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Humiliation is a Powerful Instrument

July 7, 2018

When I was eight years old, I was invited to come be a "showcase student" at the regional piano teacher's association conference.  I know that makes me sound like I was a product on The Price is Right, but really, it boiled down to playing the piano in front of a couple hundred teachers.

 

I remember the day clearly.  Getting to take the day off from school, I was thrilled to be a part of something special.  My parents drove me to the conference site, and we waited with my teacher.  

 

The plan was, that during one of the afternoon sessions, the presenter was going to invite me up to play a song.  I was to play a particular piece of music and the teacher was going to demonstrate giving me constructive criticism.

 

I was well prepared.  My own piano teacher had worked with me on the piece and she had modeled constructive criticism so I knew what to expect.  

 

But, the conference was full, the presenter was a little scary looking, and the room was warm.  Finally, I heard my cue and my parents nudged me forward.  I walked the long length of the aisle and walked up the steps to the platform.  

 

The presenter, a woman who was, no doubt, renowned in the piano teaching world, asked me to introduce myself to the audience and begin my piece.  I tried to say my name as confidently as I could and then sat at the bench to play.

 

And play I did -- with gusto and precision and all of the best technique I could muster.  As I neared the end of the piece, I was so happy because I had remembered it all and done it perfectly.  Or so I thought.

 

When I finished, I turned with a wide smile to the teacher, eagerly awaiting lavish praise and perfunctory advice.  Instead, I got something much different.

 

She looked at the audience, looked at me, and looked back at the audience, and with a strange laugh said, "Well, I don't even know what to say about that.  She didn't even play it in the right register.   She played it in the wrong spot!"

 

The audience gave a nervous laugh right back.

 

And I sat there.  Turned back to the piano, looked at the keys where my hands had just left, and sure enough, I had played it in the wrong register.  

 

Just an octave higher, mind you.  And I didn't notice when I first started because I was so distracted by the audience and the teacher and the responsibility of the moment.

 

But apparently, playing eight notes too high was appalling enough for the presenter to point it out to the audience and not even acknowledge my effort.  

 

After a few more awkward moments, I slid off the piano bench as discreetly as I could and ran/walked the length of the aisle to my parents.  Of course, they could see the situation clearly and they jumped up and ushered me out.  

 

I was completely humiliated.  Publicly embarrassed.

 

Over eight notes.  

 

Now, thirty four years later, I can still see that presenter's face in my mind.  I can still smell the oil that was used to polish the grand piano.  I can still see my mom's angry set of her mouth as she glared at that teacher and shielded me from the rest of the room.  

 

Humiliation is a powerful instrument.  

 

But so is encouragement.

 

Think about it . . . what if that teacher had handled it this way:

 

"Sweet girl, what a fine job you did!  I can tell you liked that piece.  I bet you didn't notice that you were an octave too high, but that's o.k.  Next time, take your time when you begin;  really look at where you are on the keyboard and make sure you are right.  Other than just playing it a few notes too high, you nailed the song and I absolutely loved it!  Thank you for preparing so well and playing with such excellence!"  

 

That feels totally different, doesn't it?

 

Notice that the correction was still made?  Notice that the constructive criticism was there, but it was couched in encouragement and actual teaching?  

 

Piano Teacher Friend, I encourage you to think about which tool you use more: Humiliation or Encouragement?

 

Before you scoff at me, insisting you would never humiliate your students, can I gently ask you these questions?

 

Ever sigh deeply?

Ever say "how many times have I told you _______________________?"

Ever roll your eyes (even slightly)?

 

I try to ALWAYS speak to my students in the encouraging way that I wrote above.  But, I will admit, when I'm tired or when the student is unprepared, or when I feel like we've worked on this same thing a hundred times, the temptation is real, my friends.

 

Don't do it.  Never ever, ever reach for humiliation.  

 

It is better to be the weird teacher who was oddly quiet this lesson than to humiliate your students.  

 

Trust me, they will remember it for a very long time.  Like for 34 years or so.

 

Choose to encourage your students.  Make encouragement your instrument of choice.  

 

You'll be glad you did.   

 

 

 

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