What I’ve learned from my adult students is that the bruises they suffered in their education as children and young adults interfere with their learning to play the piano much more than any problems of an aging mind or body. What I’ve learned to do for my students who are children is to try to do no harm.
I don’t mean that sweet, goody-goody stuff that says everything’s all right when it’s not. I hate that. It’s dishonest and without integrity. It’s wrong.
I’m talking about making corrections with compassion. Letting students know it’s hard being corrected, especially when they think they’re right. Letting them know that I know being wrong can be embarrassing and humiliating. Letting them know it’s all right to be angry and hurt. Even letting them know I won’t be angry with them for being angry with me.
I enjoy my adult students very much, but I’m struck by their cautiousness, carefulness, desire to be perfect, and their utter lack of charity towards themselves. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get adult students to be pleased with their work.
Where’s that insatiable curiosity of infancy? Where’s the eagerness for adventure? Where’s the willingness to try new things? Where’s the little kid who’s willing to fall down over and over again in his desire to learn to walk? For virtually all my adult students, and myself, somehow this has been knocked out of us.
How did we arrive at this state? I believe we were bruised in many ways, big and small, at all levels of our education. Teachers can be insensitive, inconsiderate and, sometimes, even sadistic. Parents, who are our teachers also, are sometimes the biggest problem.
Infants are insatiable is their curiosity about the world. They do all kinds of things to find out what’s what. Unfortunately, some are dangerous, like chewing on the electrical cord; some are inconvenient, like flushing their shoes down the toilet; and some just don’t fit the timing or moods of the powers that be. All such moments teach children to curtail their unbridled curiosity.
These are bruises. They’re little hurts that stopped our exploration and began a long process that took our agenda of learning away from us. While these limits on our curiosity may have been necessary from the adult perspective, they certainly weren’t from our child perspective.
When people go to school or take lessons, they lose control of the agenda of their curiosity. Teachers take over the subject and the timing of learning. Individual curiosity no longer leads. In some places, it counts for nothing. The natural instincts of our own curiosity were irrelevant and that loss made us less involved in our education.
The pleasures and rewards of satisfying our curiosity were taken away from us. School is not about rewarding curiosity, it’s about learning what others want us to learn; it’s about pleasing teachers. If we were successful in school, the one thing we had to learn was to make teachers happy — happy enough to give us good grades. We may or may not have learned things interesting to us, but that wasn’t the point. Successful students must please enough teachers to get enough good grades to continue in the process.
Having lost the agenda and rewards of our own curiosity, we come to believe that pleasing teachers is the same as pleasing ourselves. We substitute learning how and what we want for cooperation that makes teachers happy. We become confused and think pleasing the teacher is the same as pleasing ourselves. It isn’t. That’s why so many “straight A” students are unfulfilled by their accomplishment. They feel a void. They’ve become so adept at pleasing others they forget to please themselves. For some, they’ve even forgotten they have a self that needs to be pleased.
My adult students are educationally successful. Most have doctorates or law degrees. Some appear regularly on TV. All are successful as we define that concept. They have played the education game well enough to win some of the top prizes.
They are all taking lessons because they want to; nobody’s making them do it. They pay for it themselves. Yet they all want to please me. I don’t have a Ph.D. I wasn’t even a particularly successful student. So why do all these brilliant people want to make me happy?
I must confess that it’s been a gradually unfolding shock to me to realize how crucial it is for them to make me happy. I thought I worked for them and was supposed to make them happy so I’d still have a job.
I seemed to have missed the point entirely. I hadn’t realized how much power I had or, rather, how much power they gave me. If making the teacher happy is what it’s all about, and I’m the teacher — it’s my power trip.
For whatever reasons that I am what I am, I don’t feel the need for this power trip. A significant part of the reason for this is because of the teachers I had, at least in music.
I teach because I love the mix of the world of music and the world of the individual student’s mind. It is a fascinating place to be. I don’t feel the need to control or force the outcome. I do want my students to be pleased with their work in music.
It wasn’t until I started listening to them talk to themselves that I really began to realize how displeased they were with themselves and how this related to their past education. That past has taken so much from them. When they make mistakes they say things like:
“That was stupid!”
“What ARE you thinking of?”
“This is so easy. I shouldn’t be screwing up?”
The condescension in their voices is impressive. They are not talking to themselves with their own voices; they are talking to themselves with the voices of past teachers and parents.
Ponder the enormity of this. They have become their own attackers. When did they abandon themselves and join the accusers? Who is left to defend them?
One of my adults was playing for me and playing well, with feeling. I was enjoying her playing. All of a sudden she yelled, “No, no that’s not right!” I was startled. Less than a minute later the same thing happened. I was startled but also annoyed. I was enjoying her playing and concentrating on it. When again this scream interrupted, I was angry. I stopped her and said, “You keep getting me involved in your playing and then scare me with your screaming. What are you doing?”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said. “I’ll stop. I didn’t realize I was bothering you.”
What I realized, and what we then talked about, was that my feeling was the same as hers when she was playing for her teacher as a child. She’d be intently involved in her music making when the teacher would yell and scare her. In the present case, I was the teacher so I could get annoyed and tell her to quit. But when it happened to her, she was the child and the student. If she’d reacted to her teacher as I reacted to her, she would have been called rude and impudent and this particular teacher would have hit her. I’ve seen this woman make a mistake and cover her head to ward off the impending blow.
How can people be totally involved in their learning if they are waiting for someone to yell at them or hit them? A part of them must always be watching and waiting for the interruption or attack. I don’t yell at my students, young or old.
The final irony of this sad tale is that the woman was her teacher’s best student. She was working on Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata at the age of 12. Her teacher had never had such a gifted student. Why did she feel the need to treat her student this way? People do not understand that there are problems being a teacher’s best student.
The tragedy of all this is that people who are abused in this manner come to identify with the abuser and feel they should be abused, they deserve it. Compassion is hard to accept. That’s one of the reasons my adult students talk to themselves as they do.
Another example of teacher abuse was told at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Adult Music Student Forum. The humorous presentation doesn’t hide the pain and injustice.
Tom read the following: “The man you see before you now is approaching his sixties. And yet, he can remember with stark clarity the severe brutalization that he endured for nearly a full year when he was a mere slip of a lad in his second year of elementary school. This torture he suffered at the hands of none other than his piano teacher, one Sister Mary Florentine.
“Sister Mary Florentine’s most notable trait as a music teacher was a truly remarkable intolerance for wrong notes. To say she was a stickler for perfection just doesn’t fully capture it. During lessons she would usually stand behind and a little to the right of the student, gently cradling her weapon of choice. That, of course, was the standard issue twelve-inch wooden ruler with the embedded brass straightedge. She would position herself strategically–just beyond the student’s range of peripheral vision and just within striking distance of the keyboard.
“Imagine yourself in this tableau — a young innocent boy, hands poised just above the keyboard with its hundreds of nicks and notches reflecting decades of wrong notes, each quickly followed by errant ruler strikes or ricochets. Imagine the strikes that found their intended targets. Imagine yourself playing “The Blue Danube Waltz” in that situation.
“Now fast forward about forty years. My family and career were by now well established. My life was on course and cruising along. Yet there remained a vague gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach — something missing or unresolved. It eventually evolved into a desire to take piano lessons.
“My memory of the experience with Sister Mary Florentine formed the basis of my expectations regarding lessons with Matt. For example, I naturally expected some form of torture to be an integral part of each lesson…
“But even from the first lesson it was clear that Matt was no Sister Mary Florentine. For example, during lessons he seated himself practically all the way across the room, way beyond striking range. Some of Matt’s idiosyncrasies were a little confusing at first. Consider his seating arrangements — highly varied and always interesting. When he conducted lessons while seated on a medicine ball. I found myself occasionally wondering how he could throw the medicine ball at me while he was seated on it. I feared there might be some trick. My frame of reference did not permit me to imagine that he might simply be trying to ease his back pain.
“I cannot say that any of his approaches was particularly effective for me but all of them together seemed to have considerable benefit. After two or three years, I found myself actually focusing on the music. With Matt’s continued teaching … I found myself playing at least elementary pieces with actual enjoyment.”
For Tom as the 2nd grader, getting right notes was not for the joy of the sound, not for the joy of physical mastery, not for the joy of learning. Here success is not about feeling proud; it’s about not being hit. What he learned was that some teachers are mean and would hurt him. What he learned was not about music but was about self-preservation.
Tom and I had been friends for at least ten years. I taught his daughter piano. I had known her from birth. We would all go Christmas caroling every year together with other neighbors, then go back to their home for Irish coffee. He knew the kind of person I was.
But this knowledge became irrelevant when Tom started taking lessons. What Tom knew of me could not erase the terror of his earlier experience. The history that was relevant was the horror of his earlier piano lessons. When I was teaching Tom, I lost my identity to Sister Mary Florentine. Tom said it took him two or three years to actually focus on the music. It took that much time to undo the meanness of his earlier teacher.
The yelling, hitting, and condescending nuances are all humiliating and embarrassing. Humiliation seems to be a common part of everybody’s education. All those I’ve talked to about this article have their own set of examples. They usually haven’t thought to ponder them, but rather, regarded them as an assumption of the whole process. Everybody has experienced this embarrassment. Before high school kids start doing the same thing to each other. One outcome of this embarrassment is anger. I want to return to this in a minute but first there seems to be a special humiliation we all experienced as students.
That humiliation came from thinking we were right when we were wrong. The teacher pulled the rug out from under us by telling us, and the all rest of the world it felt like, that we didn’t have a clue, missed the whole point, were stupid or whatever. The power of this humiliation is amazing. I cannot get my adult students (and many young ones) to say they played well. They think I’m going to say their playing was awful. They think I’m trying to set them up for this embarrassment. They think this because it’s happened to them before.
Recently, a student reluctantly confessed to thinking she played a piece well for me. There was something negative I wanted to point out so I knew I was in trouble. I tried to head it off, but I failed. I said five things that were truthful and positive about her performance. I said one thing needed work. She never heard the five good things, only the one bad. Everything I feared came pouring out. I’d set her up. I’d embarrassed her. I was just trying to show her how little she knew compared to me. She said was that I was like all her other teachers, and having a Ph.D., she’d had a lot of teachers. She was angry with me and embarrassed by her anger. But she was really angry and we talked about it and the discussions went on for three weeks. Neither one of us capitulated but each clarified what we’d said and felt.
Her anger freed something in her and her playing became significantly better in the weeks that followed. I’ve had this experience before. Release of anger at the teacher can free students to invest themselves more fully. I don’t totally understand this. Perhaps the truthfulness of the anger and the teacher’s acceptance of that anger allow the student a deeper level of commitment. My favorite story about anger at teachers is my own experience.
I took my one and only viola lesson a few years ago with a dear friend, Rodger Ellsworth. Rodger dropped in one evening after a performance at the Kennedy Center and asked if I wanted a viola lesson. I said, “Of course not.” In principle, it was a fine idea, but I had a thousand reasons for not wanting to do it. Rodger persisted saying it would be a good way for me to know what it felt like to be an adult student and other such reasonable nonsense. I relented and took my first lesson. The result was not at all as I had expected.
Tensely, I put the viola under my chin and clutched the bow in hand. I started to listen to his many instructions, some of which seemed contradictory to me. What I didn’t expect was that I got really furious. I told him he didn’t know how to teach, that I was going to smash the viola over his head, and other such violence. I was livid. Being the friend he was, Rodger was able to accept all this calmly.
When I finished my outburst and settled down, I found I was drawing the bow over the strings with an ease and firmness I had not imagined possible. My outburst of anger apparently released my frustration at being in an awkward situation, feeling out of control, and feeling inferior. Having discharged that tension, I was free to engage in the learning activity fully, without distraction.
Rodger was a friend. I knew I could be angry with him. Had I been working with a regular teacher there would have been no such outburst. I would have been the usual polite student. I would have been stuck with my anger and I would not have learned nearly as fast or as much. That is the position of most students.
I encourage my students to vent their anger at music, practicing, and me. I let them know I am strong enough to take it and won’t get mad at them for telling me. When it happens, and it’s not often, I don’t take their anger personally. I don’t feel they’re being rude or impudent. I know that to really love something you have to have the freedom to sometimes hate it.
Another of my favorite stories is about Clare. This is an example of what I learned about teaching children from teaching adults. I was ready and I finally handled one of these situations right.
I was working with Clare, and it happened to be her seventh birthday. She was in her second year of piano. Clare is fun, smart, honest, and polite. She played her piece for me with the right hand playing everything one note higher than written. Instead of “B” she started on “C” and so forth. Though it didn’t sound quite right, it didn’t sound too bad either. Clare thought it sounded fine. I asked her to play the right hand one note lower, in other words, the correct way, and she thought that sounded weird. She played it again the wrong way and found it better. In other words, she had played it wrong all week. Thinking she was right, she was pleased with herself and her work.
I told Clare that I hated to tell her, but she had played all the right-hand notes one note too high. Clare was silent, but her big brown eyes filled with tears. I apologized and told her I felt it was important to be honest with her.
I asked her if she felt dumb and stupid and she said “Sort of.”
“Does it make you mad?”
“Do you feel it in your body anywhere?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, do you feel it in your chest or stomach?”
“It hurts doesn’t it?”
Recently, I asked Clare if I could tell this story in a talk I was giving. She said sure, but she didn’t remember the incident. To Clare, it was not a memorable event. That’s exactly the way it should have been. Had I unleashed any of those lines teachers are famous for like “How could you have made that same stupid mistake all week long? Don’t you ever look at the notes?” I think she’d have remembered. She was already embarrassed by her mistake and her assumption of correctness. What I did was to “hold her hand” while she got in touch with how really rotten it did feel, right into her chest and stomach. With both of us accepting all these feelings, she could then let go of them and we could move on.
What I’ve learned from my adult students is how much our education hurts; how much we all suffered to get where we are; and how much a teacher’s remembrance of their own past makes them repeat it rather than correct it. What I’ve learned is how rare is the consideration of students’ feelings, not withstanding some wonderful exceptions.
Most of all, I’ve learned the value of compassion in education and the value of allowing students the space to learn and know all the diverse emotions involved in the learning process. It’s not dramatic; it’s just kind. It doesn’t call attention to itself; it does no harm.
by Matthew Hare
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