Recovery From Traumatic Music Lessons

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When I mention “violin teacher” as one of my careers, people are quick to tell me about their own experiences with private music lessons – good and bad. Plenty of people say they had a great experience, and even regret quitting, to which I reassure them it’s not too late to start again.

But other times, I have heard what can only be called horror stories.  These budding musicians endured soul-crushing experiences at very young ages.  I’ve heard about an accordion teacher who would yell profanity, a guitar teacher who roughly pulled a student’s fingers when they couldn’t stretch, and a piano teacher who slapped students’ hands when they played a note different from what was written. I strongly believe that harsh punishments for a student’s shortcomings do more harm than good, sucking out any sense of enthusiasm or love for music and replacing it with immobilizing perfectionism and fear.  One of the more extreme examples of music lessons as a pretence for physical and emotional abuse may be Ludwig van Beethoven. As a child, Ludwig’s father’s taught violin and piano, but also physically and emotionally abused his son and forced him to practice and perform to the point of exhaustion. Johann Beethoven was a destitute alcoholic who wanted to gain fame and fortune by turning his son into a Mozart-like prodigy, and when this effort “failed,” he made his extreme displeasure known by never having a kind word for his child.   


Less extreme, but still destructive

There are of course many less extreme examples of how lessons can be wounding, especially for a child.  Even otherwise good teachers sometimes unknowingly use techniques or reactions that, with certain personality types or in a vulnerable moment, can get inflated in a student’s mind and make him or her feel like a hopeless failure.  I can think of plenty of moments where, in spite of my diligent practicing, my anxiety in a lesson would get the better of me and I would make what felt like an egregious error – and even a gentle critique would make me want to sink in the floor.

Even on a very small scale, I think many budding musical performers are conditioned to be afraid of “wrong notes.” In spite of my efforts to make our lessons feel safe, and communicate that mistakes are only an invitation to try again or think differently, many of my students will involuntary grimace, flinch, or give an embarrassed smirk when something goes wrong in our lessons – as if they expect something catastrophic is going to happen just because they played a C-natural that sounded too much like a C sharp. Of course, playing in-tune and on-beat and with a intentional tone are all important, but it is not always something that comes automatically without many careful attempts.

Part of the reason for this may be that we live in a society that can be very perfectionistic.  Almost daily, we are inundated with messages that only the “best” people are deemed worthy of our attention (and that fail to point out that any ability has years of disciplined work behind it), and this can easily create pressure to think people are supposed to get everything right on their first attempt.  


Healing is Possible

The most logical thing to do after efforts are met with soul-killing harshness may very well be to just walk away from music entirely. Music is supposed to be a joyful, fun part of being alive, because it gives us opportunities to creatively explore, express our deepest emotions, and get lost in rhythm – but too often it can also be a tool where sensitive hearts are trampled on.  However, many people discover that making music is still something that compels them – their hearts believing there is another way to learn based in self-love rather than self-hatred.


Unlearning Fear

 It is possible to love music again. Like any traumatic memory, an overly harsh music teacher does not have the final word on what kind of person you are and will become. Psychologist Ann Masten has spent four decades studying children who have endured horrific circumstances and reflects that “humans have an ability to survive, adapt, and reinvent ourselves that is nothing short of ordinary magic.”  Here are a couple ideas of how to reconnect with the love of music and fearlessness of the child within you who simply feels free to explore and create.

Put Things Into Perspective

A person committed to learning music is going to work very hard.  We all have to dedicate hours of focused practice on creating a good tone, becoming proficient in a variety of techniques, and learning how to hit the correct note at exactly the correct time.  Seemingly insignificant movements of our bodies can make all the difference between something being in tune and in rhythm, and sounding “off.” Sometimes it can take many hours of careful and focused practice  before a musical skill gets comfortable or “clicks” in the brain. When I was first learning to play, there were many moments where I was tempted to stop and afraid I would never improve. But eventually, it did get easier to hold the bow, have a good vibrato, and stay in tune while shifting to 7th position.  Each time I practiced, I set a pattern in my brain that made it just a little bit easier and a little bit better. I didn’t fully appreciate how I was making progress every day.


A teacher has to play many roles at a the same time, but one of the more important might be to be able to look into the future. With everything I do, I try to have an awareness of where the student might be  2 months, 6 months, 2 years, and 10 years from now – and see a vision of a struggling student becoming a proficient and creative music-maker. As your own teacher , you should do the same for yourself.  Not everything is going to fall into place right away, but every day of practice is getting a little bit closer to your goal.

I believe very strongly that everyone has the capacity to be musical, and play an instrument, sing, dance, or otherwise engage with music in a way that reflects their unique voice. But, hypothetically, let’s suppose you never reach the level of musical technique that you aspire to.  Even people at a professional level can sometimes slip up and play notes with a scratchy tone, off-pitch or off rhythm. And if you can pardon me stating the obvious – no one dies when it happens. Even a master like Heifetz, Coltrane, or Hendrix is no more worthy of dignity than an off-key karaoke singer, or a child banging on piano keys. Your value as a human being goes way deeper than whatever “talent” you think you lack (or have yet to develop). Strive to improve out of self-love (expanding your capacity for self-expression), not self-hatred. Doing everything you can to start from this viewpoint can make a huge difference in your ability to be gentle with yourself.

Slow Down and Change Your Tune

Trauma is not simply a “bad memory” you can “get over” or think your way through, because what resides in your head does not simply stay there. An experience of fear, embarrassment, or powerlessness involves your whole body, felt as a tensing up of muscles, a headache, or any other forms of pain. Without even realizing it a “trigger” can make you tense up – as your body gets thrown back into an unconscious memory and prepares itself to “fight, flight, or freeze.”  


This can be helped through practices that take these unconscious memories and reactions, and bring them to consciousness. If you find yourself approaching music with a sense of dread, try slowing down. Breathe deeply to gain awareness of your body, and then move with as much awareness as possible. Go through the movement of playing with slow and careful attention to every muscle, aware of what your body is doing as it moves through space. Then, try going inside yourself and question what’s going on in your head – any feelings of fear, or voices that make you feel worthless or powerless should be gently confronted and reminded of the truth. Your body responds to fear by tensing up because it thinks it is protecting you, but the truth is that your time making music should be perfectly safe. Fear and tension will only get in the way. Reminding yourself of that truth, and focusing on being gentle with yourself in the present moment is an important way to create a new habit of playing in a more relaxed way – which is a central way to make your music both better and more fun.  




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