How does a serious music student relate to constructive feedback and the discomfort that often accompanies it?
by Tom Hynes
Discussions produced by the film “Whiplash” have, to a large extent, been a distraction from a much more common problem in music education. Directors as abusive as Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) are rare. By contrast, however, instances of students being oversensitive to criticism or discomfort have risen to an alarming level. For many of today’s music students, the quality of their education is not measured by what they learn, but by how they feel.
Music students who are fundamentally uncomfortable with criticism may be unable to grow from experiences necessary for mastery. Worse, students who lash out at teachers negatively affect their own success, as well as that of their program.
Respect and discomfort
Serious music students must develop a healthy, mature attitude towards constructive criticism—and the inevitable discomfort that comes with it.
It is worth delineating the differences between constructive and destructive criticism, as well as healthy and unhealthy discomfort.
A fundamental ethical principle of all good teaching is respect for the student; cruelty, condescension, intimidation and bigotry have no place in a music classroom, lesson or ensemble. Abusive language and actions by the teacher are an impediment to communication and learning.
However, many students perceive disrespect as anything that causes them discomfort—an attitude that seriously impedes their ability to learn and grow. While a common mantra among fine teachers is, “There is always more than one way to say something,” for some students, there is no form of criticism that’s kind enough or gentle enough.
Student complaints—and parents
Nothing demonstrates the trend of oversensitive and entitled students more than the parents who complain to—or about—a high school music teacher because their child has experienced discomfort of some sort. Those parents send problematic messages to their children, including:
- The intensity of their feelings is sufficient to establish the validity of their complaint, the fault of the teacher, and their entitlement to redress;
- They are not obligated to consider the authority, experience or expertise of the teacher, or listen to a response;
- They are excused or protected from direct adult conversation and conflict resolution.
Teachers are not flawless. All reputable schools have an appeals process, should direct communication not produce resolution. But the number and severity of student complaints over perceived offenses have become major sources of stress for many music instructors.
Entitlement and the young adult musician
Laws typically forbid college professors from discussing the details of a student’s work and behavior with parents, after the child has turned 18.
Having been shielded from the opportunity to learn adult conflict resolution in high school, some college students approach disagreements with music professors in immature and inappropriate ways such as irate emails containing bullying intimidation tactics. Students with an attitude of entitlement can be a drain on a music studio, ensemble or program—and tend to generate frustration and resentment in their peers. Sad stories abound of ensembles and programs ripped apart by a small number of aggressive complainers.
Employers who hire recent graduates of music programs are aware that these new hires are still a work in progress. A mature personality and humble spirit invites mentoring, and a welcome into a professional community. But a young musician with a sense of entitlement and an immature ability to deal with discomfort may find little professional success, despite significant talent and skill. The grace period for developing the necessary maturity along with the ability to accept and utilize feedback will have expired.