Respect and Tradition: You May Need to Know More Than You Think…

The violin teacher who influenced me the most was very old when I started studying with him. He had been a soloist before World War I – yes, you read that right, before the First World War, the Great War, whatever you would want to call that catastrophe and waste of human life at the beginning of the last century. He had studied with Sevcik in his youth. He used to tell me all kinds of stories and vignettes that illuminated the world of music for me, helping me to understand its beauty, the life of a musician, the life of a student of Sevcik (want to talk about really “old school?”), how times had changed, all things that have proved invaluable to me in later years, especially as a teacher. It was as if he wanted to give me those experiences that had had meaning for him. He died a few years after I started studying with him. How I wish I had paid more attention and asked a lot more questions. Now I was just a kid and can’t say that I really appreciated the significance of what he was telling me at the time, although it certainly was interesting. But it all took on ever more meaning as time went on and they are things I now pass on to my students.

Imagine my shock when an eminent violinist and university professor who has taught in famous conservatories and has among his alumni many well-known violinists, with as many decades of experience as I have (and that’s a lot of decades), told me about his recent experiences with his students. It seems now that he is forced to undergo “student evaluations.” That’s really bad enough. How can callow youths possibly understand what their teacher is really giving them,  much less be put in a position of judging that teacher’s work – especially one with a long and distinguished career as my friend’s? Well, it seems they can – or are encouraged to, anyway. As I said, that’s bad enough – but what they criticized is what I found shocking.

When Professor Y, shall we call him, would start to recount things to his students that he thought would help them in understanding the background of the pieces they were studying, or just give these inexperienced kids some images to help them in their interpretation, their written criticism in their evaluation (which goes on his record) was that he shouldn’t do this and  “should stay on task,” whatever that is. Maybe I’m old fashioned but isn’t the teacher the one who decides what that task is?

I have often said that ignorance is often ignorant of itself. Nothing shows this more than the attitude of these college students. But to have the courage and presumption to make such a “assessment” shows an abyss of knowledge, culture, respect for tradition (if not for the figure of a teacher) that I thought perhaps might be missing in some of the general population, but certainly not among classical musicians – or aspiring ones who should be thrilled to be learning from such a fine violinist and famous pedagogue as their professor.

Let’s contemplate what this really means so we can understand why this is so upsetting.

  1. It means they think playing the violin is something mechanical and the teacher is only there to help you physically play the instrument.
  2. It also means to me that these young people have no idea what music really is – instead of being the most profound expression of human emotion and spirituality that we have, to them it’s some sort of fireworks display of technique and bravura.
  3. Or they are so arrogant as to suppose that their “interpretations” will come automatically as soon as they can nail that last Paganini caprice they have been slaving over or Mozart concerto they just can’t get right – wanting no context from the teacher (that would be wasting time).

Yes, my old teacher would go on sometimes. The difference between my situation and that of today is that I would never have dreamed of trying to shut him up, even if I had had the possibility and never would had presumed to tell my teacher his job even if my opinion had been solicited. Anyway, thank God I listened to him. His musical DNA went all the way back to Viotti who personally knew Haydn and Beethoven and had studied with Pugnani who had studied with Somis who had studied with Corelli … and now I’m passing that on to my students, who are private students and don’t make evaluations.  Their parents are adults and realize the wisdom of explaining why music, why do it well, what music means and they value what an experienced teacher chooses to share with her students.  Evidently some college students don’t get this, and the ones in question here not only aren’t interested, they haven’t the slightest idea that they’re missing out on something important. And when someone who knows what he’s talking about tries to fill them in, they “tell” on him.

Which makes me wonder something else. How were these advanced students taught by their previous teachers? What kind of teachers do we have out there? Are any of us not even trying to teach our youth a bit of awe and humility in front of the magic that is music, not to mention respect for tradition? Are we so workmanlike that my professor friend might as well be teaching carpentry instead of art?

I have had long talks with some great violinists, some of whom are no longer with us. How they talked about music is fascinating. For example, Uto Ughi is a famous virtuoso in Italy (he taught Augustin Hadelich among others), who knew, studied and played with many of the greats of the last century. I interviewed him because he and 97 year old Ivry Gitlis (who I don’t want to disturb) are the only students still living of George Enescu. Those of us of a certain age know who Enescu was. Everyone else ought to. Let’s just say he was one of the most formidable musicians of the 20th century: he concertized equally well on the piano and the violin (something I don’t think has ever been repeated), was a great composer and, most unusually, a greatly beloved (apparently most of them weren’t) and highly competent orchestra conductor. Did I also mention he was a teacher, Yehudi Menuhin being one of his many star pupils? What did Ughi have to say about his teacher (he was very young at the time)? That he was the most spiritual musician he ever met and easily transmitted this to his charges. You think he did this only by correcting bowings, fingerings and dynamics? Most of the others, some extremely famous, I talked to all agree that teachers should talk to their students about music in whatever way the teacher feels appropriate. But apparently our young future colleagues feel differently.

Talking to our students is how we pass on the meaning of music, its context, its beauty, its tradition – even if what we’re talking about may seem to the student unrelated at the time to what he is currently studying. But because I listened to my teacher talking about a wide range of things, I have a direct connection to the tradition that goes back to the late 1600’s and then is lost in time. And in the years since, so much has come back to help me as a teacher, mother and human being.

How lucky I was that I was taught respect for superior knowledge, respect for an old man who wanted to share things that had significance for him, and respect in general for a teacher. As a result my life has been incredibly enriched. Maybe he could have used our time together to teach me more technique, but having all the technique in the world and not the human element that makes music come alive would have made my study of music pointless.

I guess the bottom line is, what do I remember the most from my time with that teacher? How to hold the bow, how to do spiccato? No, it was the stories that helped me understand music and the world in general. Anyone can teach technique, but he could tell me what it was like to hear Caruso sing.

And now some of our young colleagues are convinced they and only they know what they need. They don’t have a clue. They have no idea how much they don’t know and don’t seem to care to find out. They don’t seem to realize how much they can learn from the experiences of those older and wiser than they. I suppose they see my friend, their teacher, their key to future success, as older – but either they don’t recognize his wisdom and experience or they don’t think it’s important. After all, they know what they want…

But the really horrifying thing we should all consider is that these students who are now getting degrees and certifications, while evaluating their teachers and not allowing them to impart knowledge of the profound meaning of music and its traditions, are going to be teaching our children and our grandchildren.

We should think about this before we put the power to destroy the career of an acknowledgedly excellent teacher in the hands of our youth.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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30 June 2020

2 thoughts on “Respect and Tradition: You May Need to Know More Than You Think…

  1. Elise Winters

    Eloise, thank you for this. I so appreciate your words. Yes, the most important things I received from my primary teacher were gifts of the heart.

    I do think there are good reasons for students to share how they experience their training. Sometimes it may be a situation where the teacher is critiqued incorrectly; but when a teacher is very good, I think most reviews will reflect that they are well-loved.

    More important are the reviews that uncover real problems.

    If my university teacher of 20 years ago had been reviewed, perhaps it would have saved many of us who experienced toxic favoritism, scapegoating and ostracism in her dysfunctional studio family. These scars stayed with me through much of my young adult life, just like the beautiful stories stayed with us as well.

    Hopefully your friend’s older colleagues are wise enough to discern the difference.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thank you Elise, for your comment. Abuse should never be tolerated. And truthfully, someone who is terrified of his or her teacher (as undoubtedly you all were), would hesitate to report it under any circumstances. Would you have reported in an evaluation a toxic environment when you knew your career may have depended on the good graces of the teacher? Really? We all know how much abuse has gone on, unreported even when there was the chance. The problem here is that a person with a proven record of excellent teaching and excellent relations with his ex-students, has been called on the carpet for something so ridiculous that it would be laughable if it weren’t so unjust. Unfortunately, the university administrators give importance to such things. What is a teacher supposed to do? Ask the student what he wants to learn, how he wants to learn it, how much he, the teacher, should talk, or shouldn’t? I would find it very difficult to teach indeed if I thought I had to watch every single itty bitty thing I did. His students also complained about other even more ridiculous things that I have saved for another occasion. If I were that teacher, I wouldn’t know how to continue teaching such students. The admins should have called the students on making such accusations and at least asking them if they didn’t think this teacher knew what he was doing. Which he most certainly does. I guess there has to be a happy medium somewhere. But this case certainly isn’t that. Thanks again for commenting. Stay safe!


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