A student recently apologized to me for “disappointing” me when he wasn’t able to perform in a recital that I’d asked him to be part of. I felt puzzled for a minute: I have many feelings about students, but disappointment is rarely one of them. So I told him that my approval of him wasn’t conditional upon his performing in the recital.

Then I started thinking about the teacher-student relationship and how approval-based the whole business seems sometimes. So much of my motivation to practise during my student days came from my fear of the teacher’s disappointment or disapproval. I suppose what happens when you don’t have a teacher any more is that you transfer the guilt complex to yourself, so that if you don’t practise, you’re the one who’s disappointed now.

But why should the teacher/student relationship be about striving for approval? The thing about students is that they’re here to learn music, but they’re also here to learn about themselves, what they like, what they want out of life, who they want to be. Some of them will practise a lot and have successful careers in music, and some of them won’t. My approval is irrelevant to this because what they do in the practice room or the concert hall isn’t for me. It’s for them.

The thought of another person’s disapproval hangs over so many of our heads. I recently reconnected with one of my graduates, a person I’ve always admired as a great player and an even better human. He told me something I’d suspected but never really known for sure, which was that his family had disapproved of his coming to college in the first place, and especially of the fact that he was going to study a music, which they didn’t think was a suitable career.

This didn’t deter him, and I admire him even more for this determination, because this is a hard profession even with the support — emotional or financial or both — of your family.

What happened next makes me feel terribly sad. This graduate came from a community that has traditionally viewed higher education with suspicion, and he found that when he returned home after graduation, he and his family had become incomprehensible strangers. It was as if his education had driven a wedge between them.

As scholars, I think we’re called upon to try to understand the values and belief systems of people significantly unlike ourselves, even if we can’t agree with them. What bugs me, though, is that I would have thought anyone would be proud to have a son like my former student. Who wouldn’t want their child to be as intelligent, considerate, kind, well-read, articulate, gentle, and sensitive to the feelings of others as he is? College didn’t make him this way, by the way — he was all of those things before he got here. So what was it about his insistence on getting a degree that was so destructive to their relationship? Surely it couldn’t just be the classes and juries and recitals that he had to pass to get a music degree. I’m going to assume that the dangerous bit was the critical thought processes he learned along the way that led him to question the values he’d been taught. The subversive thing about higher education is that you’re encouraged to ask yourself hard questions, and shape your own values accordingly.

Surely it’s no accident that the teacher-student relationship is so often rather like the parent-child relationship. Since I’m a teacher and a parent, I tried to think of anything my daughter might do that would turn her into a stranger to me, but I couldn’t think of anything. I would still love her unconditionally even if she joined a terrorist cult — though I hope very much that she would never do that, of course!

That said, it’s OK for her to disagree with me. She doesn’t have to have the same religion and politics as her father and me to win our approval, because she already has it. By the same token, my students don’t have to aim for the same career trajectories as me to win my approval. I’m hugely proud of the achievements of my graduates who have made it as professional musicians, because I know how hard it is, but I’m also proud of the ones who are now in other fields. We can’t control our students’ lives any more than we can control the lives of our children, but we can control our own responses to their choices.


One thought on “Approval

  1. It took me until I was 30 to realize that I could stop trying to make my dad proud of me–because he WAS proud of me, and had been, and once I realized that I could stop doing what I was doing and do what I wanted to do. I think we are all Lisa Simpson sometimes.


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