Classing young players as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ pupils betrays some worrying attitudes in string teaching, says Philippa Bunting – and in any case, don’t those descriptions say more about teachers?



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This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of The Strad

The other day, I overheard a fragment of conversation between two teachers that disturbed me.

‘The sad thing is,’ said one, in exasperation, ‘they don’t know how bad they are.’

Those words resonate so closely with a number of beliefs that echo through the string-teaching community that I found myself dwelling on them. Besides, being ‘bad’ at something carries a moral connotation that needs some unpacking.

Given the sheer precision and complexity that learning a stringed instrument involves, every learner will unavoidably go through a long period of being ‘bad’ on their journey to being ‘good’. They might do ‘good’ things along the way – play in tune, play musically, execute some tricky passagework correctly. They can measure themselves against various benchmarks, taking in their stride such boosts as a distinction mark in an exam, or positive comments from a festival adjudicator. But ultimately, judged by the measure of professional perfection, it’s just not ‘good’ enough. And the closer to the top of the tree you climb, the more damning the judgement can be.

We can be terribly wasteful of the legion of modest achievers for whom music will be part, but not the whole, of their lives

But at what point do we decide that someone is not merely inexperienced, or – heaven forbid – badly taught, but just plain ‘bad’? Are there really such things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pupils? ‘Good’ ones are, I imagine, pupils who have talent, progress quickly, and practise unbidden. They probably also have other useful attributes such as willingness to take instruction, supportive parents, and the kind of personality that chimes with that of the teacher. Bringing the right music to lessons, good manners and a winning smile are also excellent accessories. ‘Bad’ students, I’m imagining again, are the rest.

If you were to ask my third-year conservatoire students what their biggest fears about teaching are, they would say first, getting their pupils to behave, and secondly, having to teach children who are not naturally talented or interested. Put bluntly, the undeserving.

It seems to me that what causes this value judgement is a form of insidious perfectionism. In some areas of the professional string world, there is a prevailing feeling of just desserts, that music is something one earns the right to be part of. Yes, by sheer slog and hard work, but also by virtue of that magical quality called talent. And if we are not very careful, it’s a casual assumption that can stretch back right to the beginning of learning for our hapless pupils. And poison it.

I worry that in music – and, dare I say it, particularly in string teaching – we can be terribly wasteful of the legion of modest achievers for whom music will be part, but not the whole, of their lives. I also worry that we can, as a profession, be quick to blame pupils for what are really our own failings as teachers.

Some teachers choose their pupils – they refuse to teach those who do not meet their requirements musically or technically. This is one possible approach, perhaps suitable for some contexts. For those who don’t choose their pupils, the equivalent would be to get rid of ‘bad’ pupils and only teach the ‘good’ ones. That sounds OK for the teacher, but what about the pupils?

Most children will willingly go to the park on a sunny day. Once there, they might kick a ball around, go on the swings, or invent a vastly complicated universe with a couple of leaves and a plastic bucket in the sandpit. Most will not be interested in the precise botanical taxonomy of each flower, shrub and tree.

So, how about if we simply teach all who come our way, take them as far as they want to go, then let go of their hands and watch them run? If they fail in one area, or more than one, we can look to ourselves for an answer first, rather than blaming them or other extraneous factors. We could use their interests as a guide, drawing upon our higher level of skill and knowledge to widen their horizons and raise their aspirations when we see the opportunity. We could engage in the fun, the music itself, and most of all keep our inner perfectionist quiet when they are around.

There is, I would suggest, no such thing as a ‘bad’ pupil. Just the wrong teacher.

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