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elise stanley

My teacher, my enemy - and how to smoke the peace pipe....

March 22, 2011 at 9:41 AM

There was a recent topic on on how we feel we play well in the home studio and then badly in front of the teacher.  Self-delusion was raised as a factor but this cannot explain all of it.  Some was attributed to performance anxiety - and this surely mixed in, but I think there is yet more.

It dawned on me in my last lesson that there are are four rather distinct playing modes: playing to yourself, playing with others, playing to an audience (in particular solo) and, finally to theteacher.  Each with its own set of stresses that impact effectiveness.

It seems stress is lowest when I play for myself.  I can get into the music and really enjoy my violin.  Its somewhat higher playing with others but it ameliorated by the knowledge that they have their own parts to deal with.  It is considerably more playing to an audience but even there I know the listeners do at least want me to succeed (though there are situations of course where performance stress can become almost unbearable). 

For me at least, stress is highest and most reliable playing to a teacher.  I didn't think this would be the case since you work closely and collaboratively with them and know them well and you may enjoy a laugh togeter.  However, its still the worst because you know they are acitvely seeking faults - this is definitely the least generous set of ears!  For me that means every note is suffers caution and introspection before I can let it out.  I just have to give this nervous state a name - teacher-anxiety (TA).

TA is for me (and apparently many others) so strong and I once commented to my teacher that I feel she has never actually heard me play at my best.  However, I made (for me) a major discovery last lesson, which is the reason for this topic.  I am working on Melodie by Gluck but each go through was suffering the usual TA.  One of her observations was that I was not precisely on time, to which I countered that usually you have a piano to play with.  Usually the metronome gets turned on but for a more performance-like experience she had the great idea of picking up her violin and playing harmonizing eighth-notes while I tried again. 

The effect was magical.  Suddenly I felt released from TA and settled into really playing.  Having her playing totally relieved the TA.  In retrospect I think it was particularly important that she was standing next to me looking at the music not adding the notes from in front in her usual listening place.  Thus, it really felt as if we were making music together - transforming the teaching studio into, yes, the home practice room. 

I really hope playing togehter becomes a regular part of lessons - I think it will have umpteen benefits.  By building a new dynamic - that of making music together - maybe it will defuse the whole TA phenomenon and permit me to eventually play to her as I do by myself.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 22, 2011 at 1:04 PM

Nice blog...

TA, I'll remember that one!

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on March 22, 2011 at 4:57 PM

My teacher likes to give me a piece to prepare to performance level for the following lesson in a fortnight's time. The performance will be to her, just as if I am on stage and she is the audience. Naturally, a warm-up is allowed! In view of the time scale and the fact that I am not a full-time student the piece is never more than a page long and I suspect it is chosen to test what I have absorbed in recent weeks and to extend me a little. Afterwards, we discuss the performance and how it can be improved (i.e. quite a lot!), but minor slips are seen for what they are – things that can happen to anyone any time.

My lesson usually warms down with sight-reading a duet, perhaps one of the 44 Bartok duos, or something by Pleyel, or something pretty brisk from Eastern Europe in an uncommon time signature such as 11/16 (Bulgarian Kopanitsas are fun).  

From Michael Divino
Posted on March 22, 2011 at 7:18 PM


From Tara S.
Posted on March 22, 2011 at 7:17 PM

I read that thread and have thought a lot about it too, and you bring up such a good point here. I love my teacher, she's wonderful, but I, too, am so nervous playing in front of her because she *cares*. No one else really cares if I make mistakes, but she picks out every one. I've thought about the playing together, and I think I'm going to bring that up next lesson. Maybe just play something together to start the lesson off and put me at some ease. I know I loved doing that with previous teachers. Thanks for such a great blog post. :-)

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 22, 2011 at 7:35 PM

Who loves well punishes well...  (I don't know if this is very accurate or appropriate in the younger generations.  Positive reinforcment is now the actual trends with kids as well as dogs   : )

But if your teacher is from an older generation, perhaps that's just the way they learned to act! 



My teacher once told  "I'm picky on you because I know you want this..."


"find, I'm happy that you couldn't practice well or are not warm up or are sick (or put any excuses you want) because I will be able to analyse your typical mistake patterns even better." 


Yes, I mean I want to learn all I can in the lesson because I love violin and want to be the best violinist I can in my situation/context... 

Maybe it will help if we accept the fact that no matter how well we play, the teacher will find mistakes! 

From Jim Hastings
Posted on March 23, 2011 at 12:37 AM

I guess, from what I've read here and in the thread you mentioned, that I must be in the minority.  I remember doing some of my best performing for my teachers -- even from the first lessons.

As long as I had the right conditions -- warm enough hands, a well-tuned instrument, mastery of the material, and a solid warm-up and run-through on lesson day, prior to lesson time -- I was fine.  I'm not the extroverted type, but somehow I got hooked on playing for the teacher right at the beginning.

Thank goodness I learned how to out-bully the nerves and carry this over to auditions and recitals.  I love connecting with a live audience.  I attribute this in part to the six teachers I've had so far; they helped me bring out more and push back the boundaries.

From Christian Vachon
Posted on March 23, 2011 at 2:17 AM


Nice blog.  Here are my thoughts as a teacher.  I find that students put unnecessary stress on themselves.  I cannot speak for everyone, but for me, I am there to help the student, not judge them. If this is reassuring, the only thing that goes in my mind is intense concentration with helping the person improve as quick as I can.  I am looking to solve problems.  Nothing else ever enters my mind.

That said, performing for people that are in the know can be an intense experience, even for a seasoned performer when legends show up at a concert unexpected.  The most important thing is to focus, in any performance, the mind on what you want, never on what you don't.  That way, no matter how one feels, one is more likely to achieve their goals in performance, the only real on being to communicate the music to the listener.  A good trick for this is to focus on positive commands.  Never tell yourself what you don't want to do because you will do just that.  Focus on how you will achieve the results you want and focus the mind on that.  It will more likely respond the way you want.

Hope this helps!  We have all been there.  It is a hard thing and anyone doing it has courage that has merit!  Just keep on going!

Best and Cheers!

From elise stanley
Posted on March 23, 2011 at 5:04 AM

Christian, I have to repeat your sentence:  The most important thing is to focus, in any performance, the mind on what you want, never on what you don't.  

That is so true of all artistic or performance activities - the challenge of course is achieving that nirvana and I suppose my main point that doing so is hardest with teachers.  An extension of what you stress is that  you also have to accept that errors are a natural part of any performance effort.  The important thing is to prepare well and then do, as you say, focus on presenting it well.  Which basically means do your practises and have faith in yourself!

From Julian Stokes
Posted on March 23, 2011 at 7:06 AM

Nice idea - though here in the UK, TA usually means Territorial Army. So I now have visions of heavily booted kahki-clad squaddies kicking down the door and disrupting lessons - thanks!

My TA is decreasing because I now know I'll get it and I understand the need for warm up time. So I fully expect  my first scale to be somewhat random and met with "your third finger on the D was a little flat" or some such observation.

The other thing which has helped to puncture the TA balloon was in response to being told my bow arm was a little stiff to say that yes, I was feeling quite tense at the time.

It's almost as though by admitting those phenomena to myself and my teacher helped alleviate any secondary anxiety about the effect of the primary anxieties. And don't even get me started on Tertiary Anxiety (for which I now need to find another abbreviation - thanks Elise!)

From Tobias Seyb
Posted on March 23, 2011 at 8:51 AM

I play a lot for and with my students. It's give and take, they are used to it. Some play much better in their lesson than at home, because the musical input they get from my playing supports them.

Sometimes they wonder why I give positive comments to their performance, even if there have been mistakes. I teach them to focus on what sounds good and work on the mistakes afterwards. (But of course correcting mistakes, technique etc. takes most of the average time)

As a teacher, I don't allow me to comment on every occuring problem, only on the ones that the student misses repeatedly or ignores or isn't able to correct, but not on the occasional ones. So the students aren't under pressure when playing for me. Usually I don't comment the first take at all, but start working in detail with the student immediately after.

When a piece or a section promises to be ready, we often apply the "play three times in a row perfectly"- method as a control. Here the students can put the pressure resp. concentration on themselves.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on March 23, 2011 at 5:23 PM

Gave my fortnightly "performance" in front of my teacher today. Main comment was that I was looking at my left hand too much (I was concentrating on intonation) and as a result the bowing wasn't as it should have been. Solution: concentrate on the bowing and let the left hand look after itself – which it will, given that the practice has been done. She pointed out that when I'm playing in an orchestra I'm almost never looking at my left hand (except possibly to check a placement at the start of a high section) – I'm looking at the music and the conductor, listening to what is going on around me, and keeping an eye on the section leader, and as a result my fingering, intonation and bowing is ok. A productive lesson. 


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 23, 2011 at 8:24 PM

 My level of TA has really depended on who the teacher was.  I can't really be sure why some teachers have evoked TA and others not, but I think your point about having them play with you is an excellent one.  I once had a teacher who liked to play for me, rather than with me, and he was a big source of TA.  When he played it seemed like he was showing off and it was clear I was never going to measure up--even if that wasn't really his intent.  But it's a whole different dynamic when you are playing with each other, then there has to be more give and take.  I've actually noticed this with my daughter too.  As skill levels go, my skill level is not particularly intimidating, but my daughter still manages to be intimidated if I play something for, rather than with, her.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 24, 2011 at 9:18 PM

I find the principle of "always build but never destroy" to be a very powerful one, be it practicing on my own or in front of others, including my teacher. I'm lucky to have a very good teacher.  Instead of looking for how well or poorly I have prepared for the lessons, she watches extremely carefully what I am doing and to see what works and what doesn't, and then she'd work through with me bits by bits. This way, she has taught me how to practice on my own -- be clinical, be confident that there's always a way to deal with tricky bits, and always focus on what works.

I used to have TA big time and I think it had a lot to do with my desire to please my teacher. It's not healthy but it took me a long time to figure that out.

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