A few weeks ago, I learned that one of my composition students had received a “runner up” award in a composing competition. At first, I was a little disappointed and I began wondering how this wonderful string quartet could have only been worthy of second place. Soon however, these initial and - I’ll admit - childish reactions were replaced with a genuine sense of happiness over the success my student had achieved.
It’s funny the second-hand emotions a teacher experiences through the successes and tribulations of their students. In a way, it’s kind of like being a parent. You invest your time and passion in the growth of a young individual, and when that investment pays dividends, you celebrate, when things don’t go as planned, you minimize the damage to the best of your ability.
When you are a creative individual, no matter what the endeavor, your ideas are subject to criticism. Whether you are a politician with a novel solution to an enduring problem, or an artist with a new melody, you’ve laid out a very personal vision that can be lauded, or attacked. Personal ideas take a lot of time, energy, and passion to create and articulate. As creators then, we strongly associate ourselves with our ideas and become intensely vulnerable to their criticism.
Young school-aged students are not, in my opinion, emotionally equipped to absorb such criticism. As teachers, we need to be gatekeepers - opening up gates to positive opportunities while insulating our students from those activities, or people, who will take them to the woodshed. At this fragile age, one negative comment can leave them running for exits, not allowing them to achieve their artistic potential.
It’s a difficult balancing act, however. As teachers, we want our students to be their best, and sometimes that involves some criticism. In my own teaching, I try to be as positive as possible, always pointing out things I like first, then gently suggesting some alternative ideas the student might explore.But in the end, I think it’s up to the student to decide what changes they’d like to make to their piece, because, after all, it is their piece of music. By respecting their creative freedom as artists, we bolster them at the same time.
Students that continue creating beyond high school will find out soon enough the harsh world of criticism that awaits. Through nurturing in their early creative ventures, and by gaining the emotional maturity that comes with a few more years of seasoning, they’ll be ready for it.
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The guest conductor confidently strode to the podium, respectfully acknowledged the audience, and prepared his baton for the first downbeat. The holiday audience sat at rapt attention waiting for orchestra to break into the program’s next selection “Sleigh Ride”.
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