Newsflash for Teachers: Being an Asshole is Ineffective


Every time I pick up a science news magazine or book I end up smacking my head in disbelief that science goes to such lengths to prove what everybody else knows already. So being an Asshole is an ineffective approach to teaching. Really, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist said so!  I read it in a random book on randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. The author tells the story of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (!). I’ll retell this because here is an interesting twist on “what everybody else knows already”.

While working as a psychology professor at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Kahneman lectured  a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on behavior modification. As a well-read mother of an almost-three year old, I know about behavior modification: rewarding positive behavior works, but punishing mistakes does not. Almost every other parenting book will tell you this. My husband does not agree, but that is another story.

When I read the following passage though, my first connection was not to my son, dear as he is, but to teaching flute. I listen to some teachers brag about how tough they are, and now believe they are driven by a misconception. Perhaps more importantly, this will give us a lesson on how not to talk to ourselves, as we practice for hours on end, give concerts, and play auditions.  I’ll begin quoting from page 7, just mentally replace the word “flight” with “flute”:

Kahneman drove home the point that rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. One of [the pilot instructors] interrupted,…”I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. “And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don’t tell me that reward works and punishment doesn’t work. My experience contradicts it.” The other flight instructors agreed. To Kahneman the flight instructor’s experiences rang true. On the other hand, Kahneman believed in the animal experiments that demonstrated that reward works better than punishment. [...] And then it struck him: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.

How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomenon called regression toward the mean. That is, in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one. Here is how it works: The student pilots all had a certain personal ability to fly fighter planes. Raising their skill level involved many factors and required extensive practice, so although their skill was slowly improving through flight training, the change wouldn’t be noticeable from one maneuver to the next. Any especially good or especially poor performance was thus mostly a matter of luck. So if a pilot made an exceptionally good landing – one far above his normal level of performance – then the odds would be good that he would perform closer to his norm – that is, worse – the next day. And if
his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had done no good. But if a pilot made an exceptionally bad landing – [...] then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm – that is, better. And if his instructor had a habit of screaming “you clumsy ape” when the student performed poorly, it would appear that his criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor compares student to lower primate at high volume, student improves. The instructors in Kahneman’s class had concluded that their screaming was a powerful educational tool. In reality it made no difference at all.

So the next time you or anyone else crash and burn, it’s fine to mull it over and figure out what went wrong, but it doesn’t pay to be an asshole about it – especially to yourself. And besides, apes are higher primates, not lower primates.

but I was going for that high D!

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Are we confused now?


Here is a long, rambling flute entry based on last week’s teaching: helping “older” students who still have basic problems. Because we’re talking about professional training, “older” means mid-twenties – usually – but there are notable exceptions. However, by age 21-22, most young flutists have done their 4-year degree and are looking for a Masters or Artist Diploma program.

I remember reading Trevor Wye’s take on entrance auditions. Many aspirants are weeded out: “too many problems”. I can understand that totally. Not that teachers are lazy, exactly…. It’s just that time (and a short time – graduate programs are normally 2 years only) will be spent fixing (rather than developing, which is what teachers love to do) stuff before the music can be addressed. Sure, you can nurture the musician in parallel, all technical problems can be musically addressed, but, …but…, still, it’s just easier, and a hell of a lot more fun, to take someone who has already got the “flute”stuff (embouchure, fingers, articulation, breathing) figured out.

So how many times have I had a student in front of me, coming to me at the last minute for tomorrow’s audition/competition, but with a lifetime of either bad habits, or a baggage of confusion? Mostly it’s the latter. I am usually blessed with intelligent and diligent students. But whether their intelligence is a blessing, well, it’s a two-sided coin. They’ve taken lots of lessons, looked for answers from many teachers, read a lot, looked in front of a mirror a lot, listened to many recordings and youtube vids. Hence the confusion.

Here are some examples: I’ll focus on the basic problem of embouchure/sound production
“I was practicing fine, but then I looked in the mirror and noticed my embouchure was crooked”
“People tell me I’m not flexible enough – I have to do (fill in the blank) with the corners of my mouth, or (fill in the blank) with my jaw”
And the list goes on . “People have told” the poor student so many things, what can come out of it?
Well for students of the age group I’m talking about, who have played for 10-15 years already – I’ve devised some guidelines for embouchure/sound production:

  • Your ears are more intelligent than your eyes. Use the mirror only to make sure the hole in your lips is lined up with the hole of the flute. All else is vanity.
  • Barring a serious medical problem, there is no such thing as an inflexible lip. If your lips were inflexible, you couldn’t talk! Again, your ears are more intelligent than your eyes. Give the center of the lips room to manoeuvre (Spielraum – great, succinct word in German!).
  • What you do with the corners of your lips is sausage (another great saying in German – meaning: it just doesn’t matter). I asked William Bennett about this when I was about 15 years old and obsessed with the corner question. He put it in plain English: it doesn’t matter a damn what the corners do as long as the center can do its job!

You may have guessed by now that I know from where I speak, first hand. Yes, I have been down this path. I had the advantage though of graduating university early, at age 20. I had serious playing problems. It took 2 years to get shaped up, and then I was able to start a Masters program at the “normal” age of 22.

Why was I such a mess at age 20? Well, with all due respect for my then teacher in Pittsburgh, Mr. Goldberg, the one thing I never developed was the trust of, or reliance on, my own ears. We always started with long tones. I tried to produce my sound according to what he said and what I heard him do. Since what I did was always wrong, I developed a mistrust of my ears and relied only on what he told me, which was usually that it sounded bad. By the time I finished my 3 years with him, I couldn’t produce a reliable sound below low G.

I can’t put all the blame on him, though. What 19-20 year-old girl has the presence of mind to question someone whom the local newspaper critics say “plays like a God”? And someone who was “sans doubt” Moyse’s successor? This is why I encourage my students to give feedback. And you as a teacher have to ask hard questions like, did this exercise not work because you didn’t practice it, didn’t understand it, or because it just didn’t help you? Otherwise, everything is a waste of time.

I want to end on a positive note about Mr. Goldberg though, since I don’t consider my time with him wasted. He did his duty, I came out with a technical solidity and knowledge of the French repertoire and style.

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