Teaching musicians: criticism or praise?

“Call yourself a musician? Your playing is not up to it! Go away and practise!”

I have come across an incredible number of musicians who have experienced the full-on, critical approach of so-called ‘good’ teachers. These kinds of comments when dished out by famous musicians can be devastating for the recipient. They can at worst ruin a musician’s life and even stop them from playing.

But this is criticism at the lowest level. It does no good, it achieves little and the musicians being taught, will often need to brace themselves physically and emotionally to deal with the onslaught. On a physical level, hands tense, embouchure tighten, throats close, and breath shuts down, all of which is mostly unconscious. And as for being emotionally expressive: how is it possible if you are being criticized to this degree?

The other end of the spectrum is an overdose of praise. How easy is it as a teacher to say a student’s playing is wonderful, to appear nice and friendly, when in reality, it needs considerable work? It is the opposite of the old-school bullying approach, but what good does it do? I have heard students say they dismiss what their teachers say when it is just a blanket ‘wonderful,’ waiting and hoping for comments of greater substance.

A student musician learning to play to the highest standards needs good discerning comment from their teacher, with no emotional judgment attached. They need to know where they stand and they need help to start building their own benchmark of excellence. Judgmental, cruel, bullying comments are only detrimental and should never be allowed or accepted from the so-called ‘good’ teachers. And positive, supportive comments are wonderful and very necessary – but only when they really mean something.

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