A Small Way to Help Students Handle Critical Disapproval
Think about a song that makes you smile from ear to ear the moment it begins. A few seconds later, your head is bobbing, your feet are tapping, and your eyes are closed, shutting the rest of the world out as you dive into bliss. But something tugs at your sleeve mid-song. It’s the voice of one of your music professors. You know the one. She says, “You have to be kidding me with this garbage. How can you possibly like this, especially after all I taught you?” Or maybe it's the voice of your favorite music critic who called the song "idiotic" in their latest blog. But you love the song. LOVE it. You can’t help it. It gets you. Admonition falls flat in the face of what you're feeling. You dismiss the voices with a smile and go back to your bliss.
I would argue that if you don’t have any songs like this…if you’re only listening to songs that would get stamps of approval from the people you look up to…you’re probably doing your own students a disservice, particularly in commercial music. If we were trained in academia, particularly in classical music, jazz, or musical theatre, material was generally selected for us from a canon of music that received critical approval. But commercial music isn't canonic. It is continually new. While artists do cover songs, the vast majority of commercial music students will have to write their own music and develop their own style.
If we want our students to become authentic, unique, individual artists, I think we have to teach them how to love music just as much as we have to teach them how to study it, and we can only do that if we tap into our own love for music and then leave space for our students to fall in love with totally different music…maybe even music we hate. We have to show them that they can love music that doesn't get approval from others...that they can love something despite critics and ratings and teachers. Eventually, they will have to be something despite critics and ratings and teachers.
Let’s say a student comes in to your studio and wants to work on a song with you. You’ve never heard it, but you can tell by the way she talks about it that this song brings her great joy. You listen to it together. From the first note, every fiber of your being is screaming that this song is terrible. You can’t stand it and want nothing more than to make it stop. You turn to your student. She’s currently in Total Bliss, but you’re dying to introduce her to a hundred songs that are SO much better than this. In this situation, you have two options:
The Shut Down
If you begin by suggesting alternative songs (whether or not that’s coupled with expressing your feelings about it), you’re essentially telling the student that you think her enjoyment is wasted or misplaced. While I know the intent is to expose the student to music that you think she will enjoy even more, this plants seeds of self-doubt about feelings. Even if the song is every bit as bad as you think it is, does that make her enjoyment of it any less real? When faced with a teacher telling them other songs are better, many students will internally battle with thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me? Why did I like that and my teacher didn’t? I’m in lessons because I want to be a real musician. I’m embarrassed that I liked something that real musicians don’t like. I want my teacher to like and respect me, so I shouldn’t like this song.” The student will now distrust herself when she really loves something and will start looking to other people to either confirm or deny her preferences.
This can potentially lead to bigger issues like inauthentic performances or even leaving a music career down the road because she doesn’t really trust what she wants or likes anymore. She’s floundering in her artistic identity because she’s pinballing between a million different opinions of who she should be and what she should sing. There will be plenty of people making it difficult for young artists to trust and like themselves in their careers. We teachers don’t have to be one of them.
If you validate the student’s enjoyment of the song, you’re allowing her to trust her own feelings rather than making her feel ashamed of them. I know, I know. You HATE the song and think earthworms could have written something better. I get it. But you don’t have to say anything about your own feelings about the song to validate your student’s joy. A simple, “I can see you really love this song!” is enough. “Tell me more about why you like it” is a great followup. Be sure to watch your tone if you ask for more information. She can tell if you’re setting her up to deflate her opinion. Just listen and learn about your student through what she’s telling you.
Often, students will say that a song makes them feel understood. Regardless of your feelings about the song, appreciate that your student felt less alone as a result of hearing it. Some students will talk about musical elements that they like: the beat, the instruments, the melody, or the singer’s voice. Mentally store the information she's sharing to help you make song suggestions in the future.
If she can’t cite any specific reasons for liking the song, you can ask more specific questions to see if it will trigger some more specific answers, but don’t shame her for not having any. People don’t have to have reasons for liking music all of the time. Much about our preferences is subconscious, and sometimes music just makes us feel better for reasons we don't understand. Don't worry if she can't articulate any specifics right now. You’ll start noticing some common elements the student likes as you hear more of the songs she brings to you in the future, and you can talk about what you notice as you notice it.
Now that you’ve validated her and allowed her to have her own opinions about music, please, by all means, introduce her to the music that you hope she will love someday. And continually encourage her to try things that are out of her comfort zone so she can grow. Chances are very good that she will love some of your suggestions. It’s contagious to watch someone else love something. But it’s a testament to both their individuality and your ability to let them be different if they reject some of your suggestions, too.
This approach of validation and expansion is much like the improvisation mantra: "Yes! And..." Accept what the student brings to the table, and then expand on it, rather than rejecting what she brings and then refuting it.
My students and I swap playlists on Spotify a lot. I cater custom playlists to the tastes and content that they’ve shared with me so far, and I throw a few curveballs in there, too. Students make playlists of their favorite songs and share them with me. We talk about each other’s playlists…what we liked and what we didn’t…and sometimes why. I learn so much about their tastes and their personality through this process. It helps me have better suggestions for them. And in those moments when they’re adrift in self-doubt because somebody told them they should be this or that instead of what they are, I can refer to the music they’ve deeply loved as a lighthouse back to themselves.
We have to model a love for music that is outside a canon...outside what the critics and our teachers like. This small gesture can help them build and trust their identity...to have a core knowing and security in what they value...which will help them persevere in the face of the inevitable critical disapproval that awaits them.