An important lesson to learn about judgement and criticism is to not avoid it. Many years ago a friend of mine who was progressing successfully into final rounds of national orchestral auditions, told me that he learned more from losing auditions than from winning them. Eventually he did win a section leader job in a well known symphony orchestra. At the time, I was experiencing frustration about not making headway with my own auditioning. After this conversation, I changed my approach and looked forward to the opportunity for constructive feedback. Whenever possible, I would contact an audition committee member who was open to talking to me. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an opportunity for him or her to tell me how badly I played. For the most part, the feedback I received was supportive and helpful. I think that musicians who have been successful in auditions want to help out and they probably feel good about paying it forward.
At first, this whole line of thinking seemed to run counter to creating a positive learning environment about which Shinichi Suzuki so adamantly promoted. Having been trained as a Suzuki teacher and more recently as a public school music teacher, it is almost automatic for me to first say something positive about a student’s playing even when there is clearly a lot that needs to be worked on. Since the March 2020 school closings, there has been a huge emphasis on social emotional learning. Social emotional learning seems to be somewhat of an outgrowth of the work we have done in recent years to better monitor and appropriately deal with student anxiety. Previously there was growth mindset, the responsive classroom, higher order thinking, the list goes on. The temptation is to jump in immediately with what needs to be fixed. Starting with something positive and presenting the fix in a positive way, is more comfortable and allows for the student’s ownership of the work being proposed. This scenario also accesses the student’s own creativity and hopefully more acceptance of the process.
Fostering a positive learning environment doesn’t have to mean avoiding criticism all together. Students need to know that learning doesn’t always come in the form of something warm and fuzzy. When I left Boston, I left a beautiful private violin studio of 23 students with whom I had grown very close. Before leaving the area, I tried to make sure each student had found a new teacher or had plans to interview a few teachers. I remember talking to one of my teenage students with whom I was particularly close. She found a teacher who presented her with issues they could work on together. However, the student told me that this teacher didn’t seem very friendly. I told her that it was important to keep in mind that you are not always going to love your teacher, you just have to feel like you can learn something from him or her.
When you ask for feedback about your playing or anything else in your life, you are opening up and making yourself vulnerable. Of course it is important to have boundaries. Ensuring that your conversations are confidential is essential. Even in a masterclass situation, trust is important and is something that can be discussed with the instructor and/or organizer prior to the event. Especially if the class is recorded or streamed, it would be helpful to research ahead of time what the “master” is likely to talk about and which repertoire he or she is especially known for. It might make sense to avoid repertoire for which the master teacher does not seem to have any performance experience. You may find that you are on the receiving end of that individual’s misgivings about their own playing.
In conclusion, from a pedagogical point of view, speaking to students in a positive, supportive way, promoting a nurturing learning environment, and teaching fun and comfortable lessons will absolutely foster growth for your students and for yourself. Criticism is a reality and it is an important part of the learning process. It is wonderful when criticism is presented in a positive and constructive way. However, in the real world, being positive is a tall order for some of us all of the time and all of us some of the time. I believe it is yet another learning opportunity for students to know that criticism is sometimes unpleasant. However, it should never be abusive. If you ever feel that criticism crosses a line or violates a boundary, it is probably time to move on to another teacher no matter how famous that person is.