Vulnerability Can Be a Key Teaching Tool—If You’re Willing to Go There

Showing students the stages leading up to competence lets them know that their experience is not an aberration; that they are on the same road we, too, are on.

By Emily Wright

For the past 15 years, I’ve been delving into students’ attitudes, mostly focusing on hang-ups surrounding the learning process and differences in how they think progress actually happens. I noticed a common thread among students who became disengaged or started spiraling into low morale: The perceived gulf between where they were and where they wanted to be seemed too large. My demonstrations in particular provoked anxiety and feelings of futility about the entire enterprise of playing an instrument. Even though I reassured students that struggle is normal and necessary, they felt like my polished playing set the bar in an unreasonable place. The better I sounded, the further from their goals they felt.

This was very much on my mind as I was setting up the stage for a summer workshop a few years ago. My stomach churned, but in the spirit of doing right by the participants, I was determined to try something new. I eyed the stack of repertoire set on the piano as the featured student approached. Some of it I hadn’t looked at since my days as an undergrad.

The student was working on something ambitious; you could even have said it was over her head. While her technique needed a bit of adjustment, it was clear that the notes themselves were posing the larger problem. After a page or so, the work started as usual: Here’s how to break down a passage; here are strategies for getting the notes to hang together better; here are mechanical details to keep in mind. She was game enough to try these things in front of an auditorium half-filled with other musicians, but I could see the mounting stress overwhelming any chance she had of putting the suggestions into practice.

I asked her to put her cello down and picked up the Popper Hohe Schule, flipping until a page flashed by that made my heart pound. Ah, No. 19, how I’ve avoided you for so very long. I announced that I was going to practice, using the same methods I was advocating the student to use, a piece that was as difficult and relatively unfamiliar to me as it was to her.


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And then I did.

Cacophony reigned as I narrated each step, showing them what it looks like to approach something slowly. To prioritize tone, even when a shift gets bungled. The patience required to approach even a low level of competence to build on for the next time. How to keep composure when the tone gets weird.

We alternated for 20 minutes, with me demonstrating the general principle first, and she following in my footsteps. I spoke openly of my initial nervousness to do this in front of other people, saying it was only fair that I match her bravery. The rest of the summer-camp workshops had a different feel that year, and when my lesson studio resumed in August, I started practicing for my private students, too.


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The culture of the professional musician has a way of fostering a set of ideals that holds imperfection and the appearance of struggle as embarrassing and worthy of contempt. For students not blessed with the insatiable drive to persist no matter what, this has a chilling effect on their prospects, not to mention their relationship with the instrument in general.

If we only teach students what the finished product looks like, the process can remain a mystery to them or worse—it can seem like the result of a twist of fate or a bit of luck they haven’t received. The reality is that the lion’s share of advancement on an instrument is due to exactly the kind of work we tend to shield students from seeing. Much of the process is a mess—one we have to be willing to wade through time and again while figuring out how to do this difficult, complicated, wonderful thing. Showing students the stages leading up to competence lets them know that their experience is not an aberration; that they are on the same road we, too, are on. With them, not above them.


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Perhaps the greatest gift a teacher can give a student is the notion that, with work, just about anything is possible. Being vulnerable enough to show them the lived truth of that notion—what it means to be a lifelong student, that ego, not imperfection, is the enemy of expertise—works wonders for the soul of the weary student, and gives fuller context to the times when you do actually sit down and bang out a wonderfully polished phrase. 


This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.