Mar 172013

It started when the mother of a 10 year-old student mentioned that she referred me to the mother of an 8 year-old for lessons. She characterized me as “strict but not mean.” Hmm, they are usually thought to be the same thing.

I decided it meant that there were certain things that were necessary to learn before one can play well and play musically. These are not mysterious and they cannot be compromised. One is getting the correct rhythms, next is correct notes, and then bringing out the melody so the listener can easily hear it. I am strict about these elements of playing. Teachers can’t be wishy-washy in their demand for these. They are basic elements and must be present in anyone’s piano playing, child or adult.

It also means that certain practice habits must be learned and established. Certainly, that can takes a long time. For some of us it’s a lifetime. It is not an even learning path. Teachers must be present and involved with the student’s learning and understanding of how to practice effectively.

One of my students recently told me he had been with his previous teacher for five years and she never once mentioned how to practice. That’s not right. There’s nothing intuitive about “practice wisdom” for most of us. It needs to be taught.

So often we think of strict as mean. You know, hyper-critical, insulting, condescending, sarcastic, physically abusive, the silent treatment, sighs, dismissiveness, and even the teacher saying the student is a waste of his/her time.

I think strict means really caring about students and really caring about music. It doesn’t mean being unkind and hurtful.

It’s important to separate the playing of the student from the student as a person. The comment, “You did that terribly,” is about the student. It’s not helpful for it tells the student nothing about the music, only that the teacher did not like it and that that the student is no good.

The comments below are about the music and the playing. They are not about the student:

“I couldn’t hear the melody enough when you just played that.”

“Do you know the tempo isn’t even on page 2.”

“You’re getting a wrong note in the left hand in measure 13.”

Students will not miss the point. But said this way, it won’t hurt as much.

It’s mean and offends the student if these three teacher comments above are introduced with the words,

“What’s wrong with you…” or “Don’t you know anything…”

To be mean is to instill fear. Fear gets a certain result. It gets what the teacher wants or great rebellion. It does not get a creative result, a free result, or a musically adventurous result. These are much more valuable than just right.

Students are first and foremost fellow musical travellers. Respect them and care that they learn how to do things right. Sometimes it’s necessary to be firm and direct, but weaknesses in the playing never justify personal insult. Let people be themselves and they are usually quite wonderful. They also do their most expressive playing that way.

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