When I was a junior at Eastman, I took an audition for a summer music program consisting of an orchestra touring around the United States. It sounded like a lot of fun, and besides, the girl I had a crush on had done it the previous two years and was coming back for a third. I was the last person to audition, and I was playing the Effie Suite for Tuba and Piano by Alec Wilder. After I introduced myself, I sat down, got situated, and began playing the piece. Not 15 seconds had gone by, when the director stopped me and told me, “your sound is terrible. It’s completely unfocused and you need to work on this piece much more. You’re completely unready to play this. See, you actually have to take it slowly and work your way up so that the notes sound good.” He said a few more choice things before ending the audition and sending me on my way.
I remember distinctly that it was around 4:45 by the time I was finished, and I instinctively walked to the dining center to get dinner. About halfway there, the idea of eating anything completely dissipated, and I spend the rest of the night in my room in tears. I went over to do my evening practice around 8, and I couldn’t play anything without breaking down and sobbing. This continued for about 3 days before I was able to get through anything without imagining how terrible I sounded and how humiliated I felt. My brass trio had a coaching scheduled during that time, and I remember apologizing for not sounding my best during it.
Sadly, moments like this were not isolated incidents there. At the end of every year, all students are required to perform a “jury” for the faculty of our area (in my case, the brass faculty). After we finished, we would receive a sheet with scores and comments from the faculty, most of whom we had absolutely no contact with outside of this yearly ritual. The horn teacher in particular was not a fan of mine. I’ll never forget his comment to me: “You play a lot of the notes and not a lot of the music.”
Before I go further, a few concessions:
I understand fully that the music industry is an incredibly competitive one, and is difficult to get into without years of discipline, and hard work. Rejection is around every corner, and you need to have a pretty thick skin to come through unscathed and determined. In terms of the audition I took, the guy who ran it is totally in his rights to decide that he did not like my sound and to end the audition. I’ll even go as far to say that am pretty thin-skinned about these things, and it’s tough to hear criticism of my abilities without taking it very personally.
All that said, those types of “criticism,” if you even want to call it that, have no place in an educational institution. In fact, they don’t remotely resemble education. And it’s not just because they are examples of cruelty (which they are).
The main reason is that education consists of a) analysis of what a student needs and b) utilization of an educational skill-set to provide what that student needs. Using each one of these independently makes for some terrible pedagogy. If I can figure out what a student is trying to learn or the skills they should learn to become better in their field, but I can’t convey that in a way that provides those skills, my analysis is useless. If I am an amazing transmitter of information and I know exactly how to share my knowledge, but I can’t determine what knowledge is important and in which order to explain it, then my knowledge will not serve the student well. Having both of those skills together at the ready is maybe 2/3 of what it takes to be a good teacher.
The last 1/3 is a personal investment in wanting the student to have that knowledge and be inspired by the process of learning. Or in other words, empathy. You can educate people without empathy, but they can always tell the difference. It appears that you’re just going through the motions, and in most cases you are: analyze-explain-repeat. In fact, I believe that’s why classrooms with 30+ students in them are so difficult to manage. Certainly crowd control becomes a large part of what a teacher is forced to indulge in, but the bigger reason is that with a 30/1 ratio, there’s no way a teacher can provide that much individualized empathy. Students in those classrooms are left feeling disillusioned, and the classrooms themselves resemble learning factories more than living and growing learning cultures.
In the examples of my experiences at Eastman, both of these people utilized their skills in knowing what I “needed”, and then failed to deliver an efficient method of conveying that information. They chose a harsh method, one that one normally sees only done under the anonymity of an internet bulletin board. Though at the time, I was crushed by the cruelty of it, the more significant part is the lack of commitment towards constructive development of the student. If you’re going to make a statement like “you played a lot of the notes and not a lot of the music,” then just disappear from that person’s life, you have added nothing to his education. There are questions left hanging: Does that mean you like my tone? What sort of cohesive quality do you think is missing? How would I go about improving the “music?” It’s not enough to make a statement about my performance. If you call yourself an educator, you need to make the effort and have the skills to further develop my performance. Contrapositively, if you don’t make the effort or have the skills to develop my performance, well, I wouldn’t call you an educator.
I put “needed” in quotation marks above, because I’d argue neither of those people really knew what I needed. That takes the necessary time and effort to understand where the student is coming from and what his or her goals are. What’s that you say? Why would a jury panelist or an audition director have any need to know what a student is trying to achieve? I agree entirely. My qualm is that this is under the guise of education, and I think it’s the furthest possible thing from it. In fact, it undermines learning, as I learned in the 3 days I could barely eat or play.
The radial diagram I listed above by no means applies only to formal education. When I give advice to a friend, I have to use the same skills. I have to have the analytical skills to know what he or she needs, the collection of methods to convey the information in the most efficient means possible, and the empathy to follow up and be committed to my friend’s happiness. Missing any piece will make the integrity of my advice fall flat. The state of political discourse in this country is abysmal, and it stems from misconstruing what someone needs, inability to convey the information in a way someone will understand, and caring more about the immediate sound byte than the commitment to bettering our fellow humans.
Still, making cruel, worthless, and anti-educational statements are most pervasive in the educational domain. The next time you are teaching anything to a student, a friend, a child, or a grandparent, consider your actions and intent. Remember to take the time to listen to what you’re saying, analyze how you’re saying it, and understand why you’re saying it. It will make the difference between inspiring them to continue to grow and explore their discipline, and inspiring them to have to call you out on it 15 years later in a blog.