Tough Love and Hard Knocks

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It’s a cruel world – does that merit cruel teaching methods?

I have had my share of great coaches and teachers. They were mentors who were inspired to teach. They crafted their advice like word-smiths and tailored their methods to meet my needs.

I have also had my share of teachers with mixed abilities – some with cold and narcissistic attitudes. They lacked effective social and motivational skills; a few others were blindly motivated by misguided and uneven philosophies, jaded attitudes or one-sided methodologies set in concrete. (I call this the “my-way-or-the-highway” teaching approach.)

One alarming attitude that I have encountered more than once has been this: because the world can be a cruel and cold place, a student must learn to have a thick skin and therefore must endure tests of banality and cruelty during their lessons.

What is a “good” teacher?

Choosing a private teacher – as a parent on behalf of a child, as a prospective college student, or as an amateur or professional looking for guidance – is not a purely objective experience, but there are some traits to look for as touchstones.

A long-term teacher assumes many roles – as a mentor, a guide, a colleague, a friend and sometimes even as a surrogate parent. The label “good teacher” is not black-and-white of course; that being said, here is a generalized list of what I would consider effective teaching traits:

  • a thorough knowledge of the subject being taught; its history, pedagogy, repertoire, current applications and performance techniques,
  • strong communication skills; the ability to adapt and reach diverse students with different learning styles,
  • the patience and wisdom to diagnose, categorize and prioritize a student’s needs,
  • a certain amount of confident selflessness and humility,
  • a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at one’s self.

Advice to Teachers

If I had a time machine and could go back, I would offer advice to some of my private teachers:

  • Give strength-centered compliments. The life of many a person could probably be changed if someone would only make him/her feel important.
  • While a weak student may not ever “have what it takes” to be a professional, almost anyone can be taught and inspired to be a lover of what they are doing.
  • If you find that you are repeating yourself and are focusing on one aspect of a student’s performance for an extended period, interpret this is a signal to put that issue aside and move on to something else.

Tough Love

Yes, without a doubt the field of classical music is very competitive and sometimes cruel.

It is “dog-eat-dog” and only the most fortunate survive to make a living. In the symphony and opera orchestra profession especially, a very small number of students will ever secure full-time positions. This is the harsh reality of the business and tactful “tough love” is often required to inform serious students of their employment potential and to give them a dose of reality.

On the one hand it is a teacher’s duty and responsibility to do this. On the other hand this duty should not be used a weapon to beat down, discourage or to negatively motivate a student into changing their ways and habits.

In engaging a private teacher, a music student has made an adult choice, has paid good money and deserves to be respected for their choice. An effective teacher then must be tactful and mindful of this when forcasting a student’s future.

The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.
–William James

One of my favorite books is “Zen in the Martial Arts” by Joe Hyams, which I use as a reference in my personal teaching. In it Hyman writes:

A dojo (practice hall) is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves-our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner who is engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully…

In the martial arts and athletics, like in music, there are a number of teachers driven by ego and narcissism. There are exceptions, as noted at

Not only is Sifu Brown open, but his teaching is having a profound effect on the lives of his students. He is teaching the true essence of martial arts practice. He is teaching his students what I have believed in and practiced for 20 years: that the martial arts is a vehicle to reach higher states of consciousness and results in leading a better and more fulfilling life outside of the school.

There is much more to teaching than honing technical skills and gearing students towards a career path. Dogmatic, inflexible methods cheat students from the joys of learning and ultimately backfire, robbing our field of the public support it so desperately needs.

University of Horn Matters