My first student is a professional musician and an accomplished teacher with the most destructive habit of denigrating herself. She brings me a cello she’s considering purchasing, and it really is a marked improvement over her current axe. The C string was sedate due to a Paleolithic Thomastik of some sort, but the other strings showed such a well-balanced body to the tone and ease of sound that I was excited for her to play it. I asked for a scale, saying as she commenced, “Wait until you get to the G!”. She had not yet played a note and countered “Not when I play it!” with a sheepish grin.
You guys know how well I react to that, right? Since my Twitter feed has bumped up my numbers a bit, I’ll preface the next part a little so people don’t think I’m some sort of meanie. I teach the student, not the cello. I am charged with the duty to remove impediments, be they strange gestures, painful postures, or artifacts of personality. That last one is what challenges students the most, because it is the last thing people want to confront. In fact, many adult beginners take up the cello to run from something else. Unfortunately, I’m pretty adept at sniffing it out over the course of a lesson or two. I am also pretty good at selling them on the work with nearly endless anecdotes about how I know so well because (regular readers know what’s coming next) I am the exact same way! It is with sympathy for the tortured soul and a nearly desperate desire for the student to find the cellist peacefully residing inside them that I cannot allow someone like this morning’s student to lambaste themselves in a lesson. One of my main tenets is that we get very good at doing what we practice. Practice a loose vibrato, and you’ll have a gorgeous vibrato. Tell yourself, the world, or your teacher how crap you are, and you’ll become very articulate about that. And you’ll believe it, too.
So I grab the student’s bow and tell her firmly, “Stop.”
“Oh, the thing! I know you don’t like that and it drives me crazy when my students do it and I’m sure that
“Stop it. Stop talking.”
“you must really be annoyed but it sounds so bad and I can’t change the way I feel about myself and it’s just
“If you don’t shut it right now, I’ll fire you. I have no problem sending you right out of here if you don’t listen to me.”
I say this stuff firmly because she is a strong person, and very clever. I am doing my best to suppress the tears that want to form in my eyes, because I know what it’s like to have that racket in your head, undoing every last bit of progress like a loose thread unraveling a sweater.
She stops. “I feel like that. But I won’t say it. But I’ll still feel it. I’m like that.”
I explain that I understand, but that the first step to not feeling like that is stifling the compulsion to tell other people how lousy you are. Especially people like me, who is President, Founder and CEO of the I Love Student Cellists Fan Club. By the way, how do you think every expert cellist got good? By sounding lousy! In front of a teacher! Who also sounded lousy at one point! (I personally get a little giddy twinge to think of Ron train-wrecking his way through Go Tell Aunt Rhody as a kid. If he reads this, I’m dead) But those are just academics. Common sense is not part of the equation, and I stopped appealing to it long ago when people show this side of themselves. What they need is a boundary they have neglected in themselves resurrected, for their own good.
They need to respect themselves.
Our lesson went on, and I could tell she was fighting the good fight. Again, the inclination for proud tears flushed my eyes, but I gulped some tea and kept at the task. We were able to repeat difficult elements of technique 5, 10, 20 times, making adjustments. When the mouth stops, the brain follows more quickly than you realize. For the first time, she was nimble, able to see mistakes and correct for them without wasting time and investing in the corrosive habit of self denigration.
She left the lesson lighter, looser. As I walked her out, I was the recipient of an uncharacteristic hug.
Our road is long, but this was the first step.