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What Not to Say to Your Aspiring Music Students

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Okay, I admit this is literally my first year teaching private instrumental lessons. What place do I have in giving teaching suggestions to potential veteran pedagogues? In my humble opinion, I believe I can speak from my many years playing the part of the student and from my recent, small handful of years as a music therapist working in the mental health scene. From those places, I choose to speak my truth with perhaps some scientific backup sprinkled in. Why have I chosen to share how I feel about this topic? (Wow, I literally almost typed 'toxic' instead of 'topic'; my subconscious is getting ahead of me!) Because clinically speaking, and not excluding the second-hand accounts provided by fellow musicians, some of the standards I've witnessed in the education of music are neither healthy nor safe. Whilst a few music instructors are quite encouraging, a great many others are micromanagers and use negative reinforcement to the point of emotional maltreatment. Through my current project as a music therapist, I've been specializing in workplace humanity and wellbeing. I've learnt that people in modern day management are already attending programs on how negative reinforcement and micromanagement are outdated and how humanistic environments are more productive. So why is such an outdated system still normal in the education and execution of performing arts?

In many modalities of therapy, one of the most important lessons we learn is how to set healthy boundaries in order to establish the quality of life we deserve. So by sharing my thoughts here, I am hoping to set such boundaries by providing some perspective to a wide range of music instructors; and furthermore, a safer space in which aspiring musicians can grow. Note my continued use of the word 'aspiring'. This means that as I provide the following suggestions, we are regarding those who truly want to attain the skill, and I acknowledge that there can be many grey areas surrounding this. But here's the tricky part. Just because they are not practicing does not mean they don't want it. We will get into that in a bit. For now, let us make the safe assumption that anyone who chose the instrument on their own, and is taking out loans or paying out of pocket for your sought-after lessons, probably wants the skill you can provide. Here is how you can help them flourish by avoiding saying variations of the following themes.

'Did you practice this?'

This is a tame one, and a tempting one at that, depending on how long a student has been struggling with a particular piece or passage. But it's accusatory, and to the limbic system, accusations feel threatening, meaning they put us in fight or flight and impair sound judgment. If your intention is to stress out your student as a means of discipline, I would advise you to first observe if a) you are 110% sure they did not actually practice and b) the reason they are not practicing is within their control. Because for an aspiring student who did practice, it is beyond discouraging for us to make them think their hard work led to nothing, and it heavily implies a lack of healthy trust. If your aspiring student is not practicing, check in with them. Are they burnt out? Have they taken on too much? Reassess their situation or learning style, and find a new way to help them grow.

'This isn't that difficult.'

A bit of a spicier saying than the one above, and this is why. Approximately 1.5 million people in the UK deal with with a learning disability. We WILL get students with some learning difficulties, be it dyslexia, ADHD, ASD, etc, and many of them will be undiagnosed. Also, here's the best part. They've been hearing this very discouraging statement all their lives, and nearly every single day for them is frustrating. If they choose to focus on studying an instrument, they really, really love that instrument. Don't ruin it for them. The same idea still applies to our more 'neurotypical' students, as well. If they are struggling with something and we are telling them that they shouldn't be struggling with it, we are still implying that their abilities are not up to our standards, and that it's on them to fix it. It's not on them if they don't know how. It's on us as their instructors to help them figure out where the kink is. This statement is ableist. Just don't say it.

'I've told you this x amount of times.'

Like the above two, it is a tempting thing to say, but it is also ableist and accusatory. A certain concept may seem simple to you as the expert. But for those who are still learning, it could take the brain a few or even several tries to fully absorb something abstract, depending on age and neural makeup. Yes, they are aware of how often you have told them, and yes, they are frustrated, too. To paraphrase Zen Master Thich Naht Hahn, if your lettuce isn't growing, we don't blame or shout at the lettuce. We make changes to the environment and what we're feeding it. Except unlike lettuce, humans experience emotional stress, they become exhausted, and eventually, they burn out. It is our responsibility to help our human lettuce flourish, even if that means adapting to different needs and situations and being mindful of how we project our frustration.

'You're not cut out for the performance world.'

So many people I know have heard this, be it over looks, demeanor, soft skills, nerves, health, what have you. Apparently, the performing arts world is so competitive that if you're not an attractive, charismatic, emotionally stable prototype, you should quit trying. First of all, what performance world? Record labels? The orchestra? If we are convincing our students that those are the only options, and don't get me wrong, they're pretty nice options, we are setting (nearly) all of them up for failure. I find this to be one of the biggest wrenches in the gears of the performing arts. There are a great many other options for musicians to love what they do. I'm not saying it's not still incredibly difficult, because it is! I'm saying there is a lot more room for innovation than we think. Trust me, if a student is certain they have the incredible focus and stability required to audition and perform with a major orchestra, and furthermore, they trust you to foster this, they will work hard for it. But there are other options out there for other students, and I find it sinful that we are weeding out those who could thrive somewhere totally new and different with their music.

Micromanagement in any way, shape, or form

This last one is a bit more broad than 'what not to say,' but I feel as though it needs to be addressed because many other miscellaneous things that shouldn't be said can only fall under this category. Have you seen The Devil Wears Prada? Many instructors of the performing arts appear to embody a sort of 'Miranda Priestly Complex,' and for some reason, they are proud of it. They set numerous, unrealistic expectations that are incredibly difficult to keep up with and often have very little to do with their students' education. Instructors employed in acclaimed schools feel as though they have earned this complex, and those from the less well-known schools act in such a way from what I suppose is a form of compensation. But here is what workplaces and corporations are have been learning. Fear does not yield to productivity. It just weeds out a lot of potential because humans are not very creative under stress. If you want to be a Miranda Priestly, more power to you, so to speak. But you are also making it clear that you value your ego more than the responsibility that comes with teaching.

I know what some of you must be thinking now. That I am suggesting we pat every student on the head and give them shiny participation medals just for showing up. So allow me to clarify. The execution of music is a very powerful subject to learn, and it must be done with fine precision and incredible sensitivity. Music is not easy. And furthermore, exposing oneself to audiences is not easy. It is not something to be taken lightly, and certainly not something to be apathetic about. But also, I truly believe everyone who wants it and aspires for it has the potential to be an effective musician. Therefore, this idea that we must rid the studio of those who buckle under pressure, take longer to understand an idea, cry easily, and burn out faster has to stop. The ableism has to stop. I understand well that there are students with nerves of steel, who put in the hours of effort, and meet the demands of micromanagers with no questions asked, and they have done very well in these systems. I am also sure a vast majority of them came from stable households in which a healthy balance of love and care was given and reciprocated, and healthy work ethic was fostered from the very beginning. Trust me, they didn't succeed because you 'challenged' them. They succeeded because they have a strong enough foundation to effectively handle stress.

Learning to be a musician, whether for fun or as a living, requires work and dedication. But that does not mean the studio or the lesson space shouldn't be a safe place to learn. Teaching another human being how to be an effective musician is an incredible responsibility because when we perform, we become vulnerable, and you are essentially teaching that student how to be comfortable with their vulnerability. So please be kind. Stay open minded. Appreciate the diverse range of individuals who will be seeking your instruction. And avoid saying variations of the above when giving your lessons. If you find it difficult to be kind to those under your artistic mentorship, then I highly recommend you take a sabbatical and come see me for therapy before you burn out any more artists and innovators. You'll find my contact details on my home page.

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