Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Curve Ahead-Difficult Emails

Last night's teaching was an effort in patience. I met with two busy, teenage students who are preparing: for disaster. They could not play through their pieces for memory and the competition is next weekend. If it were just up to me, I would withdraw them from the event. It simply won't be ready in time. These are budding adults. It should also be partly their decision. They are last minute preparers; this is well documented in their past. They fully believe that they will perform this artfully and memorized for me at the next lesson. I don't, but this isn't about me. This is about learning-your music, art, about yourself.

I do not subscribe to the theory that a teacher's reputation is based on how their students perform. This is a dangerous way of thinking to me. If your students fail to perform well, you could easily succumb to a low self teaching image or worse, punitive responses at your studio. I have blogged before about the student who was verbally abused at every lesson; no one wins in that scenario. I have had to look at the judge who is a colleague of mine and say, "Yep, that one was mine. What a train wreck, huh?" There is an uncomfortable 10 seconds, and then a shared smile. We know that the student just learned a lot in their poor performance, more than their critique can ever say.

I do not take only wunderkind. I enjoy my students' musical training at their level, no matter what that is. I currently have a blind retired person, a mentally challenged person, a few with ADD, and a goth. I teach the young, the adult, the talented, the busy, future performers, composers, the adventuresome and the timid. I teach music, I don't teach to win. My reputation is not damaged by a student who doesn't play well. Some teachers have the luxury of hand picking top playing students from the cream of the crop. Of course they will play well. I choose students who want to explore the vast realm of music, in all its intrinsic wonder. Some of them do play really well. Some of them are gifted and some of them work their asses off. All of them develop a heart for expression, in sound. This is much harder to give a score in a traditional sense.

Late in the evening, I painstakingly crafted an email to the parents. Hopefully, it will be met with understanding. Here's what it said.

Hi (insert parent's name here),
I just wanted to let you know that [student] had a hard lesson today. I was persuaded by her not to take her out of the festival this Saturday. But my first choice, for her sake, would have been to withdraw her. A bad performance experience can taint the next performances as they remember it and bring it with them. Some adults carry that burden even longer. Remembering that we as people learn a lot more when things sometimes don't go well is not much comfort when it happens.
I'd like her to have the opportunities of good experiences, although I know that I cannot shelter her.
The purpose of this email is to let you know that I respect your decisions at home, AND I am hoping for your guidance to the bench for the rest of the week. I'm afraid there will be tears and frustration but ultimately she has asked to move forward and do this. She has a lot of work to do. Please call me with any questions; email is hard and I'd like for you to hear the sincerity in my voice as we move forward on what's best for [student]. Peace, me...

There are no form letters in my teacher handbook for situations like this.


  1. Wow! What can I say? This is a difficult situation all the way around. But you've stated your position on teaching very eloquently.

    You teach mastery and you teach by allowing your students to experience many different situations. That is truly a teaching for life not just the recital.


  2. "I teach music, I don't teach to win." Amen--also, a very good email.


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