What I Learned About Teaching Children From Teaching Adults

by Matthew Harre

Keynotes, September 1999

I teach in a privileged environment. I meet one to one with my students. I have no institution looking over my shoulder. I give no grades. I work with a constantly fluid situation that requires immediate assessment. As a result I can't plan too far ahead and have great flexibility. I have the opportunity to get to know my students better than most teachers do.

What I've learned from my adult students is that the bruises they suffered in their education as children and young adults interferes with their learning to play the piano much more than any problis of an aging mind or body. What I have learned to do for my students who are children is to try to do no harm.

I don't mean that sweet goodie-goodie stuff, that everything's "all right" when it's not. I hate that. It's dishonest and without integrity. It's wrong.

I'm talking about making corrections with compassion. Letting students know it's difficult being corrected, especially when they think they're right. Letting them know that I know being wrong can be embarrassing and humiliating. Letting them know it's all right to be angry and hurt. Even letting them know I won't be angry with them for being angry with me.

I enjoy my adult students very much. I'm struck by their cautiousness, carefulness, desire to be perfect, and their utter lack of charity towards themselves. Where's the insatiable curiosity of infancy? Where's the eagerness for adventure? Where's the willingness to try new things? Where's the little kid who's willing to fall down over and over again in his desire to learn to walk? For virtually all my adult students, and myself, this has been somehow knocked out of us.

How did we arrive at this state? I believe we got bruised in many small and big ways at all levels of our education. People who teach can be insensitive, inconsiderate and, sometimes, even sadistic. Parents are our teachers, too, and sometimes they can be the biggest probli.

If you'll permit me a few moments of gross over-simplifying, I'd like to make some observations about our learning. Infants are insatiable in their curiosity about the world. They do all kinds of things to find out what's what. Unfortunately, some are dangerous-like chewing on the electrical cord; some are inconvenient--like flushing their shoes down the toilet to see what happens; and some of their experiments just don't fit the timing or moods of the powers that be. All these limitations reign in this unbridled curiosity. I consider these bruises. They're little hurts that stopped us and began a long process that took our learning agenda out of our own hands. These limits on our curiosity may have been necessary from the adult perspective but not, certainly, from our perspective as a child.

It's not too long before we become curious about words and ideas. With this curiosity comes the necessity of learning to read. What if you're interested in ideas but not interested in reading, or have difficulty reading? You're in trouble in our society.

When people go to school or take lessons they lose control of the agenda of their curiosity. Teachers take over the subject and timing of learning. The individual's curiosity no longer leads. In some places it counts for nothing. No matter who we are, how good or bad a student we are, the natural instincts of our own curiosity suffered many bruises.

In a real sense, the pleasures and rewards of satisfying our curiosity were taken away from us. School is not about rewarding our own curiosity, it's about learning what others want us to learn; it's about pleasing teachers. If we were successful in school the one thing we had to learn was to make teachers happy enough to give us good grades. We may or may not have learned things interesting to us, but that wasn't the point. Successful students must please enough teachers to get enough good grades to continue in the process.

Then, having already lost the agenda and rewards of our own curiosity, we come to believe that pleasing the teacher is the same as pleasing ourselves. We substitute learning how we want with learning the way that will make the teacher happy. We think pleasing the teacher is the same as pleasing ourselves. It isn't. That's why so many s"r"ight "A" students are unfulfilled by their accomplishment. They feel a void. They've become so adept at pleasing other people that they forget they have a self that needs being pleased.

My adult students are educationally successful. Most have doctorates or law degrees. Some appear regularly on TV. All are successful as we define that concept. They have played the education game well enough to win some of the top prizes. They are all taking lessons because they want to; nobody is making them do it. They pay for it themselves. Yet they all seem to want to please me. Well ... I'm not a Ph.D. and I was not a particularly successful student. So why are all these brilliant people interested in pleasing me?

I must confess, it's been a gradually unfolding shock to me to realize how crucial it is for them to make me happy. Fortunately or unfortunately, I thought I was supposed to make them happy so they'd keep on hiring me and I'd have a job. I seemed to have missed the point entirely. I hadn't realized how much power I had; how much power they gave me. If making the teacher happy is what it's all about, and I'm the teacher--it's my power trip.

For whatever reasons make me the person I am, I don't feet the need for this power trip. Certainly part of the reason has to do with the teachers I had, at least in music. I teach because I want to be part of the mix of the world of music and the world of my individual student's mind. It is a fascinating place to be. I don't feel the need to control or force the outcome. I do want my students to be pleased with their work in music.

You would not believe how difficult it is to get adult students to be pleased with their work. It wasn't until I started listening to them talk to themselves that I really began to realize how much their past education had taken from them. When they make mistakes they say things like: "That was stupid," "What are you thinking of?" or "Oh, my God." The condescension in their voices is impressive. They are not talking to themselves with their own voices; they are talking to themselves with the voices of past teachers and parents. Ponder the enormity of this. They have become their own attackers. When did they abandon themselves and join the accusers? Who is left to defend them?

One of my adult students was playing for me and playing well, with feeling. I was enjoying her playing. All of a sudden she yelled, "No, no that's not right!" I was startled. I hadn't even heard the mistake. Less than a minute later the same thing happened. Again I was startled but also annoyed. I was enjoying her playing and concentrating on it-when this scream interrupted. When it happened a third time I was angry. I stopped her and said, "You keep getting me involved in your playing and then scare me with your screaming. What are you doing?" "Sorry, sorry, sorry," she said, "I'll stop. I didn't realize I was bothering you."

She apologized for bothering me. Adults apologize to teachers a lot. What I realized, and what we talked about, was that what I felt must have been how she felt when she was playing for her teacher as a child. She'd be intently involved in her music-making when the teacher would yell and scare her. In the present case, I was the teacher. I could get annoyed and tell her to quit. But when it happened to her, she was the child and the student. If she'd reacted to her teacher as I reacted to her, she would have been called rude and impudent and this particular teacher would have hit her. I've seen this woman make a mistake and cover her head to ward off the impending blow.

How can a person be totally involved in their learning if they are waiting for someone to yell at them or hit them? A part of them must always be watching and waiting for the interruption or attack. I don't yell at my students, young or old.

The final irony of this sad tale is that the woman was her teacher's best student. She was working on Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata at the age of 12. Her teacher had never had such a gifted student. Why did she feel the need to treat her student this way? People do not understand that being a teacher's best student can bring with it a number of disadvantages. Educational problis are always assumed to be the domain of lesser students, but there is a whole raft of problis the really good students experience. Teachers push them too fast and too far, beyond what they can really experience. Teachers become possessive of the student and the student's accomplishment. Teachers over-identify with their best students, especially if the former don't have a fulfilling life of their own. Actually, this subject is a whole other talk.

The woman I'm talking about is not an educational failure. She has her Ph.D. and was president of a small Midwestern college for several years before taking lessons with me. She has achieved much in educational circles including power over teachers. Clearly this accomplishment has done nothing to erase the impact of her childhood piano teacher. The power of this early experience is tenacious. It will take time and work to move beyond the experience.

Another example of the tenaciousness of this kind of abuse was told by another adult student of mine at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Adult Music Student Forum. Tom read the following: "The man you see before you now is approaching his sixties. And yet, he can remember with stark clarity the severe brutalization that he endured for nearly a full year when he was a mere slip of a lad in his second year of elientary school. This torture he suffered at the hands of none other than his piano teacher, one Sister Mary Florentine.

"Sister Mary Florentine's most notable trait as a music teacher was a truly remarkable intolerance for wrong notes. To say she was a stickler for perfection just doesn't fully capture it. During lessons she would usually stand behind and a little to the right of the student, gently cradling her weapon of choice. That, of course, was the standard issue twelve-inch wooden ruler with the embedded brass straightedge. She would position herself strategically-just beyond the student's range of peripheral vision and just within striking distance of the keyboard.

"Imagine yourself in this tableau-a young innocent boy, hands poised just above the keyboard with its hundreds of nicks and notches reflecting decades of wrong notes, each quickly followed by errant ruler strikes or ricochets. Imagine the strikes that found their intended targets. Imagine yourself playing The Blue Danube Waltz in that situation.

"Now fast forward about forty years. My family and career were by now well established. My life was on course and cruising along. Yet there remained a vague gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach--something missing or unresolved. It eventually evolved into a desire to take piano lessons.

"My memory of the experience with Sister Mary Florentine formed the basis of my expectations regarding lessons with Matt. For example, I naturally expected some form of torture to be an integral part of each lesson...

"But even from the first lesson it was clear that Matt was no Sister Mary Florentine. For example, during lessons he seated himself practically all the way across the room, way beyond striking range. Some of Matt's idiosyncrasies were a little confusing at first. Consider his seating arrangements-highly varied and always interesting. When he conducted lessons while seated on a medicine ball, I found myself occasionally wondering how he could throw the medicine ball at me while he was seated on it. I feared there might be some trick. My frame of reference did not permit me to imagine that he might simply be trying to ease his back pain.

"I cannot say that any of his approaches was particularly effective for me, but all of them together seemed to have considerable benefit. After two or three years, I found myself actually focusing on the music. With Matt's continued teaching ... I found myself playing at least elientary pieces with actual enjoyment."

For Tom as the second-grader, getting right notes was not for the joy of the sound, not for the joy of physical mastery, not for the joy of learning. Getting right notes was to keep from being hurt. What he learned was not about music but about self-preservation. What he learned was that some teachers are mean and will hurt you. Here success is not about feeling good about yourself; it's about being hit less.

Tom and I have been friends for at least ten years. I taught his daughter piano for some time. I had known her from birth. We would all go Christmas caroling every year together with other neighbors, then go back to their home for Irish coffee. He knew the kind of person I am.

But this knowledge became irrelevant when Tom started taking lessons. What Tom knew of me could not erase the terror of his earlier experience. The history that was relevant was the horror of his earlier piano lessons. When I was teaching Tom, I lost my identity to Sister Mary Florentine. It took Tom two or three years to actually focus on the music. It took that much time to undo the meanness of his earlier teacher.

The tragedy is that people who are abused come to identify with the abuser and feel they should be abused; they deserve it. Compassion is hard to accept. That's one of the reasons my adult students talk to themselves as they do. You may now better understand why I say what I try to do for my young students is to do no harm.

The yelling, hitting, and condescending nuances are all humiliating and embarrassing. This humiliation seems to be a common part of everybody's education. Everybody I've talked to about what I planned to say today has his or her own set of examples. They usually haven't thought to ponder them, but rather, regarded them as an assumption of the whole process. Everybody has experienced this embarrassment. By high school the kids started doing the same thing to each other. One outcome of this is anger-fear and anger. I want to return to this in a minute but first there seems to be a special humiliation we experienced as students.

That humiliation came from thinking we were right when we were wrong. The teacher pulled the rug out from under us by telling us (and everybody else) that we were wrong, that we didn't have a clue, missed the whole point, were stupid or whatever. The implied corollary was "pride goeth before a fall." I cannot get my adult students to say they played well. They think I'm going to say their playing was awful. They think I'm trying to set them up for this embarrassment. They think that because it's happened to them before.

Recently, I had a student confess to thinking she played a piece well for me. There was something negative I wanted to point out so I knew I was in trouble. I tried to head it off but I failed. I said five things that were truthful and positive about her performance. I said one thing needed work. She never heard the five good things, only the one bad.

Everything I feared came pouring out. I'd set her up; I'd embarrassed her; I was just trying to show her how little she knew compared to me ... all of it. What she said was that I was like all her other teachers, and having a Ph.D., she'd had a lot of teachers. She was really angry with me and embarrassed by her anger. But she was angry and we talked about it and the discussions went on for probably three lessons. Neither one of us capitulated but each clarified what we'd said and felt. Her anger freed something in her and her playing became significantly better in the week that followed. I've had this experience before. Release of anger at the teacher seems to free students to invest themselves more fully. I don't fully understand this. Perhaps the truthfulness of the anger and the teacher's acceptance of that anger allow the student a deeper level of commitment.

My favorite story about anger at teachers is my own experience:

I took my one and only viola lesson a couple years ago with Rodger Ellsworth, the son of the man who ran Ellsworth Studio over on Willow Lane. The difference was the teacher was my friend. Rodger dropped in one evening after a performance at the Kennedy Center asking if I wanted a viola lesson. I said, "Of course not." In principle it was a fine idea but I had a thousand reasons for not wanting to do it. Rodger persisted, saying it would be a good way to know what my adult students felt like and other such reasonable nonsense. I relented and took my first lesson. The result was not as I expected at all.

Tensely, I put the viola under my chin and the bow in hand. I started to listen to his many instructions, some of which seemed contradictory to me. What I didn't expect was I got really furious. I told him he didn't know how to teach; that I was going to take this viola and smash it over his head and other such violence. I was livid. Being the friend he was, Rodger was able to accept all this, calmly.

When I finished my outburst and settled down I found I was drawing the bow over the strings with an ease and firmness I had not imagined possible.

My outburst of anger apparently released my frustration at being in an awkward situation, feeling out of control, and feeling inferior. Having discharged that tension I was free to engage in the learning activity fully, without distraction. Rodger was a friend. I knew I could be angry with him. Had I been working with a regular teacher, there would have been no such outburst. I would have been the usual polite student. I would have been stuck with my anger and I would not have learned nearly as fast or as much. This is the position of most students.

I encourage my young students to vent their anger at music, practicing, and me. I let them know I am strong enough to take it and won't get mad at them for telling me. When it happens, and it's not often, I don't take their anger personally. I don't feel they're being rude or impudent. I know that to really love something you have to have the freedom to sometimes hate it.

Another of my favorite stories is about Clare. This is an example of what I learned about teaching children from teaching adults. I was ready and I finally handled one of these situations right.

I was working with Clare, and it happened to be her 7th birthday. She was in her second year of piano. Clare is fun, smart, honest, and polite. She played her piece for me with the right hand playing one note higher than written. Instead of "B" she started on "C," etc. Though it didn't sound quite right, it didn't sound too bad either. Clare thought it sounded fine. I asked her to play the right hand one note lower, i.e. the correct way, and she thought that sounded weird. She played it again the wrong way and found it better. In other words, she played wrong all week. Thinking she was right, she was pleased with herself and her work.

I told Clare I hated to tell her but she played all the right-hand notes one note too high. Clare was silent but her big brown eyes filled with tears. I apologized and told her I felt it was important to be honest with her.

I asked her if she felt dumb and stupid and she said, "Sort of."

"Does it make you mad?"

"Sort of."

"Do you feel it in your body anywhere?"

"I don't know."

"Well, do you feel it in your chest or stomach?"


"It hurts doesn't it?"


Recently I asked Clare if I could tell this story in a talk I was giving. She said sure but she didn't remember the incident. To Clare, it was not a memorable event. That's exactly the way it should have been. Had I unleashed any of those lines teachers are famous for like "How could you have made that same stupid mistake all week long? Do you ever look at the notes?," I think she'd have remembered. She was already embarrassed by her mistake and her assumption of correctness. What I did was to "hold her hand" while she got in touch with how really rotten it did feel, right into her chest and stomach. With both of us accepting all these feelings she could then let go of them and we could move on.

What I've learned from my adult students is how much our education hurts, how much we all suffered to get where we are, and how much teachers' remembrance of their own history makes them repeat it rather than correct it. What I've learned is how rare is the consideration of students' feelings, not withstanding some wonderful exceptions.

Most of all, I've learned the value of compassion in education, allowing the students the space to learn and know all the diverse emotions involved in learning. It's not dramatic; it's just kind. It doesn't call attention to itself; it does no harm.

Copyright 1999 Matthew Harre


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