Since I wrote about attending a masterclass the other day, several people have told me about their own bruising experiences with ‘masters’ who specialised in devastating criticism. Years after the event they could still recall the words with searing clarity:
‘Shall I ask you to try again, or is there no point?’
‘You line the notes up in front of you and shoot them one by one.’
‘Between you and music there is a brick wall forever fixed.’
‘Yours is the sort of playing I’ve spent 25 years of my life trying to stamp out.’
As an occasional teacher myself, I find it distressing that people are so impressed by devastating criticism. Maybe I come from a different tradition; at any rate, I wouldn’t allow myself to say those kind of humiliating things to students. When I’m in the audience at a masterclass I quite often think, ‘Yes, I might have made that same point myself, but I wouldn’t have made it like that, for God’s sake!’ Direct criticism, yes; humorous observations, yes; but not humiliating remarks. As a student I found that mean remarks from a teacher just made me feel very detached and remote. I didn’t respect them more for being horrid to me. Therefore I’m surprised by how many people can somehow persuade themselves that being verbally mauled by ‘a master’ has done them good. They might have been hurt or angry at the time, but they eventually find a way to look back on it and say that it was a transformative experience. At the very least, they come to think that it has enhanced their coping strategies.
For the audience there’s an theatrical frisson to a masterclass in which a student gets savaged. It feels a bit like watching those nature programmes in which a huge aggressive polar bear, rampaging around in a territorial dispute, sits down on a baby bear and crushes it. It’s horrifying but awe-inspiring.
Some ‘masters’ play to the gallery in this respect, courting laughter and the shocked intake of breath. You’d think students on the receiving end of their larger-than-life jibes would hate the teachers for it, but they don’t; there seems to be something in human psychology which makes us feel there is ‘more truth’ in wounding remarks than in the same advice considerately given.