Gerald Elias: Music teachers should be honest, not intimidating

Some teachers may think that by culling the herd through derisive negativity, they’re doing their students a favor in the long run.

It is difficult enough to learn to play a musical instrument, especially if one has aspirations of a professional career. Harassment, intimidation, and sexual abuse do not help.

There is an “old school” theory that some teachers embrace which says, “If you can make it past the torture I’m going to put you through, then performing on a stage with thousands of people in the audience will be a piece of cake.”

Sadly, recent exposés in the world of athletics have made us all too aware that this theory is not restricted to music.

To assume this method of teaching was ever the norm is historically inaccurate as well. As a student, one of my teachers was Ivan Galamian, arguably the most prominent violin pedagogue of the 20th century. And though he was indeed renowned for being intimidating, there were no threats, no yelling, no personal insults, no sexual belittling. It was solely that he demanded excellence. The message was clear and simple: If you hope to succeed musically and professionally, you will have to excel. If you don’t, you should probably not be in this business.

That is a valuable if sometimes painful message. These days, many young instrumentalists are told from day one how wonderfully talented they are. Supporting a student’s self-esteem is a good thing, isn’t it? Yes, if the kudos are justified. But even when they are — or especially when they are — it’s essential to begin a second narrative.

It’s crucial to inform students what their deficits are, how intensely competitive the profession is, the immense amount of work they’ll be required to do simply to get to stand in line, how unlikely the chances are — given the internationalization of classical music — that even the most gifted will prosper in a music career.

Without being made aware of all the challenges, these blindly optimistic, talented, intelligent youngsters then go through their student years thinking that all they have to do is get their music degree and they’ll be home free, when what they’ve really been handed is a bill of goods.

This message is all too often left unaddressed by college music departments. One reason is that chronically underfunded music departments need as many students as they can enroll to bolster their budgets, so they provide encouragement to virtually any student who can hold a fiddle under their chins to be a performance major without ever explaining what the end of the road will very likely be.

It is tragic when highly intelligent and motivated students, who could easily get degrees (and then lucrative jobs) as scientists or doctors or engineers end up struggling for a bachelor of arts in music performance with no prospects for a career, simply because no one ever talked to them about alternatives.

So some teachers may think that by culling the herd through derisive negativity, they’re doing their students a favor in the long run, without considering or caring that in the process they’re ruining them physically and emotionally. But that approach demonstrates only one thing: What they lack in courage to sit down and have an adult discussion with their students about the challenges of a music career they make up for in the cowardice of intimidation and harassment.

This is wrong and must end. Thank you to the young men and women at Utah State University who have spoken out.

Keith Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune Violinist Gerald Elias June 12, 2012 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Gerald Elias, a musician and author, is a faculty member of the University of Utah School of Music. His most recent novel, “Spring Break” tackled the issue of sexual harassment in music schools, and is “dedicated to music students, especially female ones, because it’s hard enough to play the violin.”