A woman I know was telling me about her daughter, who grew up playing the piano. She loved playing, and was very good, even winning state-wide piano competitions in high school. And she was invited to audition at one of the top music conservatories.
At her audition, one of the professors told her she would never be great.
Of all the stupid things to say to a young musician, that has to be one of the most evil. How did he know if she would ever be great or not? And are there really only two choices: great or not great? I mean, great in what way? According to whom? There are so many ways to be great.
Unfortunately, this young woman called her parents and told them to sell the piano. They didn’t, but she never played again.
Fire vs. Inspire
Some people, usually those with more sensitive personalities, who love music deeply, and have a touch (or more) of perfectionism, will take this sort of comment literally. They take it to heart. Not all will call and say “sell the piano”, but many will falter over the next few months or years, never overcoming the self-doubt that was planted that day. It kicks the dream in the gut; it puts barbed wire around a budding talent.
I told this story to my dad, a pianist and college professor who has sat through thousands of auditions. He said “Some teachers will say things like that to light a fire under the student. But I don’t like it.”
Agreed. It's a bad way to motivate someone. Fire burns and blows things up. Even if you don’t have a sensitive personality, this motivates you with fear rather than inspiring you. The two might look the same on the surface, but they are quite different underneath.
The word “inspire” literally means “to breathe into”. In the creation story, God formed man out of the clay and then breathed into him to bring him to life. This is what it means to inspire; your talent is brought to life by something or someone breathing into it. You become the person you are.
Fire, in contrast, sucks the oxygen out of everything nearby. The musician who is motivated by fear becomes needy: he needs constant recognition, repeated reassurance that what that blankety-blank professor said at his audition isn’t true after all. He’s not living the dream, he’s trying to prove someone wrong.
The focus of the musician who is inspired is completely the opposite of the person who has a fire lit under her. The former gives her music away, free to share who she is with others, and enjoying the giving as much as her audience enjoys the receiving. The latter craves something from the audience that is never really enough. The audience might still enjoy the performance, but the musician’s thoughts are on her critics rather than the beautiful music.
A Different Way
If you have a choice, and you usually do, say positive things. Offer correction with the attitude that the student is capable of improving. When you tell him he needs to work harder, tell him it’s because he could be really great, and you are going to help him get there. If her goals are unrealistic, help her to develop a vision for her future that is authentic to who she is. Tell her what she is naturally good at rather than telling her what she will never be.
There is not one arbitrary standard of “great”. There are many different styles, characteristics, and qualities. There are many different kinds of audiences, with different preferences and opinions about what is “great”. There are many roles for pianists: soloist, chamber ensemble, accompanist, vocal coach, teacher, and so on. Some become composers, conductors, or theory professors. Some become administrators and run music camps or concert series. And there are many different kinds of music to play, not just the kinds the music conservatory professor approves of.
Though my friend’s daughter had a sad ending to her music career, her story does have a happy ending. At first, she spent four years getting an academic degree in something completely unrelated to music (and which she had no interest in at all). But then, she applied that dedication that had helped her become so good on the piano to raising and training agility dogs. And she is great. She and her dogs have won many international competitions and she has become one of the most sought-after agility trainers in the world. In the world.
I hope someday she will play the piano again. Even if it is just for her own pleasure.
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)