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Nix the Negativity, Parents…A Personal Plea October 17, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Philosophy, Saving the World, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , ,

This past week I came across Dan’s extremely powerful and moving blog, Single Dad Laughing. I was struck by one entry in particular – You Just Broke Your Child. Congratulations – in which he describes how he saw a dad emotionally and physically abusing his young boy in a grocery store. I began writing a reply on the comments thread which turned, you guessed it, into a rather detailed blog post. It talked about the power that adults in general – including music teachers – wield over a child’s confidence and self-image and how easily it can be abused (and the drastic consequences). I spent several hours writing it and was about to publish it here (don’t worry, I will still post it in a day or two…)

Then something happened which really brought home to me what Dan was talking about…and how often this happens.

A student who I’ll call Naomi (not her real name) came to make up some lesson time she’d missed. When Naomi started lessons with me over a year ago she was tentative, unhappy, convinced that she “couldn’t do it” and was “bad at piano.” Neither of her parents had much musical training and her support base was minimal. She’d also been though a year of mediocre teaching and some fundamentals had been missed, making reading music a challenge for her. A year later she’s made astounding progress. More importantly she’s a happy, radiant girl who grins every time she comes to piano and is eager to play me the week’s pieces. She’s got an amazing sensitivity for harmony and we’ve been doing some experimenting with simple counterpoint and traditional rounds like “Frere Jacques”. And she enjoys every moment of it.

The lesson today went extremely well. She had fixed everything I’d highlighted in one of her pieces (I was amazed at how thorough her practice had been!), we played a round together and the time flew by. Soon enough her dad came to pick her up. When he walked in the door she was trying out a bit of her new piece – a rather difficult one with some unfamiliar notes and rhythms that I gave her some help on. She walked towards the door smiling.

And then it happened. As Naomi was getting her things together, her dad, frowning slightly, commented that she still seemed rather hesitant about learning new music. In fact – he warmed to his theme – she often had some difficulty in playing through pieces smoothly, without stopping to look for notes.


I looked over at Naomi and her face had fallen.

Literally fallen. Where a moment before I’d seen a laughing, enthusiastic child, she was staring sadly at the floor, the smile gone from her face. Her dad was disappointed in her. Again.

I looked back at her dad in disbelief. Why would he say something like that with his child right there? Can’t he see the effect it has on her?

Raging inside, I firmly told Naomi and her dad that (a) she’d been making amazing progress and that I was especially proud of how well she’d done with her piece that week and (b) that reading new music and playing without stopping were the hardest things in piano. And I’d found them hard too.

Naomi – looking a little reassured at that – and her dad walked out the door to my studio and I went into the next room, actually on the edge of crying.

Now, I am not trying to imply that Naomi’s dad is remotely equivalent to the cruel, abusive father that Dan observed in Costco. I know for a fact Naomi’s father cares about her very much and I’m sure he was speaking out of good motivations…certainly not any deliberate horrible wish to belittle or upset his daughter. Who doesn’t worry from time to time about their child’s progress? Who doesn’t want their daughter to excel in everything she tries?

But it is really, really saddening to watch the unintentional effect his words had on a sensitive child who I’ve only recently begun to convince that she is capable, she is musical and she can learn piano.

Please, parents, adults everywhere…let’s Nix the Negativity.

Some thoughts:

(1) I have absolutely nothing against a parent sharing their concerns with me – in fact I encourage it. E-mail, telephone, call to set up a meeting. Any time. My door is always open. But not in front of your child. That goes for anything, not just music. If they’re having trouble with Subject X, openly talking about their Subject X issues in front of them is just going to make them more unsure and hesitant and certain that they’ll never be good at it, because apparently their own parents don’t even believe in them.

(2) One of the best things about my parents, growing up, was how they always emphasized What We Did Well. A favorite quote of my mom’s was “Soar with Your Strengths”…in other words focus on what a child is good at, not what they have trouble with. Of course improvement’s always possible, but it won’t help to obsess over the subject a child is struggling with and let them know that they’re “behind” or “not progressing fast enough”.

…No, my childhood wasn’t perfect and my parents and I had the usual (healthy) dose of fights and arguments (:D). My mom in particular had high standards and I would often complain that she was being “picky” or “too critical” about details. But they would never have “cut me down” in that way. Discussing areas of concern with a teacher…sure. But in front of me they emphasized my strengths…always. And it had a tremendous impact on how I see myself today.

(3) More than anything I wish I could have said to the father: “Yes, Naomi seems hesitant at times. Terrified, even – terrified of making mistakes and doing “something wrong.” Why do you think that is? Maybe it’s because you’ve made her hesitant and unsure by being so negative? Maybe if you talked about how happy you were that she learned her song really well this week, she might feel a little less unsure and worried about her playing?

Also, stepping back a bit…what is the ultimate goal here? Is Naomi really taking piano lessons in order to learn to play pieces up to speed without stopping? Or is it to develop an appreciation and love for music that will last all her life? Is Negativity really going to help her accomplish that?”

And finally there’s:

(4) Progress takes time, effort and lots and lots of patience. I am fiercely anti-elitist in my teaching because I was not a “talented student” and if I learned to play at a “concert pianist” level, anyone can. I tell every student that they are talented, they are musical and they are capable because I believe with all my heart that every human being is talented, musical and capable of everything they put their mind to. I give them the tools they need in order to realize that potential I see in them and then, little by little, give them greater independence in their practicing and learning until they can literally be their own teachers.

What will kill this process is Negativity.

Negativity implies categorization. You’re not a talented student. You’re not making progress “fast enough”. You haven’t learned a piece “up to speed”. You’ve fallen short in whatever way. It draws a line in the sand and invariably sticks the child on the wrong side. The worst bit is that an adult with a highly critical perspective will always focus on a child’s shortcomings…and almost every music student finds something difficult, whether it’s rhythm or technique or memory or note-reading. Therefore to Negativity’s judgmental gaze all children except a lucky few (the “elite”) are weighed and found wanting.

If Negativity tells me I have no potential, what’s the good in practicing? If I’m not “musical”, why should I bother trying to express myself in this piece? If I’ve put my best effort into lessons this year, and my progress isn’t “good enough”, then what’s the point of working hard next year?

It’s not just parents. Teachers can be negative too. I can be (and have been) very negative. With a few students it’s helpful, even necessary…the confident, happy ones who believe in themselves and know they can play well but didn’t really feel like practicing the past few weeks. 😀 Fine. But even then it has to be done in a spirit of encouragement and good humour. When a child doubts their own ability, Negativity will only make it worse.

If in doubt…Nix the Negativity. Please.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus



1. Tweets that mention Nix the Negativity, Parents…A Personal Plea « The Contrapuntal Platypus -- Topsy.com - October 17, 2010

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joni Thorne, Joni Thorne, JoanneMichele, Green Thumbnails, Eowyn and others. Eowyn said: @jonitchr @grnthmbnls @sabzbrach Just posted new blog entry, think you'll enjoy it http://j.mp/9eXhwE […]

2. MonteCelery - October 26, 2010

Wow- thank you for posting this! I have really come to value parents who can provide that calm confidence that their children can learn anything in time with enough desire and practice. We definitely need to help parents learn how to do that. May I print your post to give out for parent ed?

contrapuntalplatypus - October 26, 2010

Definitely!! Thank you so much for reading and for your feedback, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!
I’ve also been enjoying your Montessori tales on your blog! My sister went to a Montessori kindergarten and found it a great experience (I was in something similar but slightly different, an “open school” with several grades in one classroom parents were encouraged to come in and supplement the lessons with areas of their own specialty. My mom came in and did several “math games” like Escher tesselations, “geometry field trips” etc…other parents taught hands-on crafts like weaving or soapstone carving, led creative writing activities, etc.) Both approaches really encouraged strong parental support and involvement which as you say is essential.

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