Canadian piano teacher and music examiner Amy Boyes lives in Ottawa where she also works an adjudicator, judging piano festivals and competitions. She believes that music educators must always strike a careful balance between kindness and criticism when giving feedback to students, and, in today’s guest post, she highlights an issue which can emerge after only heaping praise on a performance.
Amy’s article certainly resonates with me; as a frequent adjudicator and jury member, who also provides feedback and comments to students at festivals and competitions, it’s very easy to ‘be kind’ about every competitor’s performance. But, by doing this, aren’t we really doing students a disservice? Shouldn’t our aim be to instigate confidence and help them improve?
“You’ll never regret being kind” – I’ve been told time and again, first by my mother, then by coaches and mentors who led me through the intricacies of writing assessments and giving feedback. “You’ll never regret it. Never ever.”
I understand the sentiment. Honey draws more bees than vinegar. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Don’t project your frustration onto anyone else, especially not onto children.
It all makes sense. Being kind shouldn’t be difficult, and on one level it wasn’t. In fact, it was too easy. Let me explain.
Recently, I adjudicated a music festival, an event intended to showcase the efforts of young performers. Due to the nature of educational events, there are always performances that “fall off the rails,” but the intention of this event was for students to give their best efforts in both preparation and execution. I was delighted to see a teenager on the program, scheduled to perform a great work of 19th century romantic piano music.
But then it happened.
Halting, lurching, crunching, grinding, the performance sounded sight-read, the majority of the notes and rhythms inaccurate, the momentum non-existent.
I’m a musician. I know the sound of sight-reading. I’ve hacked my way through repertoire as I’ve sought to unlock its mysteries for the first time. I have my students sight-read every week. It’s good for their reading skills, their ability to gather information and reproduce it in one fell swoop. I understand hesitations and wrong notes, the squinted eyes and the tight jaws. That’s what sight reading is—an opportunity to struggle spectacularly in the pursuit of a skill set.
But sight-reading is not performing. Sight-reading is awful to listen to when at least a minimal level of competency is expected. Furthermore, it’s inappropriate to sign up to perform a great work of art and then sight-read it.
So I sat at my desk, listening, twirling my pencil in my hand, wondering what I should write, what I should say in my assessment. I didn’t know the performer. Perhaps they struggled with anxiety. Perhaps they thought they knew the piece better than they did. Perhaps they’re ten minutes into a nervous breakdown. Perhaps, horrors of all horrors, they thought they performed well. Could that even be possible?
The adage went through my mind— “Choose kindness.” And so I did.
I wrote about the beauty of the piece and the importance of a logical learning process. Analyze the sections. Break up the material into logical pieces. Discover the beginning, middle, and ends of phrases. Plan your fingering. Drill the hands separately. Slowly practice, sewing each section to the next as you achieve each one.
Once the performance was finished, I cheerfully gave my assessment to the student and the room full of people. The student smiled and nodded as I spoke. I wasn’t saying anything new, rather I was giving the same advice that teachers have given throughout the history of musical performance. I ended with admiration for early efforts and best wishes for the next stage of development. And that was it. The class ended. We parted ways.
Discovering at that moment that a quick break was scheduled, I stepped out into the lobby to stretch my legs. In pursuit of the water fountain, I came up behind the student who had just performed. To my shock and horror, I heard the student proudly proclaim to family members, “Mrs. Boyes didn’t seem to notice how badly I played! I only started the piece three days ago, so it was completely awful, but she didn’t seem to care.”
The family chuckled. They moved on. But I stood dumbfounded.
My kindness, my careful choice of words, my cautious giving of advice had been completely misunderstood. My subtlety had been lost on the student. By only explaining the way forward, I had misdirected the student into thinking their efforts to this point had been sufficient. I had encouraged disrespect for the repertoire and for the music festival itself. I had let the intentions of volunteers and sponsors, who conceived the event as an opportunity to showcase effort, be trampled on.
Slowly, I returned to my desk and dug through my bag for a bottle of Advil. The next scheduled class was a half-a-dozen performances of “Fur Elise”—always a favourite in the community music festival circuit but scarcely performed well. Perhaps the Advil would dull the drumming in my head.
I wished I had handled that better. Should I have told the student how inappropriate their performance was? How the music festival is an event to respect, not treat carelessly as if the time and money invested in producing the event are in endless supply? Did the student understand that music festivals are disappearing across the country? Volunteers are hard to engage. Sponsors difficult to find.
I know that on top of the dwindling supply of festival resources, fewer children are studying music so fewer performers, in turn, enter music festivals. The lack of volunteers and performers make for a shrinking music festival movement. Furthermore, music festival adjudicators must also take their share of the blame.
Are we are not holding performers to a standard of, at least, basic competency? Are we foolishly applauding every effort, no matter how half-hearted? Or are our attitudes unkind, discouraging? Are children made to feel ashamed or disheartened?
I don’t know the answers, if they exist. I just wish that I had found an equilibrium in my feedback, a perfect balance of firmness and encouragement, an elegant turn of phrase that would reflect my disappointment yet drive the student to work harder.
Swallowing hard on Advil, I realized my kindness wasn’t kindness. Mine was the easy kind. I didn’t address what was wrong with the performance. My assessment was just laziness dolled up as kindness, smothered in the ubiquitous Canadian “niceness” I loathe.
But it was time to press on. I couldn’t close my eyes and breathe softly anymore. “Fur Elise” was about to begin.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.