Well, as if to prove that there is some balance in the world, my lessons today were miraculous.

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.

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11 Responses

  1. Hooray! You’re a great crusader for the positive approach. Self-flagellation went out with the middle-ages. It doesn’t help the soul. My hubby’s dad was a critic and he learned that approach to playing. It’s a harsh way. I try to ignore it but once in a while it gets to me. I felt pretty low after the recital as I certainly didn’t come close to playing my best and hubby’s observations didn’t help. Thank goodness the cello blogging community is more supportive!!! Your kind words meant a lot to me.

  2. Emily, that is such a wonderful encouragement to me. You really hit the nail on the head…I am so like your student. When my teacher tells me, “Dorothy you are doing so well!” I don’t believe her…at all. I always seem to put myself down…to myself usually. But I see now I do it verbally too. Can’t wait to read more!

  3. It’s funny how I rationalize my sometimes “severe” self critiquing. I tell myself, and others, that I suck as a cellist, and that I’m just being realistic and honest about the sound I’m making with this instrument. When people tell me, which they’ve done on occassion, that I’ve improved a lot over the last year, or that I sounded good playing that last etude, I just assume they are not critical listeners. I simply refuse to give myself any credit for the work I’ve put into this instrument. Reading your post, I’m suprised to find myself nodding my head, relating to it SO much. Thanks Emily for showing me the light!

  4. Something I want to mention that should both embolden and sober you:

    My approach is not so much “positive” as actual. I make this distinction because I do not support the Little League Nouveau movement where nobody really loses because waaah it’s so hard to lose. There will be days when you lose. When it sounds awful, and there’s no getting around, only through it. When you’ll suddenly get a case of the galloping dumb. (my mother’s term, much used to describe her daughter) There will be days when you don’t enjoy the experience, when you toy with quitting, or have a meltdown over G# in 4th position. What it means is that you take things for what they are and stop at that. You can just say:

    That was hard.

    I am really struggling with this!

    There must be 10 more hours of practice before I really feel comfortable with that.

    I will keep using this metronome.

    Nothing more. No pat on the back, no twisting of the knife. Remember to chop wood and carry water. Just do the work and respect the task, respect yourself.

    Funny thing about that approach reminds me of that king fu principle I reference now and again. The only way to snatch the rock from the Master’s hand is to not really want the rock.

    Chop wood, carry water, and I’d bet you anything that most of the time you’ll be smiling, even if it is just on the inside.

    That little league “no loser” policy is such a farce. I have learned so much from my losing experiences.

  5. Agreed, no one should be complimented for doing badly. The trick is knowing when a sincere compliment should be accepted graciously and not dismissed offhand as untrue because the inner critic can’t believe it. Modesty is all fine and good but there’s no sin to take pride in an accomplishment as well.

  6. This issue of most adult beginners are running from something is very provocative.

    I’ve been thinking about this for much of the day. Are you saying that we’re trying to use our cello time to avoid working on jobs or marriages, or something else deep in our past?

    My teacher had a great approach to stop me from feeling inadequate from day 1: he said ‘play. I won’t be offended to hear you play badly’.

    At that point, I made up my mind not to do that in his studio, and it has made a huge difference.

    I really hope you tour the NE someday. I’d love to have a lesson with you.

  7. Only after four months of lessons did I hear my first openly critical adjective. It was a huge relief because it meant I can trust him more that ‘good’ means ‘good’ when I hear it.

    (Actually, ‘good’ means ‘passable’ and ‘AAAh!!’ means ‘thats what you are aiming for’).

  8. You know, last time I played with my teacher (My Emily, as I call her), I did say something not so, um, nice about my playing.

    She’s very vibrant and said “Shut Up!!” I agree with her and with you!

  9. CGDA: Yep. I usually do a ridiculous “squee” kind of sound and get a little teary. It’s good to know that as I age, at least my tear ducts continue to function.

    Edana: Your Emily! Wow! I am honored. It is a great exercise to refrain from the negative stuff. I approach it from every angle. If positive reinforcement bounces off of the student (and it often does when people have a really ingrained habit), I appeal to a more basic principle: it’s a waste of time. Yes, I have ears. I hear that it’s not perfect. If it was awesome every time, then lessons would not be needed! Also, “shut up” in the right tone is actually quite light and funny. It’s like a little poke or jab, never a command. I’m glad your Emily has the right touch. (and I hope to have more Edanas!)

  10. Add my voice to the chorus: I’m the same way. I beat myself up because I’m not as good as I think I ought to be all the time about everything in my life, not just cello. And you’re right; if you shut up and stop talking about how awful you are, you get better a lot faster.

    The best thing my teacher said to me when I went back to lessons was, “I *want* to hear awful sound! That tells me you’re working on issues like bow weight and speed, and you’ll have stopped lifting the bow trying to avoid scratches and being heard at all.” It worked. 🙂

  11. I know this will disappear into the archive, but I was compelled to post anyway.

    I feel like I've been slapped in the face. Thank you for that.

    I always thought of my not too frequent comments as sarcasm, not negativity. However, you're right. I will stop – both at home and at lessons.

    My Emily has casually mentioned my comments, but she's not as forceful or upfront as you (I don't think she's used to working with adults), so I ignored her.

    I also resolve to listen and appreciate when I do get a compliment.


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