Coping with unkind remarks

4th December 2011 | Concerts, Musings | 4 comments

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.


  1. rootlesscosmo

    Steve Dibner is now a bassoonist in the San Francisco Symphony. Years ago I heard him recount being started on violin as a child; at some point his teacher as Mischa Mischakoff, then concertmaster of the NBC Symphony. Dibner told a group at a party that Mischakoff had been so cruel as to make him consider giving up music entirely, though he loved it and was clearly talented; only after he found an instrument as different as possible from the violin could he resume lessons. I also heard at second hand of a talented young cellist who gave up music because Janos Starker treated her with such scorn. I think that in at least some cases experienced musicians feel threatened by young talent and hope, consciously or otherwise, to keep possible rivals from making progress; it’s not that the teachers lack confidence in their own abilities but that they see music careers as a scarce resource, the prize in a zero-sum game, so younger players are moving onto their territory. It’s a craft-guild attitude, with the master class meant not as an element in education but as a barrier to entry.

  2. Susan Tomes

    Very interesting theory, rootlesscosmo, though I’d like to think the situation is not quite as feral as that …. my own feeling is that some of these teachers, as performers themselves, are conscious of the impact that sheer theatricality can make on a student. In front of an audience, the effect can be multiplied. I guess I find it disappointing that people are inclined to remember these remarks because of their shock value, where they might not remember the same advice delivered in gentle, tactful form.

  3. Steve Zade

    A master-class given by Elizabeth Schwartzkopf and immortalised on film contained a real gem. After harranguing a 20 something year-old English singer for 5 minutes, and making her sing progressively worse, Schwartzkopf bellowed; “You know what your problem is – you’re not German!” Not much she could do about that I suppose…

  4. Professor F. Rog

    One that made me laugh when participating in a chamber music masterclass with a very famous cellist (though he said it utterly seriously which made it all the more hilarious):

    “Oh, I wish everyone could just play more like ME!”



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