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The Emotionally Abusive Piano Teacher and Suggested Rehab

Over the years my ears have been pinned back by stories from students who experienced emotionally abusive teachers. One who transferred to my studio from another, described her head having been shoved into the music after striking a wrong note.

In biographies of well-known performers, strands of anecdotes about foot-pounding, screaming master instructors remind readers that the learning landscape can be marred by personal invectives hurled at students for imperfect playing. There have even been cases where ultra strict pedagogues have cracked hands into rigid positions with rulers and other hard objects. It’s all very disconcerting.

If studying piano is a growth and development process nurtured along by a caring instructor, there’s no basis for attacking the student personally (or physically) just because the expectations of a teacher are not fulfilled.

The music is clay in the hands of a fledgling who looks for guidance in shaping it along the way. He needs assistance learning to communicate what’s beyond the printed notes on a page. If a few “wrong” ones are produced and a teacher allows verbal wrath to pour out as a consequence, then negative reinforcement becomes the standard tone at lessons. Notes that are correct become self-limiting rewards as they are tagged and separated from the whole learning experience. Anxiety- attached note errors are the seeds of performance nerves and overall aversion to taking lessons.

A teacher has to train himself to step back and put music above and beyond his need to vent frustration through it. If the instructor has dealt with his own relationship to music-making and practicing, cleansing it of self-punishment and deprecation, then he is on the way to relating to students with a healthy attitude, eschewing verbal abuse of any kind.

Affirmations for teachers that promote a nurturing learning environment:

1) Patience is valued. A student who doesn’t “get it” right away is not reprimanded. Instead, he’s taught to calmly walk through a set of steps that will smooth out a line of music. It might involve slow, separate hand practicing under the advice and guidance of the teacher.

2) Deadlines about playing difficult music up to tempo are discarded.
The teacher realizes that pieces with technical challenges ripen over time and should not be prematurely pushed in directions unnatural to the flow of learning.

3) Making memorizing demands on a student who has difficulty in this region of learning are ill-advised. Allowing memory to flow out of practicing over a lengthy period of time without a fixed, assigned end point, is encouraged. If memorization doesn’t happen, let it be and move on.

Warnings to heed:

1) A teacher does not live through a student. He is not realizing his dreams of performance grandeur in any shape, sense or form by using his pupil as such a vehicle.

2) The teacher does not insult a student for a performance he disagrees with on an interpretive level. Instead he shares ideas based on sound performance practices and integrates these into lessons, allowing the student to engage in an interactive, productive dialog.

3) An instructor welcomes questions from a student. He encourages inquiries about practicing techniques, phrasing, fingering, performing, and problem solving. He is never threatened by inquiries even he is not equipped to answer all of them satisfactorily. Any gaps in knowledge should not make him feel like less of a teacher. Similarly a student shouldn’t be penalized for not knowing everything.

4) A piano instructor does not force or coerce a student to participate in a student recital or competition. There are no threats attached to these opportunities. Framing the event as a sharing occasion will go a long way to remove feelings of dread and anxiety. Still, the right of a student to decline participation is respected.

5) There is no teacher/student–dominant/submissive relationship.
The teacher and pupil are partners in learning, with one having more experience to impart knowledge meant to expand the universe of the other.

The instructor realizes that teaching a student of any level is a valuable learning opportunity. It helps him fine tune his teaching and gain insight into remedies for technical and musical problems.

Finally, the piano teacher respects and observes boundaries. He will not get involved in volatile family situations and divorces with pulls and tugs of fathers and mothers using piano lessons as dumping grounds of anger.

Cleansing piano instruction of extra-musical contamination goes a long way to purify it, paving the way for a positive and productive journey.

Above all, the teacher/student relationship is bound by mutual respect making the experience of giving and taking lessons a joyful one.

FEEDBACK from a reader:

“The piano is difficult enough without adding a hostile and destructive relationship. My latest teacher (from Russia) was offended when I asked her what pieces she had studied when she was a student at the Conservatory, jumping up from her seat and saying she refused to teach me anymore. I pondered that long and hard, and could only think my inquiry somehow was a challenge, (or a crime against authority) which someone raised in a more authoritarian environment could not tolerate.”

6 thoughts on “The Emotionally Abusive Piano Teacher and Suggested Rehab”

  1. This is wonderful Shirley. It was a touching world growing up with different piano students coming to the house, some from quite far away. I sure got a crush on one of them. I am sure I was never a problem, but the kids of piano teachers can throw one more monkey wrench in the mix.
    I sure miss those days, and that student.
    Parents do well to spend some time getting to know any teachers who will be spending time with their children, especially alone.


  2. We’ve all heard horror stories about abusive music teachers, from Beethoven’s Dad on down to modern pedagogues. In this ‘modern’ era, it is imperative to maintain a student’s Interest in music, challenge their minds, and find ways of teaching students that build their confidence as well as their technical ability.

    Thanks for posting,
    Friends at Allegro Music Academy, Sarasota, FL.


  3. Nothing serious is ever going to be done about this, and it’s crazy to think otherwise. The master/apprentice tradition is not going away, and excellence is not going to change – it must excuse everything.

    There has been exactly one brief paper published about emotional abuse in music education. It was by some Canadian elementary school teacher who noted that there was essentially no research on the topic. I am not surprised, and I assume there still is none.


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