Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mrs. Sweet's pedagogical method

They had all been instructed by Mrs. Sweet, a soft-bodied woman with a petulant smirk who was very deft at smacking hands without actually interrupting the performance of a scale or an etude. She sat on the bench beside them, reeking of lily-of-the-valley, and turned an injured look at the keyboard. Alert as a toad, Hope said, and quick as a toad, too. Whack! when a note offended, and then the return to sullen watchfulness, then again Whack! ... But Grace actually liked piano. She practiced more than she needed to and learned more than was exacted of her. Once she told her parents, weeping, that the hand smacking distracted her, so their mother went to speak to Mrs. Sweet, who asked, indignant, "How else will she improve?" But from then on she restrained herself, barely, when Grace played and vented her pedagogical method on Glory.

-- from Home by Marilynne Robinson, p. 54-55

We've probably all had a Mrs. Sweet at some point: a teacher whose method of correction was to whack us, whether physically or verbally. Those spoken, emotional "whacks" might actually be the more hurtful, and the more lasting, since we tend to remember and re-enact them long afterwards.

In effect we internalize the punishment, and adopt our own inner "Mrs. Sweet" -- who delivers her whacks much more deftly than any external teacher! Watching a player with this condition, you can sometimes see a sudden grimace -- whether or not the offending note is apparent -- which makes it clear, Mrs. Sweet has just delivered another whack.

Obviously, this is distracting -- for the audience as well as the player. In most cases, it quickly ceases to be helpful, and can become a real impediment to progress. I think it's important for us as teachers, and in our own practice, to check the impulse to punish mistakes with violence and recriminations. It's almost always more productive just to note them, make sure they're understood, and then encourage ourselves to try again. We can progress much faster if we have an intrinsic need to get better -- if we're driven by a hope of improvement, rather than fear of punishment.

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