When I evaluate myself as a teacher, then, what are my criteria? I know from many conversations with other teachers that rare is the teacher who has not had similar results. In a teacher’s career, it is virtually certain that students’ results with such things are going to range from—unless they are lucky—the worst possible to—if they are lucky—the best possible. Adding to this, a piano teacher is likely to be aware of teachers whose students seem to always win first, earn the highest rating, make a perfect score and perform flawlessly in performance. And also, teachers whose students seem to be just the opposite. Is the former a successful teacher and the latter not?
In one contest, I had two students in the same grade playing the same required pieces. The girl had not done many contests and wasn’t particularly competitive. She also was not crazy about performing. Nevertheless, she wanted to do well and worked very hard. At her last lesson before the contest, she played flawlessly and beautifully. The boy had done many contests and loved competition. He also had a flair for performing. In front of an audience, he came alive. Probably because this was his 7th or 8th contest and he’d placed 1st or 2nd several times before, he didn’t work that hard. Two weeks before the contest, he couldn’t even play the pieces with accurate notes and rhythms, let alone dynamics or expression. But the last week, he crammed. Nevertheless, at his last lesson before the contest, he still was not playing anything like flawlessly—or beautifully. I told him so—and also that the girl was playing much better—and what he needed to do to fix it. I resigned myself to this being the first year he didn’t place at all, but I was hopeful that the girl would get the award her hard work deserved. Awards, however, are not based on fairness, but on results. At least in the judge’s eyes, someone else played better than she did and he played better than both. He placed first and she placed 3rd.
In my view, though, she had the greater success. She grew in the process. She worked through weaknesses, deepened her understanding of the music and the piano, found resources for expression she didn’t know she had and experienced more of the musical freedom one acquires through mastery. He, on the other hand, didn’t grow much, if at all through the process. He may have actually played better for the judges, but I suspect he mostly put on a better show. I can never know for sure, but I know judges are human, and their objectivity varies, not just between different judges, but also between styles and possibly personalities. It’s hard to know how ones instinctive reaction is coloring our perception. Maybe some sort of bias was at play in the final decision. Whatever the case, he got recognition and a form of celebrity without really doing the work to deserve it. He won first, but in my view, it was not a successful contest for him. It was a step backwards.
Similarly, I was congratulated for my students winning two of the top 3 places. Yet, a great deal of that was the result of having students with the required ability and interest to both participate in the contest and play well enough to place. I can take credit for teaching them well enough, but I didn’t do the work to make them play well enough. They did that, one exceedingly and one just barely. Nevertheless, I was certainly pleased with the congratulations. Had none of my students placed, it would have been difficult not to be disappointed. Such is the nature of visible forms of success.
For teachers and students, however, the most important forms of success are less visible, less tangible. In short, if a student is growing, she is succeeding. If a teacher is helping the student to grow, the teacher is succeeding. As Confucius put it:
Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.
If a student is growing, then how “big” they get is limited only by how long they keep going. It is the integrity of their growth, not the speed that matters.
I try to use all of those to stay aware of my students’ growth. I keep written records of pieces they’ve learned and review them from time to time. And I try to stay mindful of the steps in the processes of their growth and to reflect on where they have been so I can perceive their growth more subtly. For if one is walking a straight path through a desert, it is hard to find anything of encouragement. Ten or even a hundred miles down the path, everything may look exactly the same. Yet, if one counts ones steps, there are many milestones along the way—however many one wants. Ten steps can equal a success, a hundred 10 successes in a row!
When success is judged in this way, then the visible things matter less. I believe, also, that the true meaning of placing first, achieving the highest rating, making the perfect score or performing flawlessly can become more clear. The measurement of our worth becomes less at stake and so craving for perfection and our fear of failure become less, as well. We can learn to trust that if we simply strive to do good work, to succeed at each step, visible success will follow. We can become more aware of whether we have done the task at hand well, more focused on doing it well, and more content with having simply grown a little. This can take us a long, long way.
When asked, at the age of 80, why he continues to practice 4 or 5 hours a day, the great cellist Pablo Casals replied, “Because I think I am making progress.”*
* From the 1957 film, “A Day in the Life of Pablo Casals” by Robert Snyder.