I recently was taken to a video of an adult musician’s performance. The musician was quite pleased and wanted to share with others so the URL to the video was posted in a very public place. Trouble is, the performance was not good at all; it was out of tune, the tone was quite unpleasant, and there really wasn’t any musicality to be heard. I do not mean to sound harsh, but it really was cringe worthy. It made me sad.

It’s possible that some who go to that URL might then post the YouTube video elsewhere to mock the person. I won’t be surprised to see it on Facebook at some point. (Heck, it could go viral for all the wrong reasons). I won’t post it here or anywhere else. I won’t give you the URL if you beg and plead. I won’t tell you how I found out about it. I won’t even tell you what the person’s gender is or what the person’s instrument is. (I will tell you it wasn’t oboe so none of you out there worry about whether I’m talking about you, though.) The person who posted it isn’t a reader of this blog. Of that I am sure.

All I could think was, “What is the teacher of this student doing? Is the teacher honest about the performance? Will the teacher be honest with the student, assuming that teacher will see and hear the video?”

It’s a tricky issue, being a music teacher. We are to encourage while we instruct and point out problems, to be sure, but what does one do if a student believes himself or herself to have a future in music when there really appears — especially when the student is older — to have no potential. Do we continue to encourage (and even lie?) and take the money and run? Do we “owe” the student honesty and gently say, “You don’t appear to have what it takes to do this professionally and you might consider something else,” saving the student from years of expense? Do we not lie, but not tell the truth either, and just hope the student eventually can hear what he or she is doing? (Obviously this student didn’t hear any problems with a performance that was out of tune, rhythmically questionable and all around uncomfortable.)

Thoughts, readers? I really do wonder what our responsibility is to, especially, these older students who think they have a career ahead of them. It’s one thing to do music for enjoyment, and I’m ALL for that, but this person really did think a career was a strong possibility. I just felt bad and a bit embarrassed for the individual. But maybe I’m over reacting. I do that a lot.


  1. Matt Barwegen

    Hi Patty,

    How old is the student? If he or she is early 20s, I would say that a career is possible. Others would probably disagree since so many successful musicians began studying in childhood.

    Whatever the case, as an adult, the student deserves 100% honesty about the performance, no matter what his/her intentions are for a future career.


  2. I’m thinking 30s, Matt, although I’m only guessing.

  3. This is a toughie – as music teachers we often tend to judge success by musical results. But what about the sheer joy of someone in the early stages of learning who is proud to get through a song as best they can? They need to be encouraged and perhaps even applauded – there does not need to always be a heavy examination of ‘technique’, pitch, or phrasing…etc.

    Our responsibility comes in delivering a quality experience to each student – young or old, beginner or pro. Our goal should be to encourage more music makers of all ages to enjoy the process of learning.

    If the goal of your teaching is to create ‘professional musicians’, you will surely miss some golden opportunities to share your talent with students who might benefit most of all.

  4. I’m not referring to students who are learning an instrument (or voice) to enjoy only, but to those who are learning because they believe strongly they can become a professional musician, Eugene.

    I really love it when students take oboe for the love of the instrument, and I never discourage even those that appear to never fully “get” it. But what if one of those students tells me, “I am working on becoming a professional musician. Do you think I have the ability to do that?”

    If my goal was to create only professional musicians I would be a fool, I think. I do believe it is my duty (not a goal) to be a truth teller, though, when asked such a serious question.

  5. Perhaps the student should be encouraged to play with a group – maybe even the local community orchestra. This would have the effect of showing how far he has to go and at the same time give him incentive to continue.

  6. Yes, Paul, good words.

    I hope all teachers encourage students to play in groups — be it an orchestra, band or singing in a choir. It’s funny, though, that I’ve had some who only want to play on their own. As I tell parents, the growth once a student gets in a group is pretty darn amazing. It also makes it a lot more fun for most students.

    I was just discussing the musician I was originally writing about with my husband and he, too, says this is all a very tricky issue. Even, in his opinion, with an older student. And it IS true that we simply never know with absolute certainty what a person is capable of doing … or near absolute certainty, in any case!

  7. At every audition I ever participated in there were 30 – 50 players who could all play the required material flawlessly, could probably handle the job if selected.

    If a teacher doesn’t respond to a student’s declared goal with that information (and an assignment of audition caliber to attempt to play flawlessly by way of a reality check), then the teacher has failed to communicate the enormity of that goal.

    The student would then at least have the task in perspective.

  8. If it were me, I would prefer if my teacher was honest to me. Goodness, if my first cello teacher never talked to me about listening for intonation and beats, then I don’t know what would have become of me. Up until that point, I spent my entire time in orchestra not really knowing what intonation was about–which makes me feel like my high school and middle school teachers totally gypped me out of my musical learning experience. I kept on wondering why no one told me that we (me and my cello friends at school) were out of tune, posture wasn’t right, etc.

  9. Thanks for the comments!

    I’m curious, Yu-Ting … did you not have a private instructor all through middle and high school? Is that common for string players? (Oboists really must have an instructor … I can’t imagine not!) But yes, our job is to point out problems … in the nicest of ways, of course! 🙂

  10. I actually was lucky enough to occasionally get some private lessons during high school. They weren’t consistent enough and it wasn’t enough to build good foundation for actually studying music.

    (Now that I’m learning more about cello though.. public school teachers actually CAN teach string instruments better. Learning a string instrument is not as complicated as learning a wind instrument since we use larger muscles that are visible to the human eye to play our instrument. For wind instruments, everything is in the mouth or behind your instrument.)

    Most string players that I’ve met have studied with a private instructor before they enter college. The ones who do come in from only public school instruction usually end up changing majors.