was on a frozen river, not in an indoor arena, where he learned his phenomenal skating ability. In order to hold onto the puck during a shinny game, he had to learn to skate quickly forward and backward, and to turn sharply left and right. The primary reason that Bobby Orr became the greatest hockey player and best skater was that he had plenty of unstructured time on the ice as a youth to develop his skills.

Which musicians do you uphold to your students as role models to emulate?

ET: That would depend on the situation. If a student is struggling with practice, I would direct them to Youtube videos by Mike Johnston (a drummer from California). Mike structures his lessons to be positive and fun. Even if a student is a novice, Mike will pass on productive feedback and compliments. If you look at Mike’s social media feeds, there is a lot of positivity.

If I am emphasizing the concept of teamwork to a student, then I will speak of Ringo Starr. Many people criticize Ringo because he played some of the simplest drum parts and fills. But that is why The Beatles became what they were. He deliberately played in the shadows of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison. The other three needed to be the focus of the music. Ringo willingly became a role player and played with restraint so that the intricacy of the songs and the talents of his band mates could shine.

If Ringo had done drum solos like Stewart Copeland did, I don’t think The Beatles would’ve been as successful. His playing would’ve encroached on the genius of Lennon and McCartney.

RT: You often talked about John Bonham, a drummer with Led Zeppelin. He did not hold himself back.

ET: Every band is different. In the context of Led Zeppelin, it was okay. Bonham knew when to hold back and when to show off.

Elliot performing at a recent gig (I taught him everything he knows. Ha!)

RT: Thanks, Elliot! These are great insights on role modelling.

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