Thursday, December 16, 2010

Encouragement vs. Discouragement

Marjorie Kransberg Talvi's latest installment of Frantic: the Memoir quotes a letter of discouragement from Harry Ellis Dickson that she got after playing a movement of a Paganini Concerto for a Boston Symphony Orchestra children's concert when she was a teenager.

Because this letter was unsolicited, and because Marjorie was not happy with her performance, it proved a double whammy. Ultimately what Dickson said in the letter proved to be true: that there other paths in music besides that of a solo violinist, but its living and breathing presence yells out for discussion.

Words of discouragement, when they are presented to us directly, can be very painful. Often adults don't really think about the kinds of criticisms they offer. They may have best of intentions, but often, in a developing person, they can do more harm than good. (I can't help it--I keep thinking of the problems that Kitty Dukakis --born Kitty Dickson--had in her life. It must have been hard to have a father like Harry.)

I remember all of my direct encounters with discouragement (one unsolicited from Mr. Dickson, as a matter of fact). There have only been a handful. Most people encouraged me to go on in music. My teachers in high school let me get away with very little in the way of work because they approved of the direction I was going. My father's reaction to my SAT scores, "It's a good thing your going into music," sealed the deal (talk about a thoughtless statement!).

Now that I am the adult, I dole out my encouragement carefully. I always advise other people's students who seek out my advice (my students already know) to get a real education. I advise them to go to a college rather than a conservatory, and I let them know that in order to have a career as a soloist they would need to have serious financial security and support, and would have to develop all kinds of marketing skills and interpersonal skills. And they would have to compete all of the time.

Music departments and conservatories make their bread and butter on convincing students that they can give their students the skills they need to function in the "real world" of music, but once those students get out, particularly if they play winds, brass, or percussion instruments, their degree is worth little more than getting past the resume round of a job application. Many remain in the academic world until they get a terminal degree.

Telling a young person that her problems with nerves will compromise her career as a soloist is not telling her anything she doesn't know already. Unsolicited judgments like that from "important people" can actually make the occasional problem turn into a stigma. I imagine that Harry, who had chosen Marjorie as the soloist in the first place, was trying to save face (and respect) in front of his colleagues. I imagine that letter was more about him than it was about Marjorie.

We all need to be careful when offering unsolicited advice to young people.

1 comment:

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

I really value and appreciate these thoughts, Elaine. I, too, am very aware of offering unsolicited advice.

Your point is well taken that a young person in the throes of nerves already recognizes a problem. One does not need for it to be spelled out.

Although I have great respect for Harry Dickson, those emotions I felt at the time are associated with my recollections of him. He could be a bit intimidating!