As teachers and especially as young professional singers, all of us, without exception, have experienced both acceptance and rejection. Without a doubt both acceptance and rejection have their motivational advantages and disadvantages. As a young singer I felt inadequately prepared to deal positively with rejection, at least at the beginning.
As a learning tool, rejection can build core strength exactly as gravity builds strong muscles. Resistance in this sense is necessary for the calibration of artistic endurance. At its best, it gives us an ‘outer’ perspective on our talent, our uniqueness and our ability to market ourselves effectively. The question is; exactly when does ‘harshness’ in criticism and rejection begin in the young voice student to be utilized positively? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are young voice students. One thing’s for sure; too early and too much rejection cripples artistry and creativity. I’ll use a metaphor to make this clear. Imagine two runners of equal strength and speed. One of them gets 4 pound ankle weights and the other does not. Now race the two of them and it’s a pretty sure bet which one’s going to win. BUT; race them against each other every day for three weeks, give them a rest, remove the ankle weights and race them again. Assuming optimum training effect and no injuries, who’s likely to win now? The weights have made the runner faster, exactly because she was, at first, slower. Now take the same scenario, only with an 8-month old child learning to walk. Put weights on this child and the likely result is muscular overcompensation, spinal injury, hindered development and more than likely a crippled self-image. So Nietsche’s edict doesn’t hold in all contexts.
In other words, during the developmental stage, whether it’s a child or a young singer, too much resistance, harsh criticism and rejection is always detrimental. As a teacher, admitting this makes rapport with the student that much easier. I’m sure we’ve all known teachers who were pure, emotional support systems. Every development, every snag, every problem was framed positively. I’m equally sure we’ve all known teachers who were harshly over-critical and almost cold-heartedly demanding. I’ve definitely known and taught many of each variety. Generally speaking, for me at least, the former is most appropriate for the younger years and the later most appropriate for the transition from student to professional. Exactly where that is for each individual student varies greatly in my experience. There are, to be sure, early bloomers and late bloomers. Some singers are ready to hit the stage running after 8 semesters. For others, it seems that the true learning journey, after 8 semesters, has really just begun.
So the disadvantages of harsh criticism and rejection revolve around a sense of worth and a sense of belonging for the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time singers. The advantages revolve around a realistic and practical assessment of one’s own talent and marketability. It is, as always, also a question of “nature”, temperament and character structure. There are those out there who thrive on brutal, negative feedback.
It’s interesting for me in this context to reflect on the singers I knew who were ‘stars’ in school and those who always seemed to be fighting an uphill battle with colleagues, teachers and their own instruments. The ‘stars’ seemed to always get the most positive feedback, the leading roles and the most career encouragement. Yet these individuals were not always the ones who had success in the profession later on. Their expectations for success were such that their first experiences in auditions were devastatingly disappointing and they gave up. The uphill battlers, on the other hand, had learned to derive motivational power from rejection and disappointment. Their expectations were more in line with what actually awaited them in the professional world.
The advantages of praise and acceptance are much easier to digest, especially in our age of positive psychology and nonviolent communication. At its best it strengthens our sense of self, our sense of belonging and our desire for improvement. An apt analogy might be the training wheels on a bicycle. They are a tool to develop strength, endurance and balance. They are the container in which growth and development are made possible. There are indeed some, in assorted training contexts, who use “unconditional positive regard” to great advantage.
The disadvantages of automatic approval are much more subtle. As in my example above, coming into your own in an early, educational context is no guarantee for success in a later, more professional context. So the question for us teachers is; how can we encourage confidence in our students and at the same time instill a practical sense of endurance and motivation in the face of rejection? To be sure, the answer will differ slightly with each student. One thing’s for certain, leaning too heavily on the one side; unconditional praise and approval, or the other; constant derisive criticism, will never adequately serve the student’s growth potential.
Evan Bortnick http://musa-vocalis.de/