String teachers in America are accentuating the positive at the expense of the negative, argues Stephen Shipps


We have arrived at a point at which exacting teaching is a rarity in the US. This trend is not exclusive to string teaching, but is one that permeates our entire educational system. The cost of education, at all levels, causes parents to expect coddling, as the demands of hard work create stress and hardship for their children.

A quotation by the great violin restorer René Morel is very telling. He said, ‘When I was learning, no one gave compliments. If you didn’t get criticised, that was a compliment.’ In contrast to that philosophy, US education secretary Arne Duncan points out that while American students rank below students of other countries in academic testing, ‘they express more self-confidence in their academic skills than students in virtually all other OECD nations’. He concludes: ‘This stunning finding may be explained because students here are being commended for work that would not be acceptable in other high-performing education systems.’

The paradox of the problem is as follows. In the US, the top-ranked teaching institutions are of world-class level. The pupils routinely compete in and triumph at the most advanced international competitions. They also win positions in string quartets and in the top orchestras around the globe. Outside this rarified atmosphere, the second and third tier schools are not as prosperous as in past decades.

These are the schools that have historically supplied the rank-and-file performers who win section positions in US orchestras. Sadly, this is changing in direct correlation with the new teaching philosophy noted by Duncan. Many American teachers, plagued by worries about their students’ self-esteem, are raising overly confident youngsters who have trouble competing in national and international job markets.

I presented this conundrum at a seminar for candidates for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Michigan, and they all agreed with my feelings on the matter. These doctoral students are an international group from Taiwan, Poland, Vietnam and the US. As fledgling teachers, they expressed frustration with the inability of American children to accept correction or criticism.

The message from the class implied that if you tell young children the truth, they will cry or decide to leave your studio to study elsewhere. I can guarantee that these are not brutal teachers, but sensitive young professionals who want the best for their students.

The teaching of young children needs to be encouraging and gracious at all times, but also should be demanding in terms of scales, etudes, repertoire and required practice time. As students become young teenagers, it is the responsibility of the teacher to adjust to a model where professional standards are rigorously enforced.

Teachers need to forget the sentimental memories of where the student started and keep their eyes on the professional goal. I will point out that this is always for the good of the student.

Teachers today have to navigate the minefield between the conflicting emotions of students and parents, and the responsibility to improve their students’ playing. The route to success requires complete honesty from the teacher, together with the appropriate compassion for the feelings of the young player. The action steps should be:

- Identify the nature of the problem for the student

- Ask if the student understands the problem

- Suggest a solution and then require the student use it

- Ensure that the student consistently follows the solution in future lessons

If the teacher regularly goes through this process, individual problems will be dealt with in a constructive manner and the solutions will allow the student to create high-level performances.

This article was first published in The Strad's May 2012 issue.