THERE IS SOMETHING PERSONAL IN CRITICISM
Updated: Jun 4
In the world of "separate knowing," criticism is not personal. The knowers "must accept it with equanimity," explain the authors of the book Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. They call it an "essentially adversarial form" of knowing or learning. It's what and how I learned in college from 1961-64, then in graduate school and law school thereafter. It was the methodology of the patriarchy in which I grew up intellectually, socially, and sexually, until I came back to my senses and began to balance reason, intuition, observation, perception -- and caring both for myself and for others.
While there are undoubtedly many benefits to the rational voice, independent thinking, and listening to criticism, in essence these are more public performance than truth, a way of learning and knowing that is designed to manipulate the listener's reactions, as the authors above say, especially to manipulate the teacher who is to grade one's performance in class. The listener or student is not an ally in conversation but in some ways, the victim of a top-down way of learning. In that sense, it fits well with our history of patriarchy.
While I can perform this type of learning or knowing, I choose at this time of my life not to do that, especially in piano lessons. That's because the basis of my pursuing piano lessons as a late-life retired senior, is to more easily and credibly express my simple, pure, re-discovered love of music, especially from the Romantic era. It is love--a feeling--that has opened me up to music, and not reason. I have a hard time learning music theory because that seems somehow outside of the pure bliss and joy that I feel when I hear a piece such as the adagietto, the second movement of Mahler's Fifth or the Apollon-Musagete of Stravinsky.
What I think and write about often, is the nature of the type of piano lessons in which I thrive, and what teaching modes kill my spirit and have the potential to send me into a spiral of depression and self doubt these days. The latter usually results when I am "diagnosed" by my teacher as having some "problem" that needs solving before they even begin to listen and try to understand me. Diagnoses is nothing short of criticism, and it goes against my desire above all for relationship with my piano teacher. I take it as personal because it feels like an attack against me, because it is evidence of not caring for me as an individual. I don't want to be "fixed" first, but heard and understood first.
I'm into lessons and music for relationship above all, not "productivity" as one of my former teachers claimed was the better goal. (You'll note the word "former"). Process is more important to me than productivity. I'm not trying in one year to learn Chopin's Ballade in G Minor as super-busy Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was in Play it Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible.
I'm an amateur desiring the possible and the pleasure in self-expression and learning the piano and about music.
I want to have my voice heard in how I interpret and play a piece I love--of course within the boundaries of "credibility." I want to be respected during class if I want to pursue a method that I know will work for me--and if it doesn't, who cares if a few minutes of class time are "wasted" on experimenting? Not me!
It is the discovery process of learning new methods, but also trying some of my own ideas out, then trying something new or other my teacher suggests, if my way wasn't that effective, that delights me. Process, not productivity. Self-expression and exploring. Sharing ideas and approaches.
So then, what is the most important role of a piano teacher for me, and why don't I become an autodidact, as one friend suggested might be a way to proceed now or in the future?
Certainly the most important function I have experienced that my three piano teachers have served, is to help me observe myself both visually and auditorily. When I am producing music, in my early stage of pianism after 23 months of weekly lessons, I cannot hear everything or see critical ways I am producing or not producing music. I sometimes or often cannot hear where my rhythm or tempo goes off, even if I listen to a recording! I can see notes of equal value in the score, and yet produce them in a "heard" syncopation ("audiation") -- until someone like my composer-pianist friend Bruce listens to my recording and points out my errors as he has twice done for me. Sometimes he does it simply by raising a question, "why are you doing such and so?", and then I realize what I was doing and can make a choice to look carefully at the score and correct it in my playing.
Not long ago a piano teacher and sister classmate in Noal Kageyama's amazing zoom class "Psych Essentials," someone who lives not far from me, came over to rehearse her upcoming presentation in a piano teacher's concert. Afterwards I played a few songs from my repertoire for her and lo! She noticed a troubling, inefficient pedaling habit I had no clue about.
I was using the sustain pedal by pumping my entire leg with my heel held off the ground! Go figure how or when that one got started. The result was that I was using entirely too much energy in the effort and throwing my body off balance, yet because I have only had zoom lessons, no one sat at a distance across the room and observed this bad habit and gave me this feedback. I was gobsmacked!
Another most useful comment by a teacher was one day after I played through 2.5 memorized pages of a piano arrangement of Kreisler's "Leibeslied," one of my favorite pieces. After I finished, the teacher said that they had felt relaxed throughout, giving confidence in me and an ability to attend to the music. I might never have realized the importance of the correct notes, tempo, rhythm and phrasing, then relaxed physical presentation and body use of the pianist in terms of effecting the pleasure of the listener had I not heard this feedback.
A good teacher enhances my awareness during a lesson. If given factually to me without exaggerating my failures and by first giving me credit for what I have done correctly, then I hear feedback easily. I will not chafe or feel distanced or negatively judged and criticized. I won't take it personally, and I will feel grateful to my teacher for helping me hear myself, and hear what they hear. I fall deeply in gratitude for and love with that kind of teacher who helps me reach a felt goal.
A teacher's objective, fact-based observations and options and alternatives to approach a technical or musicality challenge, allow me to think and choose how to respond, not doing it just to "get the grade" or more likely, just to get a critical teacher off my back, but to really "get" the music and give honor to the beauty of it and the talent of the composer.
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