Friday, March 11, 2016

Are American Music Teachers Too Nice?

The Strad recently published an article online about how U.S. music teachers are too nice, and how their lack of high standards and strict discipline is harming students' long term achievement. Many of the teachers interviewed for the article expressed frustration over the inability of American students to accept correction or criticism. As a teacher (and a former student, of course), I see both sides of this issue, and I understand the crucial balance teachers must find between tough love and compassion. However, I think the article misses some important points.

1. Not Every Student Wants to be a Professional

Considering how saturated the music profession is today, and how few jobs are available, this is perhaps a good thing. Some students are learning an instrument for enjoyment, or to give themselves a challenge, or because all their friends are in orchestra too. While I try to hold all of my students to high standards, I don't demand rigorous practicing from kids who have no intention of playing professionally. Many of them won't even end up playing in their high school orchestra, so why stress them out and drive them out of my studio?

2. Lack of Respect for Teachers is a Huge Problem

I started a new job this past fall teaching mostly middle school children instead of elementary-aged kids. Maybe it's the age difference, but I find I have to "prove myself” to the middle school children before they will listen to me, much less do what I ask. It's frustrating to have to explain to a kids who's played violin for less than a month that, yes, I do know what I'm talking about when I give them instructions. I think that one reason American children don't take correction well is that many of them have a massive sense of entitlement that makes them resist listening and following directions without arguing back. It doesn't help that teaching is often considered a low-status, low-prestige job. Students aren't immune to the lack of respect that our culture shows teachers. It takes tons of patient effort for a good teacher to overcome resistance and earn students' respect. Sadly, that effort means we often don't have as much time to spend on the subjects we're teaching!

3. Parents Focus on Success, Not Effort

I can't tell you how many parents, even after only one or two lessons, ask me if their child has "talent." What I hate about this attitude is that it discourages hard work. Even extraordinarily talented musicians practice regularly to hone their craft. I wish that parents would ask me what their child needs to practice, or how they can help their child meet practice goals, instead of asking about "talent." What's more, this destructive attitude makes teachers hesitate before giving their honest opinion about the student's abilities. Parents often mistake "little Johnny isn't practicing hard enough or paying enough attention to succeed" for "Johnny won't ever amount to anything in music, so he should just quit and find something easier." But quitting because things are difficult teaches children to be quitters, instead of teaching them that to be great at something takes effort.

I think that teachers should show students compassion, and wise teachers understand how to support students emotionally when they need it. But I think we should re-examine our culture, especially the distrust and disrespect we show teachers, before we blame them for being "too nice."


  1. Teaching is by no means a low status job and I believe that too much is expected from teachers, when parents can't be bothered to do their bit at home.

    It must be quite frustrating seeing a child who could do better with a bit of practice, being encouraged to give up something they enjoy because the parents think they lack talent. People baffle me sometimes, as parents we are meant to guide our children, teaching them how to find balance in life, which means finding a happy medium between working hard and having fun.

    Teachers deserve the utmost respect and I take my hat off to you and tank you for wanting to teach our children.


    1. Thank you! It can be hard when children (and parents!) get frustrated by a lack of practice but don't practice at home. I try to tell my students that anything worth doing takes time and effort.