Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Reputation Story

(Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20 (left) from Japan and 19-year-old Haochen Zhang from China both took first prizes at the 2009 Van Clibnurn International Piano Competition)

This is a sad but true story. The names have been changed, not to protect the innocent, but to protect the guilty. The innocent and I are talking about this, one step at a time.

These are the facts:

Fifteen year old John, and his Teacher, Mr. B, decided over a year and a half ago, that he was ready for the challenge of a more significant piano competition. The parents were required to increase John's practice time, pay for music,entrance fees and extra lessons, and attend his lessons to take note on what needed improvement. This plan was carried out. The music was college or even master's candidate worthy. The student was up for this unique opportunity. He is a brilliant, dedicated young man with parents who understood their role in this. He already played very well, to say the least.

Over the course of the year, the teacher often seemed dissatisfied in the youth. He would make berating comments about the student's lack of motivation or remarks about his pianistic ability. The repertoire was challenging; John was improving but would it be enough? The diligent work continued. I heard him play the pieces about one month before the contest; I was proud of the work he had accomplished for his first competition and although I was not his teacher, could hear all the progress he had made. I also know what judges at this caliber competition are listening for, and John was probably not going to win.

Two weeks before the event, the competition imminent, the teacher announced at the weekly lesson that he had pulled John from the competition. The parents were quite surprised. In front of the student and his parents, Mr. B glared at the boy and said, "I simply cannot let you ruin my reputation by playing that way in public."

John is continuing studies with this teacher. John has said that he let Mr. B. down, and will try harder.

Now the editorial:
I'm embarrassed that this teacher put himself before his student. His "reputation" should have been put on a shelf long ago. Critique his music, but not his person. It's horrendous to believe that there is still abuse when they are one-on-one, teacher to student. A psychologist friend of mine said to remember that 80% of what some says indicates more about the teacher than it does about the student. 80%.

I'm angry that the parents are still subjecting John to the torment of a teacher who is not ever going to be happy with their son's progress. There are other wonderful teachers out there.

I'm anguished that this student was not commended, in fact he was punished, for his hard work. This competition was his first in this more strident, different league. Let him get his feet wet, feel the pressure, control the nerves. This was about so much more than winning. John still learned a lot about himself and the music. I guess this detail could go under the facts section. But he also learned about human pride and arrogance.

As musicians, we often carry words of our past as baggage fettered to our legs every time we go out on stage. We remember the bad more loudly than the good critiques. We hear the whisper in our inner ears; "you're not that good, you know. Who do you think you are". The stage can be an intimidating place. I will place a wager that this young man will be done with lessons after high school, and never play piano again. It will be our loss.

Please, may I not be part of anyone's chains. We need more beauty and music and art in the world. May I do no harm.


  1. I'm horrified! It's awful that a student feels he let the teacher down. I'd say it was the other way around; the teacher failed to be patient and nurturing of this student's future potential. We should at least be human in understanding how what we say affects someone under our authority. I share your anger that the student is continuing and not seeking a new teacher.

  2. He clearly felt that the student's performance would reveal his own inadequacy as a human being. What a shame this person is in a postion of power with young people, whom he seems to regard as things.

  3. ooh, Art, I loved your analysis here on both counts. His own inadequacy may indeed be true, at least as a teacher, more likely as a human. And I agree that it's a shame that he doesn't see this young man as an equal. No wonder it still has me indescribably burning!


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