The other morning, while enjoying my first cup of tea for the day, our puppy Bella Bardóg decided to keep nudging me for attention, distracting me from reading the book in my hands. I rather thoughtlessly responded with,
“If you want the book, how about you read it to me?”
Bella looked somewhat forlorn, and my wife Louise chipped in with,
“Don’t humiliate her! You know she can’t read!”
This slightly daft domestic anecdote illustrates a hugely important truth: when we ask somebody, anybody, to do something we know they are incapable of, we humiliate them.
How often, perhaps inadvertently, do we do this to our students?
As well as an aspiring dog-whisperer, Louise is a clinical specialist in child and adolescent mental health, and it is only fitting to credit her for many of the thoughts which follow, emerging as they did from our discussion that morning…
Running the Gauntlet
When I think of humiliation, one memory that quickly comes to mind is that of my first PE lessons at Prep School. The teacher (let’s call him Mr. Cane) had a particular skill and penchant for humiliating students.
For the duration of each lesson the class would be split into three “teams”, using the time-tested system of allowing favourites to pick their teams until the weaklings, overweight and unpopular were finally chosen. We all knew that the lesson would culminate with the losing team “running the gauntlet”.
For this horror, the two more successful teams would form a baying corridor through which the losers would have to run, bending over with hands on their knees, the winning teams spanking their bottoms as they passed.
Mr. Cane did little to disguise the amusement he gained from this bizarre ritual, and no doubt reasoned that he was doing us all a favour, “toughening us up” for the harsh realities beyond the school gates. In reality, the experience left me with a deep aversion for sports which lasted for the rest of my schooling and into adult life.
Far from “toughening us up”, humiliation leaves us degraded, weakened, damaged. It is not and never will be a legitimate strategy for education.
And yet the logic of Mr. Cane permeated all areas of education, including as we shall see, piano teaching. We too want to prepare students for the world beyond our studios…
How we humiliate our students
Obviously none of us wants to humiliate our students, right? And yet there are a number of ways in which piano teachers can inadvertently do just that. We should’t condemn ourselves or be racked with guilt: the list that follows merely serves to highlight ways in which we can try to avoid unwittingly humiliating students.
As a basic rule-of-thumb, remember that if a student comes away from any lesson essentially feeling inadequate, this is humiliating for them.
1. Unrealistic demands
Though not as daft as asking a family pet to read a book, some things we ask of our students may still be unrealistic. There is a fine balance between encouraging and developing new skills and pushing students too hard to do something they aren’t yet capable of.
Teachers sometimes also have quite unrealistic expectations regarding independent practice between lessons. For more on this, check out my article Let’s talk about our practice expectations.
2. Cutting criticism
An important element of the piano teacher’s role is to provide a constructive critique of the student’s playing, but in doing so we need to be careful to avoid harsh language, a dispassionate delivery, and rushing to correct every small mistake in a spirit of impatience.
If pupils feel we have simply shot down their best efforts, this too is belittling and humiliating for them.
3. Showing them up
Modelling sound and technique by giving musical demonstrations of pieces and exercises is also absolutely fundamental. However, it’s a small step from demonstrating to showing off.
We can avoid the latter by taking care to demonstrate pieces at the level our student can emulate, accompanied by encouragement and explanation of how to reach that goal.
4. Singing Woes
Singing can be a hugely beneficial element of music education. However, the inconvenient truth is that while younger children are usually fine with singing in the lesson, teenagers and adults may find the very idea of singing humiliating.
I have witnessed students running from the room when asked to sing; I’ve even heard about cases of vomiting. There can be many personal reasons for this strong aversion; remember that singing is a deeply personal form of expression, and one that many simply aren’t comfortable with.
5. Comparisson and competition
It seems obvious that making comparisons between students can be unhelpful, just as we wouldn’t encourage sibling rivalry. But sadly, comparisons can happen in casual conversation as well as in masterclasses, festivals and competitions.
Even the most ardent advocate of festivals and competitions must think carefully about which students to enter, and for which class. However much we emphasise the benefits of taking part, the player who comes last in a class of seven will probably feel discouraged. Teachers often say to me that ”most” of their students enjoy festivals. That’s good news; but what of those who don’t?
Competition for piano players can certainly have real benefits, but we must be clear that not every player will experience them. Some are more robust than others. Crucially, we can’t be sure that our students will vocalise their true feelings on the issue.
What are our students really feeling?
Take David (not his real name), a successful city banker in his 40’s, who arrived at his first piano lesson stating he would never be willing to perform in front of others:
“As a child I was made to enter the local music festival every year. I usually didn’t do very well; each year I disappointed my family and my teacher…
It seemed pathetic to admit to her how anxious it all made me feel. And she loved these events; I didn’t want to upset her.”
Happily, having returned to lessons later in life, David has discovered joy in his piano playing, and he has even started playing to others within a supportive environment.
Then there’s Carole (again, not her real name). She first wrote to me about returning to piano lessons at the age of 60, and described herself as “a basket case”. I wanted to get to the bottom of why she felt this way…
“Every year my teacher would enter my sister and me for the local festival. My sister always won, but I never did. Then we would play together in the duet class, and it was always me who went wrong on the stage and spoilt our chances of doing well…”
Why did Carole’s teacher and parents allow this to continue from one year to the next?
“It was just expected. All her pupils had to take part. So each year I would put on my prettiest dress, walk up onto that platform, and fail in front of all those people.”
Carole eventually quit music lessons, but for the next forty years continued to play for pleasure when nobody else was around. Having resumed lessons she has finally, after several decades of married life, played the piano in front of her husband. It’s a breakthrough, but one which should never have been necessary.
A strong feeling of humiliation is such a forceful emotion that it can influence the whole course of our lives.
How we can end humiliation
For starters, how about we commit to the following ideals:
- only set students realistic goals and tasks;
- admit when we as teachers get it wrong by pushing too hard;
- be more careful in how we deliver advice and criticism;
- use positive language and remember to include genuine praise;
- take more interest in pupils’ overall lives and welfare;
- when demonstrating, avoid showing off;
- avoid making comparisons between students;
- only enter them for a competition or examination if there is a genuinely useful benefit to be gained from doing so, and if it’s clear that it will be a positive experience.
Louise suggests two Golden Rules which should help us all avoid humiliating our students.
Firstly, really get to know your students.
Find out who your students really are: their ambitions, goals, strengths and weaknesses, fears and motivations. Discover the limits of their comfort zones, and avoid pushing too hard.
Above all, cultivate a healthy and honest relationship with students. Make your teaching studio a truly safe place.
If we have a good relationship with a student, but get it wrong by pushing them too hard, they are less likely to feel any sense of humiliation because they will know that the learning environment is a safer, more secure and accepting one.
Secondly, never force anything.
Never force students to play in concerts, competitions, festivals, take exams, sing, or expect them to learn music which is beyond their present ability.
When it comes to shared music-making, just as we are learning to be more creative in our teaching approaches to reflect the needs of today’s students, so too we must use our imagination in providing and organising a wider range of more positive playing and performing experiences.
Humiliation invariably leads to lesson avoidance, performance anxiety, and students giving up on music altogether. How often do you meet an adult who says to you something like this:
“I learnt the piano as a child…but I was rubbish.”
Let’s work together, being creative rather than destructive, to make piano playing the most enjoyable, satisfying and life-affirming of endeavours!
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