For the Pros: Student/Teacher relationship

  • Participant
    harp guy on #151056


    I’m writing this because I have a dilemma and don’t know how to address it. I am hoping that more seasoned musicians might have some solutions or ideas in mind. Also, keep in perspective that as a music major, my actual “major” instrument is flute. I do harp as more of a hobby.

    I am having troubles with my applied teacher. There seems to be tension between the two of us, and I don’t know where it is coming from. In our studio class when I stood up and played tension escalated so far that after bickering between rests in my piece (I was playing with SmartMusic), she stormed out of studio and didn’t come back. She later apologized, but yet felt she was “pedagogically obligated” to treat me that way. Her reasoning behind this is that for Grad School next year I am gearing up for (and applying to) many of the top conservatories in the country (NEC, Juilliard, Peabody, etc.) At my current school I am the “star student” and she is wanting to push me so that I can perform under whatever conditions I am given. I understand that and want that too. However I don’t feel that degrading harassment in front of the entire studio was necessary.

    I wonder if it is perhaps two things. One, I am afraid that she might be feeling threatened by me (as a player). I don’t say this arrogantly, but out of legitimate concern. In my lessons I’ve heard her grumble things under her breath while I play (one of which was: “His articulation is better than mine…”). We both took an audition for a substitute list (I got nervous and bombed because it was my first audition), and afterwards she told me that she was actually worried that I would beat her. But I’m only an undergraduate and she has her doctorate…

    I also wonder if perhaps something is going on in her personal life. Since the beginning of the semester she’s gained weight, stopped dying her hair, stopped wearing makeup, and been quite moody. She’s not married or dating anyone and pregnancy is not likely. She’s 42 years old, so maybe it could be early menopause… eek! She has no children and no relatives nearby.

    I’m just worried because my lessons are getting exceedingly worse and I don’t know what to do. I’m practicing like crazy and making TONS of progress and am starting to enter national/international competitions. It just seems that my relationship with her has soured. I still have 3 semesters until I graduate (getting ready for auditions a year in advance… for flute you have to because competition is so stiff to get into a top school). That’s too much time to let this just sit and get worse. It isn’t enough time to transfer to a different school and build a good relationship with the new teacher that would guarantee a good recommendation. It would also look poorly on my applications.

    My lessons are just miserable. It seems like she and I are always going against each other or rubbing each other the wrong way. I’m trying to be humble and easy to mold/shape as a player. I want to learn.

    Does anyone have any ideas? Any thoughts? Has anyone faced a similar situation or knows someone who has? I’m at a complete loss, and don’t have any ideas or anywhere to go.


    harp guy on #151057

    Oh, and 2 things I want to make clear.

    I understand that this is an issue with a flute teacher about “flute” related things. Sort of. I more just want an insight into student/teacher relationships. That sort of thing transcends instrument types.

    Second, I realized I wrote a contradiction. We bickered in studio, but I said that I try to be humble. This is true. I just don’t take crap off of people. Sorry to put it bluntly, but that’s the way it is. I will take harsh criticism and bend to a teacher’s will, but I won’t take verbal abuse. There’s a difference.

    tony-morosco on #151058

    Well, the fact that she did apologize that once and that she seems to be willing to explain herself to at least some degree shows that she is somewhat approachable. If I were you I would go see her during her office hours and simply ask her what it is that is causing the tension. Perhaps she has certain expectations that she just assumes you know but you don’t.

    I think if you go to her with the concern that you want to get the most out of your lessons and that you want it to be a good experience for both of you but you are not sure what is going wrong then perhaps she will be willing to not just explain her thinking but to work with you to find some solution.

    Sometimes when things are confusing the best way to address them is simply to address them. To talk about them and express clearly what each person invovled wants and expects. I think a large percentage of these kinds of conflicts are rooted in the idea that each person just assumes the other person is on the same page, but in reality they are not. Sometimes getting on the same page takes some discussion and frank talk about what you both expect and want.

    However, she does have one good point. At some point in your studies and

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #151059

    I’m glad this isn’t about your harp teacher. Your post is indeed

    carl-swanson on #151060

    I’m confused. Are you saying that she is the only flute teacher at your school? You can’t change teachers?

    There’s a difference between positive criticism and negative criticism. A teacher can drop a ton of criticism on you and if it is done in a positive constructive way, geared to improving your playing or performance, then you feel good about the criticism. If it’s sarcastic, nasty, degrading, or mean, then 1) it’s uncalled for, 2) it’s of no use to you because it doesn’t improve anything you are doing, and 3) it can be very very destructive to you psychologically because it destroys your self confidence. Nasty criticism doesn’t ‘toughen you up.’ It’s destructive. So you have to decide which kind of criticism she is throwing at you and then decide if you want to continue with her or not.

    There is always the possibility that she is a narcissistic self-centered domineering person, and the better you play, the more it threatens her. She more or less indicated that in the audition story you told. Also muttering under her breath that your articulation is better than hers is another indication that this may be the problem. If it is, you need to cut your losses, find another teacher and move on. Staying with such a teacher will cause you to play worse and worse, not better and better. And it could take you years to recover psychologically and musically from such an experience. That happened to me and several other students who studied with Bernard Zighera.

    r-pista on #151061

    harp guy on #151062

    ::this was written with a tone of resignation, not one of any malicious intent::

    I apologize for not presenting the full story but rather giving what I thought was important and critical to this issue. It obviously gave the impression that I am ungrateful and arrogant and a poor student. Maybe you’re right, and maybe you’re not. Time and time again I have had past teachers, clinicians (that I volunteered for) and world class flutists in masterclasses comment on how quickly I learn and how much information I absorb. You have no idea how many times people have compared me to a sponge. I went from being a mediocre graduating high school player who hadn’t had a day of flute lessons in my life to someone who was just accepted (today) as a top 3 finalist in an international competition. I’ve done that in 3.5 years. You can’t legitimately tell me that I’m a bad student if I’ve made that much progress in such a small amount of time. I record my lessons. I listen back and take notes. I do every exercise she gives me. I spend hours researching pedagogical topics and ideas during my own free time. I want to learn from her. It just seems like she is suddenly switching me from a diet of information and support to one of sarcasm and disdain.

    Yes. She gave me a good “drubbing” experience. What I did not include in my original post was how she has lied to me about important issues, intentionally set me up for failure (she even openly admitted it), and grown to be increasingly antagonistic towards myself specifically and the flute studio as a whole. I also didn’t mention how she specifically alienates me from the rest of the studio. It takes a lot of bad behavior to get me upset. I’m very patient.

    One thing I need to make clear is that I don’t go to a top notch school. There is only one flute teacher. I just go to a small public university with a music program that is geared towards high school music education. When people meet me and hear me play they ask “What are you doing there?!” Because the school isn’t cut throat, there is a very different environment in regards to students and teachers. This program and this studio in particular is a lot like a large family. It is a very nurturing atmosphere. The studio as a whole is (amongst themselves regardless of how poorly you think of it) showing a lot of concern for her general well being. We used to love, admire, and respect her. She’s not like that anymore, particularly towards me and people have been noticing.

    So take me as a young, immature, egotistical student if you will. But I’ve sat through rehearsals where conductors have yelled at me for half an hour and I didn’t fight back. Most people (students and professionals) seem to think that I am very nice and extremely level headed. I’m sorry that you seem to see me in a different light. I guess part of that stems from the fact that I clearly do not believe in the type of student/teacher relationship you do. I think they should be professional, but personal in the sense that you invest part of yourself by nurturing them (and showing tough love if need be). I am staunchly opposed to the idea where you have a cold musical deity and worshipers who crave their attention. Or at least that is the impression I am getting from you. But hey. What do I know. I’m only 21.

    harp guy on #151063

    Oh, btw…

    SmartMusic is a computer software. You plug in a microphone and a foot pedal to the computer. The program then plays the accompaniment to your piece. The microphone feeds into the computer and along with the foot pedal (used for cues when the piano rests) helps the computer stay with you through tempo changes and through rehearsal markings in the music.

    So when I play a concerto, I just choose the piece from the database stored in the program, and I play with the computer. The microphone and foot pedal help transitions in the music.

    Karen Johns on #151064


    I can’t help but respond to this, if only to give you some moral (not necessarily “professional”, I’m not quite that seasoned) support. After reading your last post I can see the bigger picture-sort of. It would be nice to hear her side of the story too, but from what I can glean from you, it appears to be envy on her part. I have been in a situation where myself and a fellow musician “rubbed each other the wrong way”. It became so apparent to the other players in my group that I finally had to put a stop to it. Yes, playing flute (and harp)

    Jessica A on #151065

    I think you are correct in assuming something in her personal life is throwing her off.

    sherry-lenox on #151066

    I firmly disagree with the idea of confrontation, and really I think you’re too concerned in the personal dynamics of her situation vs. what you wish to gain.

    As Dr. Phil always says, “How’s that workin’ for yuh?”

    Whatever the reason for your teacher’s stuff is, the bottom line for YOU is “Am I learning to be a better harpist?”, right?

    So if you want to initiate conversation with her, why not just ask her what you can do to make the atmosphere in your lessons more conducive to communication? If you are willing to assume some responsibility, it may help her to give more attention to her own actions.

    If you’re not benefitting from your lessons anyway, I doubt that a “confrontation” is going to improve anything, least of all your interactions.

    I have had dealings over time with some very tough teachers. At least one was a true genius who taught me a lot. I was able to love his gifts and overlook his tirades, even some public attacks directed at me, because I knew that we shared a mutual serious interest in our craft.

    The world in general is too full of contention- if you learn at your age to finesse a situation that stinks, you’ll be a much happier and healthier person. You’re in a lousy place right now. Is there something you can think of to do so that both of you can come out better?

    mr-s on #151067

    Hi Harp Guy, you play the flute as a hobby or the Harp? wich one is your main instrument?

    i had the same problem with a non experienced teacher at the conservatory we had a bad connection, and also didnt know why, but its something inside of her any way she made my lessons as a hell, and i had a lot of time to recover psychologically from her non healthy behavior, and the problem that she was the only teacher at the cons, and had to sudy with her for 5 years, she was young with no experience with students , plus some problems in her, but in my Doctorate studies i got the teacher of my dreams, she was very kind to me and friendly she dealt with me as her son, she invited me to have dinners with her family, you know you can change any body, if your teacher is like that so leave her alone with her character and search for another teacher as Carl advised you. now when i started teaching i faced

    harp guy on #151068

    I have made a decision. After consulting one of my spiritual leaders (who happens to be a faculty in the department of music as well :::yes, I know that was bad taste but I needed his advice:::) he helped me come up with an approach to the situation. We decided that I am too close to graduating to leave the school. I am also under a scholarship contract (but I COULD get out of it if I wanted to). I have 3 semesters left, of which one of those would be primarily spent flying around the country doing auditions for graduate school. Flute is my main instrument (someone asked…) and harp is my hobby.

    The year that I have before my auditions will be spent on getting ready for that process. The players I am going up against are doing the same thing. That’s how it is among flutists who want to enter a “top 10” conservatory. We prepare for a year before the auditions themselves. I am going to focus on those auditions and ignore everything else. I have two other teachers (one for piccolo, and another that is sort of my foot in the door for Grad school). If this one continues to be a lemon, they will still guide me well. (AND by the way, the teacher that is causing the problems insisted that I study with them in addition to herself).

    To address the problem at hand… I am going to approach her in my next lesson with complete humility. I will make it clear that I want to learn from her, but that I sense tension between the two of us. I feel that it might be getting in the way of my progress. I will ask her if there is anything that I am doing to cause the stress. That will give her two options. She can either place the blame on me and seal the situation, or open up a little and help the two of us get on the same page. I hadn’t thought about it, but there is a chance that she might feel that because I have the other teachers (at her insistence remind you…) that I don’t appreciate or respect her as a teacher. That of course is false.

    If she doesn’t work with me to improve the situation, then I won’t use her as a recommendation for Graduate School. My piccolo teacher is a professor at another university and I’ve studied with her for almost 3 years. She and I have a great relationship and I know that she will give me a good recommendation. The other teacher is the man that I want to study with for Graduate school. In terms of acceptance rates (admitted vs. rejected), there are only two music schools that are harder to get into than the institution that he teaches at (Curtis and Juilliard being those two schools). He is already letting me bypass the prescreening rounds and only play in the final audition/interview round. I am fairly sure that he will admit me (particularly because he insists that I don’t pay him for my lessons).

    Thanks everyone for your input. The support was very appreciated, and the criticism made me think about what exactly I was feeling/reacting to and whether or not I needed to reconsider my actions. I still feel that I’ve been mistreated but that there is a chance that I have unintentionally caused part of this problem in a way that I am not aware of.

    sherry-lenox on #151069

    There is absolutely nothing in your plan that could ever garner you a whisper of reproach.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #151070

    Perhaps having three teachers is part of the problem. Flutists are different from harpists that way. You have cleared things up much more. Nevertheless, her personal life is none of your business whether it is an influence or not. From what I am reading, apparently your strategy is to not look for support from her, and find it in your piccolo teacher and master teacher only. That is reasonable. It may be that your teacher is uncomfortable with that role. Lying is not good. But, what were the reasons? Teaching is complex, especially when opportunities come up. It sounds like you are meant to not only play the flute, but to have a flute and harp duo. You certainly have made terrific progress. You are likely to get into a top school. Are you auditioning for Oberlin, because Michel Debost is a fine artist and teacher.

    I guess you have figured out not to worry about it too much and work with the resources you have available, which seem to be ample. I wonder, though, can’t you study flute with the piccolo teacher? When I went to college it wasn’t because of who the harp teacher was, and when it came time for lessons, I went outside the school, initially, then they hired someone suitable for me when it became necessary, though only for me. Something like that may be possible, that they would add the piccolo teacher to the flute faculty but only for your use.

    It sounds to me like you’ll do just fine. If you come to Philadelphia, let me know, I am right near Curtis.

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