The Power of Unconditional Support in Musical Learning and Development

Unconditional support doesn’t mean freely accepting negative or harmful behaviors, but rather treating people as fallible human beings regardless of what they do.

By Scott Flavin | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Growing up with two parents who were musicians (my father was a singer, my mother a cellist), I was exposed to and influenced by music from birth—or even earlier. The story goes that during a rehearsal, when my mother was very pregnant with me, I kicked against the back of her cello in correct rhythm! Whether precisely true or not, it is emblematic of the tremendous support I received from them both. At five years old, after hearing the Boston Symphony perform Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, I asked them if I could learn the violin—even at that point, I knew that I wanted to be a violinist. Throughout the years of scraping and scratching, I was always encouraged by them, and when I grew competent enough to play duets with my mother, we did so often. 

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Years later I came across a recording we made in our little music room of one of the Beethoven duets for violin and cello. Listening to it, I was horrified to hear my prepubescent voice telling my professional-cellist mother that she was not playing with me and needed to follow better! My mother’s response? The most kind and patient tone one could imagine. At the time I listened to it, I felt that if I were her, I would have given that brat a piece of my mind! I now understand that she was giving me unconditional support and allowing me to find my path, as awful as my behavior was at that moment. 


Through countless long drives to lessons, instrument purchases, and sitting through many rehearsals, my parents were endlessly supportive. In fact, when I was performing in different parts of the country, or even internationally, quite often they would show up by surprise! There seemed to be no doubt that they knew I would attend a music school and become a professional musician.

Therefore, it was a total shock when, not too long ago, I received a text message from my high school French teacher, Mrs. Mulherin, who told me about a conversation she had had with my mother back in my senior year. Apparently, my mother confided to her that she had great concerns about my future: Was I going to make it as a professional musician? Did I have the talent to even stand a chance? Mrs. Mulherin listened and offered support and told me in the message that my “mother worried about the difficulties of being a musician, that the competition is fierce, and that making a living takes so much more than talent.” 


I couldn’t believe it! I had never felt any doubt from my (now deceased) mother of her complete belief in my career choice. Reflecting on that situation from the perspective of being a parent myself, of course she had doubts! I do find it fascinating that neither she nor my father ever expressed to me any worries; they just gave consistent support and encouragement. If they hadn’t, perhaps I would not have felt confident enough to pursue that path. The result? Here I am, 35 years later, so appreciative to be a professional musician!

The Research

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers (1902–87) wrote of “Unconditional Positive Regard,” emphasizing the importance of unconditional support in healthy development. According to Rogers, problem behaviors like overeating, disorganization, and procrastination aren’t remedied by criticism, but by compassion, understanding, and acceptance; however, unconditional support doesn’t mean freely accepting negative or harmful behaviors, but rather treating people as fallible human beings regardless of what they do, even if we don’t like that behavior. Whereas judgement and shame can bring out defensiveness, acceptance fosters a feeling of safety, which can encourage honesty and self-exploration.


A 2018 study, “A Qualitative Exploration of Unconditional Positive Regard and Its Opposite Constructs in Coach-Athlete Relationships” by Lauren K. McHenry, found that athletes who received unconditional positive regard from their coaches were more motivated, confident, and able to deal with adversity, while athletes who were criticized were less secure, less motivated, and more likely to burn out. Another benefit of unconditional support, according to Rogers, is that it helps people reach their highest potential, also known as “self-actualization,” a constant striving toward personal growth. Unconditional positive regard can also foster authenticity—letting go of who people think they’re supposed to be and embracing who they are, which certainly can be of great importance for musicians.

Mentor Support

When the great cellist Zara Nelsova was asked when a teacher should tell a student they should quit, she responded to the effect that her job was not to discourage a student but to help them attempt to realize their dreams. Perhaps all parents and teachers should all take that to heart. While it is important to acknowledge weaknesses and failures, as well as to avoid encouraging an unrealistic self-view, unconditional support can be of tremendous benefit to those you care about. In my case, the unfailing belief, unconditional love, and support of my parents (as well as teachers and mentors) helped encourage me to pursue my dreams and goals.

How to Be a Successful Supporter

  • Be patient
  • Be encouraging
  • Listen fully without interrupting
  • Let them know you’re proud of them
  • Give them their space
  • Reassure them that they’re not alone
  • Be honest and open 
  • Don’t feel like you need to always give feedback or advice—just being there is enough