Standards in Music: A Love Story

What is the difference between a good performance and a great performance? For that matter, what is the difference between a bad performance and a great performance? In the short time that I’ve been out “in the world,” I’ve noticed some things about youths of today and their expectations about music performance: they want to be praised; they don’t want to work very hard to receive that praise; criticism is met with a litany of excuses; and the end result - usually - is that they quit.

Who doesn’t want to be praised? It feels great when someone tells us how brilliant we are. Not to mention that we can all point to one, two, or a handful of examples of diligent students who go above and beyond all expectations, whose performances really are mind blowing. But, more often than not, I’m seeing standards of excellence drop, while any willingness to do the difficult work that it takes just to be good (not even great) is nearly non-existent

Why is this? I have a hypothesis, one that will make me few friends in secondary music education: this epidemic starts in public school music programs, is exacerbated by mediocre private teachers, and is encouraged (tacitly or otherwise) by the parents of music students.1

I don’t think this is entirely the fault, necessarily, of unexacting music teachers in schools (though I have opinions there, too). One problem, I think, is that chorus, band, and orchestra programs are strapped for cash and for students. It seems that every time I turn around, an orchestra teacher is bribing students to sign up for orchestra and to take it seriously.2

When you beg kids to take your class, you have to do something to keep them around. Unhappy kids, who weren’t thrilled to be there in the first place, are probably going to be the first to quit, and while a few unhappy defectors from the viola section is permissible, you can’t play concerts without violists (try as we might).

What does an overworked and underpaid teacher do to desperately keep these kids in class? Easy. Praise them, and make music “fun” at all costs. 

And here, dear readers, is where many school music educators lose me. Music isn’t necessarily fun (unless you're good), and praise must be earned, typically through hard work.3 I imagine that it is difficult to straddle that line in the public schools. How do you improve your sometimes-extracurricular program without offering criticism, which must often be pointed or harsh, albeit constructive? How do you keep a bored student’s interest without acting as a clown on the podium? How do you keep your principal off your back if your numbers dwindle? I don’t have solid answers, but at the risk of sounding like an old coot screaming at kids to get off my lawn I offer this:

Undeserved praise (including wildly inflated adjudication ratings or orchestra grades) and going out of the way to make music fun (which can - and does - include adding that Coldplay number to your spring concert) is ruining your program and your students, not just in the present, but in and for their future endeavors, as well. And the kids know it. Oh boy, do they know it.4

It’s not just the secondary schools where I see this happening. When discussing the retention of college students, a professor once told me, “I can’t hold them to the same standard that I hold myself or they change major.” I sensed that this teacher wanted to tell some of those poorly performing students just how poorly they were performing, but couldn’t, out of fear that the studio would shrink in size, and may never recover. What I felt, and what I mentioned at that time, is that this attitude was only setting these students up for immense failure, establishing a culture of dishonesty, and perpetuating the cycle of students who cannot/could not accept criticism.5

This fun/praise cycle continues in private teaching studios. I have met far too many private instructors who try desperately to make private lessons fun for their students. While it’s necessary to develop a rapport with one’s private students, it is not necessary to become their best friend. Cookies and stickers and prizes should be secondary awards for progress, while improvement, itself, should be paramount, the ultimate reward. By making everything about having fun, you undermine your ability to offer critique of a student’s work, which keeps the student from progressing. 

It makes perfect sense why some private teachers do this. As I've written before, private teaching, while perhaps a true passion, is a business, and these teachers are trying to make a living. When students are unhappy, for one reason or another, they stop taking private lessons, or move to another teacher. Unlike public school teachers, when a student quits a private studio, the teacher feels the immediate (and sometimes immense) loss of that income. Just imagine: if you are a teacher with twenty students and one quits, you’ve taken, possibly, a 5% pay cut. In a world where a 5% annual raise is a godsend, a loss of 5% of one’s income could be devastating. Private teachers cobbling together an income are under just as much (arguably more) pressure as their secondary/post-secondary colleagues are to keep the kids coming back, week after week, year after year.

This is where parents come in, and they are not innocent, either. Parents, today, seem blissfully unaware of the work load and dedication it takes to become a proficient (to say nothing of “excellent”) performer. When a teacher starts to chastise/criticize/critique little Jimmy, too often Jimmy’s mom becomes perturbed. In other cases, parents don’t know that two weeks between lessons - even when the student is diligently working and practicing - is just long enough to allow for bad habits to creep in, setting the learning process back weeks or months. So when Jimmy has a big test on Thursday, Jimmy’s dad has no problem cancelling Jimmy’s Wednesday lesson, giving Jimmy a little extra test-studying time. Any pushback from the private teacher (on these, or other, considerations) takes us back to the previous paragraph and that 5% loss: Jimmy’s parents tend to say, “Violin isn’t Jimmy’s life; he has other things going on,” and then pull Jimmy from the studio.6 I know, personally, that perhaps one out of every twenty of my private students will major in music, and probably only 50% of those will become performers. It is not my intention to force students to make music the most important thing in their lives, but I do expect students to manage their time, devote energy to practicing, and learn to be better musicians and better people, which will help them immensely, throughout their lives.

Music educators have been - for far too long - using STEM and SAT test scores and “predictive” future success as a justification for music education (in lieu of using music itself as a justification).7 Certainly, this was the reason my parents put me in violin lessons: I was gonna be a doctor someday! By focusing on things other than music, these music educators have been unconsciously delegitimizing their field, while working to legitimize it. By telling a student, “Music will help you to increase your math test scores,” what they are actually saying is, “Come to orchestra when you can, but if there's a conflict with math, go there instead.” This thing, “I have too much school work/I have a big test coming up in ::insert non-music subject here::,”  is one of the most frequently cited reasons for my private students to cancel their lessons or neglect their practicing. 

One of the most common reasons that parents cite when I ask why they’ve brought their son/daughter to cello lessons is, “I just want them to have a love of music, an appreciation for art.” And that’s fine. Great, even. Hopefully that kid will grow up to be a ticket-purchaser at a recital that I present. That said, “appreciation” is a low standard for excellence. It immediately sets a student up to be mediocre. Here are a few sentences that other teachers, whom also have high standards, never hear:

“I really want Jay to have an appreciation for math, even if he’ll never use it.”

“It isn’t important to us that Madison meets your standards in Spanish; she’s not going to major in it like you did!”

“I get that your degree is in chemistry, but I just don’t want to push Claire to do that, too.”

“Is it really necessary that Taylor study her history class work for 3 hours this week?”


My parents - bless their hearts - wouldn’t let me quit something until I was “finished.” In the case of music lessons, that meant that I couldn’t quit until the school year was over. This developed some sense of commitment to a task: I knew that I had to keep going until I finished, and then, if I was unhappy, I could quit. (And I did - I dropped the saxophone and 4th grade band like a hot potato.) Today, I have students who quit cello in February, and some quit just a few weeks after they begin lessons. Research has shown what common sense tells us: people who make a long(er)-term commitment to a particular task tend to see greater results than those who make a short(er)-term commitment. 

I have my own, personal solution to this perceived problem: school music teachers have to criticize and give bad grades/ratings to underperformers (whatever that means); private music teachers must impart realistic expectations on their students (sorry, music isn’t always fun); and parents should get in on the act, saying “no,” when Jimmy asks to quit music lessons, just because things are getting tough.

There will be short-term consequences to taking this route. Students will quit. Since I’ve enacted stricter policies that encourage more practicing, long term commitment, and higher, performance-based standards, I have seen a significant number of students leave my studio.8 I expected this, and so should teachers who enact similar expectations in their music programs. 

That said, the students who have come into my studio following the policy changes are high-performing. They work hard in the lesson and in the six days between lessons. They ask questions and challenge my instructions when something doesn't make sense. They set goals, and then they achieve them. Over the last six months, my average student is practicing about 25% more than they were in the previous six months. These students are winning competitions, winning principal and section chairs in competitive youth orchestras (to say nothing of the badass music schools to which my seniors have recently been offered admission), and are tackling difficult pieces of music with an energy that I never had as a student, myself. Students who come to me as beginners are seeing rapid improvement, achieving in one year what a young-Justin did in three, four, or five. My higher expectations pay off in music lessons, and they pay off elsewhere, too. These students are going to achieve great things in whatever their profession may be, because they work hard, and they’ve experienced great successes and dismal failures. In other words, they’ve experienced life.

Now, a disclaimer, a qualifier, even: I went to music school/conservatory. I hold myself, in all aspects of my profession and life (I think), to a high standard. I credit my standard education AND music education for these high expectations and my drive to achieve them. That said, I do not think that all, or even most, students who play an instrument in middle school will go on to major in music. I do not think that those same students will ever again touch their instrument after they leave high school. But I do believe that a high standard in music education and performance is important, just as important as high standards in math, science, and the humanities. Incredible engineering may have brought us the Zune from Microsoft, but a solid background in the creative arts (in addition to that same incredible engineering) brought us the iPod.

I believe that secondary/post-secondary teachers who commit to real, high standards with constructive criticisms, will see their retention rate drop; they will lose students. But the students that stay will be more committed to achieve a higher level of success and future students will have a bar - hopefully, a high bar! - toward which they can aspire. The program benefits from a better reputation; the students benefit from a real, instructive music education; the private teachers benefit from a larger pool of committed students; and the parents benefit by seeing their children overcome obstacles to achieve great things - in music and elsewhere in their lives. The high tide lifts all boats.

I know that public school teachers are under immense pressure - from their state standards, their principals, their students’ parents - and I know, personally, that private teachers struggle to retain enough students to make a living, but I see no reason why we can’t all work to raise expectations of students and the standards of performance, benefiting students and music programs not just in the short term, but the long term as well.

Think I'm wrong? Agree wholeheartedly? Head on over to Facebook and tell me about it.


Some Extra Thoughts:
1 Before someone freaks out, please understand that I’m speaking generally, not in absolutes, and completely understand the extenuating circumstances that abound. 

2 I visited one middle school here where literally half of the school’s nearly-1000 students participated in the orchestra program, and I was floored. It was completely unexpected, and is the opposite of what I have experienced to be “normal.” Whatever it is that school is doing should be replicated everywhere.

3 Tangentially, how is it possible that music educators - whose college program probably devalued their performance education - critique students in a way that they may have never been critiqued? When you, yourself, have never been held to a higher standard, I imagine that it’d be hard to then turn around and hold others to a standard of excellence.

4 I’ve found that kids have awesome bullshit meters. They know when their orchestra sounds bad, and no amount of praise or A+ report card grades or Superior ratings from adjudications changes that. It’s the lack of push, the lack of real expectations that keep them from achieving. A teacher who says, “You guys sound great,” but doesn’t offer any criticism and doesn’t push students to work harder is destined to hear their ensemble get worse.

5 When we know a performer sounds bad, but we say nothing - or, worse, give praise - we are lying to that performer and ourselves. 

6 In my studio, students are expected to practice five days each week for the length of their lesson - 30/45/60 minutes x 5 - which leads to a total weekly commitment of the lesson time, plus 3-6 hours of outside practice. This is not a very large commitment. The average American pre-teen watches more than 24 hours of TV per week, 4-8 times the amount of time that I ask students to commit to cello. Cord cutters are not immune here: the average Netflix subscriber streams 2 hours of TV/movies each day, or nearly 14 hours per week. For this reason, I tend to reject the notion that students are simply overwhelmed and cannot devote precious minutes to practicing. To avoid their practicing is a choice that they have made, a priority that they have set. 

7 Is music study really a good indicator of a student’s success? A recent study from the University of Central Florida suggests that socioeconomic status has more to do with student achievement, to say nothing of student retention. 

8 14 students have quit, to date, and I understand why: my students must log and annotate their daily practice on my web-based portal or have their lessons cancelled; parents whose children quit lessons in the middle of the “term” must pay the FULL remaining balance on their term tuition; all of my students set objective, attainable goals and work to achieve those goals; each student is expected to participate in studio recitals, competitions, or youth/all-state orchestra auditions.