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The delicate art of praise

​Music teachers are well acquainted with the positive effects of praise. Praise helps students feel that their work is acknowledged and appreciated, and it serves as an inspiration for further improvement of skills. There are, however, other possible and not infrequent reactions that may come from receiving praise, including anxiety, discomfort, and mistrust. Why do some students experience these emotions when praised, and what circumstances lead to these often unintended results? Music teachers often deal with extremely sensitive and artistic personalities. An awareness of the potential for negative reactions to praise, and consideration of the possible origins of negative reactions can help teachers use praise more effectively.

Students highly praised in the presence of fellow students, in a class, for example, may feel anxiety if they imagine the class to be a competitive setting in which their comrades feel jealousy or resentment. This fear of loss of loyalty or friendship of peers, put in familial terms, is like the fear of resentment of siblings about parental favoritism. Some psychologists believe that anxiety about alienating peers can even lead to a "fear of success." If rivalrous in his or her own heart, the praised student may feel both preferred by the teacher and secretly guilty about the wish to surpass others. To help avoid these feelings, the teacher needs to focus praise not on the person, but on the specific problems the student has overcome.

Students with a healthy sense of where their actual achievements and strivings fit in the world are generally confident enough to work effectively toward their goals. But negative effects of praise can arise from students' unrealistic assessment of the gap—whether too narrow or too wide—between their real and ideal selves. Some students will wrongly imagine that they have already or have nearly achieved the ideal (by closing the gap between real and ideal self ). This occurs when either the student or the teacher has set standards too low, too easily met. In this case, praise only strengthens the illusion.

On the other hand, some students may suffer from a conviction about how wide the gap is between their real and ideal selves. A self-doubting student will see praise as undeserved and may even doubt the teacher's honesty or feel like a child being humored. The student's dreadfully low opinion of himself may arise from a history of childhood neglect, severe parental criticism, physical handicaps, or competitive sibling defeats. Praise, in this case, needs to be handled with extreme care with an eye toward building trust. Teachers build trust not by denying the ideal, but by reacting to solid evidence of progress made toward it. Encouraging the student to acknowledge progress, and to feel comfortable with it, builds trust between student and teacher.

Some self-doubting students may attempt to repair their low self-assessment through self-inflation, a compensatory grandiosity psychologists call "fractured narcissism." These students will attempt to prepare a program that may well be beyond their capabilities. Other students may deal with self-doubt by embracing their deficiencies, acknowledging how far below the ideal a performance was by vociferously declaring "that was awful!" For some, this may merely be a strategy to gain praise. But truly self-doubting students may take pride in knowing the ideal and noting the size of their failures. A teacher's role in this case is a delicate one, and, if not handled with care, the student may simply give up. Finding ways to affix the students' attention upon the realities at hand, the notes, the phrases, the style, helps to build a place for them in a reality-oriented and trustworthy relationship with the teacher and with themselves.

Not infrequently a student will soar to new heights during practice, but, due to performance anxiety, have slight mishaps onstage. These mistakes may be hardly noticeable to the audience, but to the performer they seem to be glaring faults. One unsuspecting teacher rushing backstage, glowing with enthusiasm, remarked with great sincerity, "Do you realize what you accomplished this evening?" The defensive student glowered at the teacher and replied, "Hypocrite!" The teacher must not deny the fact of the student's mishap, but must strenuously affirm the larger worth, if not the beauty, of the performance, and promise to work on safeguards against future performance anxiety.

Turning to still other ways in which praise can be disturbing, we come to questions a student may have about the needs of the teacher to praise. What are the teacher's motivations and intentions? A student may suspect that the teacher values his own reputation and work more than the student's needs and goals—that the student is merely a vehicle for the teacher's greater fame. A student may also sense or imagine that praise is sexually motivated or reflects the teacher's unfulfilled needs for friendship which, however flattering, is disturbing to the student. Students may interpret unwarranted praise as evidence of a teacher's need to be loved or to be seen as better than their parents.

One teacher told me of wanting to reward a student's progress by making a gift of a special edition of Bach. "I don't want you to buy me anything," the student responded with a hint of hostility. Perplexed, the teacher then realized that the making of a gesture that went beyond the bounds of the usual student/teacher relationship caused the student to be suspicious of the teacher's motives. Teaching requires personal honesty and alertness to the possibility of these innuendoes and how they may be perceived, rightly or wrongly. 

What, then, should a teacher do about praising? First, recognize that giving praise is essential to the development of most students. Praise, when focused on the specific task at hand, is an important means of underscoring and providing feedback to the student's handling of that task. Praise generally stimulates good work because everyone needs to feel esteemed and encouraged, particularly by a recognized expert (the teacher). Importantly, praise also reveals something about the teacher's enthusiasm for the field and for learning, providing a heartening model for the student.

Certainly a failure to praise, by being silent or imperious, can be devastating even for those "independent" souls who believe they need no approval from teachers, only instruction and technical guidance. Some teachers feel that they lose credibility by praising, thereby weakening their authority. Silence also creates an aura of mystery around the teacher that, while appealing to the magical longings of students, can stimulate fantasies about an unspoken elevation of the student—the equivalent of excessive praise. Some students will worship a teacher who stands aloof, seemingly too high to praise mere student efforts. Others will try to "crack" the teacher, to get praise, but failure to do so will make them feel demoralized, and this interferes with learning. In other words, failure to praise can reawaken in the sensitive student a whole range of unresolved childhood longings. A student focused on fulfilling these longings is not focused on learning.

A teacher's job is to teach in spite of the pre-existing, highly sensitized tendencies that some students will bring to the relationship. Fortunately, music offers a wonderful challenge to learn skills and develop talents in a way that is moving and important to students. In meeting that challenge step by step, most students discover that their real self does indeed move toward their ideal self. Praise is an important part of that process, and it is a skill in itself. Delivering it, particularly to students who are rivalrous, self-denigrating, or mistrustful, requires special care. A teacher who appreciates the potential of praise to have negative effects with certain students will praise more effectively

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