David was putting all his energy and heart into the piece he was playing. I sat on the edge of my chair, thrilled to see the great improvement he had made this week. This particular piece was quite difficult, one that had been a big step in technical and musical development for David, and I was glad to see that he had taken the challenge well.
As he finished the final chord, there was a slightly anxious look on his face. “Hey, you have it completely memorized! That’s great!” I cheered. I praised several other positive changes he had made that week in the music too. David grinned, but the worry in his eyes was still there, though I couldn’t figure out why.
When I said, “It’s so enjoyable to hear everyone play this piece, because I love the different interpretations each guitarist finds in these beautiful phrases,” suddenly David wilted. I was startled. What did I say wrong?
Seeing my confused look, David sighed and mumbled without making eye contact, “I know I’m not Sarah, and I know I’m not Luke [two students who are known to be top players in our studio, whom David personally knows]. I’m sure they can play this piece much better than I do.”
A light dawned. I had no idea he had been worrying about how he played compared with other students! With complete sincerity, I was able to say this: “I don’t want another Sarah, and I don’t want another Luke. I want a DAVID! You bring your own touch to the music, and nobody else will have the exact same way of playing it. That’s the beauty of being a musician! You should be proud of the work YOU are doing to bring this piece to life musically!”
David visibly straightened up taller in his chair. After that, we worked on relaxing tension in his right shoulder, fixed the fingering in a tricky passage, and talked about the phrasing. David was now attentive and eager. His music sounded even better at the end of the lesson.
Some students thrive on competition with each other, some are more internally motivated, and some cringe under the pressure of comparing their skill with another. It’s a delicate balance that requires sensitivity from the teacher and a knowledge of who the student is as a person. Thankfully, as David’s teacher, I learned a valuable lesson and was able to help him through this situation, but I’m sure this won’t be the last time I deal with the issue of crippling comparison in my students. For now, I am grateful that the anxiety over this piece of music is diminished and he is free to make the music his own without comparing himself to someone else.
* Students’ names have been changed.