Challenging Performance: The Book. 7.6 Virtuoso class

7 Teaching

7.6 Izabela Wagner on the training of virtuosi

Izabela Wagner’s Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos (2015)[1] is a distressing but essential book, whatever your view on the rights of performers. It is based on her experience as the mother of a child being prepared for a life as a violin virtuoso, filtered through her expertise as a sociologist able to observe and analyse social interactions and contexts.[2] As a parent she had behind-the-scenes access to an extent that would not have been available to an independent researcher, able to witness and understand situations that they might not have seen or felt. This brings dangers, of course, but the book is remarkable for its clarity of perspective and for allowing the material to speak for itself. In summarising her work I may fail to be so objective; for much of what she sees is deeply shocking, especially some twenty years after her data was collected, given that public concern for the emotional abuse of children seems now more acute. Wagner’s research focuses on Eastern European-trained violin teachers, drawn from the soloist elite, working in mainly in Western Europe, but also in Poland and the USA, between 1997 and 2004. Some of the behaviour she witnessed may be less severe now, but given the extreme conservatism of the ideology we cannot sensibly assume radical change. (Linda MacArthur’s 2011 study of emotional abuse by Canadian and American music teachers offers a small insight from the far west.[3] It would be interesting to hear from more people who have studied at this level recently.)

Training at this elite level often takes place outside the specialist music school and conservatoire systems in an even more intensely hot-housed and competitive atmosphere. Virtuoso education ‘involves a dual and interdependent hierarchy of teachers making reputations and students making careers, each using the other as rungs on their respective ladders.’ … ‘[E]ducating virtuosos is the job not only of teachers but also of complex informal networks and institutions’ (Wagner 2015, 3). Soloist classes are often semi-private; to hear about them you need pushy and well-connected teachers and/or parents (33).

Wagner identifies three stages of career formation. 1) early years: the parent-teacher-student relationship. 2) teenage: the teacher-student relationship. 3) ‘the relationship between categories of professionals who introduce young soloists to the adult market’ (Wagner 2015, 4).

In stage 1 parental ambition is key. Most members of the virtuoso class have ‘at least one parent who is a musician’ (64% work within the profession, a further 16 % as amateurs) (24; 44-5). ‘Regular education becomes a secondary investment in terms or time, energy, and involvement’ (32). ‘Almost all soloist students who do not originate from a musical family—less than 10 per cent of the sample—have parents in intellectual occupations who are passionate about music’ (26). Tellingly, ‘In almost all cases, parent-violinists who were interviewed had not achieved an international solo career’ (27).

‘Many such children remember learning to read and write, but do not remember their first violin lesson. They have the impression of “always having played”’ (25). 10% start before the age of four; 69% between four and six years old (28), which must be an important factor leading to naturalization of the ideology. Thus ‘The adjective “normal” is frequently used by the students’ (26).

To get access to this world, a child needs to be labelled as ‘talented’ or ‘particularly gifted’; and ‘The power of this label is proportionate to the position of the expert who expresses it’ (35). ‘This “talent” is presented by teachers as if it were a supernatural attribute that could be lost if parents do not “invest” in a soloist education. In soloist classes, all students have this label: it is a sine qua non of belonging to this category’ (36).[4] ‘…[P]arents … tend to believe that their child’s talent will enable them to prevail in the struggle that is the consequence of a saturated market’ (37). ‘It is not in the interest of the teachers that parents know … the low chances of achieving a successful position after more than fifteen years of professional training’ (72). Thus ‘teachers never reveal [to parents] the probability of success in such a long-lasting and exhausting education’ (4).

‘Students must submit to the authority of their teacher’ (41) as must the parents. Willingness to do what they’re told, however hard (e.g. practise at 3am, p. 42), is taken as an indication of their fitness for the profession. Access to the profession at this level is impossible except through pleasing distinguished teachers (42–3): it’s completely controlled by existing subscribers. Parents learn to conform, partly from seeing other parents and discovering how essential it is if their child is to receive the best attention. Teachers emotionally blackmail parents in order to ensure loyalty (47): families follow teachers abroad, even at the cost of family break-up (53–4). Students grow up to accept psychological pressure and punishment from their parents as necessary for success (48) with (one assumes) inevitable consequences for the relationships with their own children and students later on.

There is a ‘hierarchy of students in the soloist class’ … ‘this kind of rat-race ambience is welcomed by some teachers’ (63). Teachers’ favourites are marked out by length of lesson, choice of repertoire, venue of lessons (64). ‘Students are used to unequal treatment by teachers and give the impression that they consider it “natural”’ (65).

In sum, ‘The young soloist is enclosed in a sort of cell, built by the parents and the teacher’ (72). The nature of this early training helps to explain why, even at the highest level where successful soloists finally have autonomy, there is so little innovation. It’s a closed world, and they’ve got where they are by working faithfully within it.[5] Hence, ‘Even decades after finishing their lessons, many soloists seek the advice of their former teachers before important events’ (143).

In stage 2, teenage years, we see an increase in student anxiety (76), a problem only exacerbated by this stage being ‘marked by the quest for technical perfection and sharper individual interpretation’—the irreconcilable conflict which we’ve seen repeatedly in the preceding chapters here. An increase in public classes—and especially a variety which Wagner describes as ‘theatre’ in which the master creates a stage on which he can dazzle (86–7)—now leads to ‘intense emotional strain on the students … [which] helps prepare students for their professional lives’ (88). In classes where teachers foster competition between members a ‘feeling of ironbound discipline evokes a military drill field. This strict disciplinary atmosphere seems quite contrary to the ideal of a soloist education that nurtures creativity and independence in an artist’ (90). But then, who is truly nurturing either of those? In the ‘torture chamber’ style class, ‘An ambience of fear reigned during lessons, and students were scared’ (91). Wagner quotes Nathan Milstein speaking up for this approach as it ‘improves the quality of playing’ (91). Or as one of Wagner’s teacher participants explained, ‘”If they can’t maintain self-control because they are hurt that I screamed at them, they have no place here. This is not a world for little children who need their mum”’ (207).

It may not surprise you to learn (as concluded in Lehmann, Sloboda & Woody 2007) that performer-teachers like these may be less effective than trained teachers.[6]

‘[T]he behavior expected by soloist teachers is, in a word, obedience’ (105). ‘…[S]tudents must relate docilely with their teacher in the domains of technique and musical interpretation’ (201): ‘Docility permits the student to achieve good results quickly’ (208). Wagner reports a participant’s story about a child being marked down for being too confident, aged nine (105-6), as if teachers require deference, even fear to be shown; and in this sense interacting with a teacher may be not unlike interacting with a security force or a criminal fraternity where respect has to be shown in return for protection. ‘Frequently, I heard the following critique from teachers: “He/she plays as if he/she is already a soloist, but he/she is only a student”’ (106).

The bullying of a student by their teacher ‘is not seen among virtuoso students as … a particular abuse but as a case of a “not-good-lesson”’ (106;  cf the description of this lesson, 96–8). ‘…[A] soloist student cannot be emotionally fragile, scared, or self-effacing. Working with students who present these characteristics …, teachers say, is a waste of time’ (107). Equally, a student who is too wilful won’t be accepted either. ‘”I won’t work with him because he has too much personality. He doesn’t hear me…”’ (ibid.) During three lessons reported in detail, ‘only one student dared ask a question’ (108). ‘Young virtuosos are accustomed to rude treatment’ (109). As one of her student participants explained, ‘You enter the camp as if it is a religious order. You belong to your teacher and you must adhere to his technique and interpretation’ (127).

In stage 3, the last stage of training, there’s much focus on success within the social milieu of soloists, teachers, and other gatekeepers (142ff). Here students‘ ‘value is based on peer evaluation and a market controlled by cliques’ (147). Finally, at this level the false promises, made implicitly or explicitly throughout the earlier stages, are exposed in the failure of most students to become soloists. Only a few from the soloist class succeed; more change career; most teach or join an orchestra (189). ‘Teachers carefully hide the fact that success is rare, even nearly impossible. … It is absolutely contrary to the teacher’s interest to speak about the relative proportion of successful students. And so, the teachers continue to support the notion that the students’ aspirations are realistic. …[T]here is silence around [students who leave] that makes it possible to avoid blaming the organization or doubting the quality of the teacher’s work’ (190). ‘Teachers, parents, and students typically keep silent about [those who drop out]’ (79) For the students themselves, anything less than an international soloist’s career is experienced as a failure (196); this after perhaps twenty years of intensive training and practice to the exclusion of a normal education, social life or upbringing. After so many years of relentless criticism, ‘even very successful violinists can feel comparative failure[s]’ (197).

It is not hard to imagine what this kind of childhood does to all those who are not most exceptionally resilient. One of Ginsborg (2018)’s participants spoke of ‘The sacrifice of a lost childhood, then giving up performing whilst at [conservatoire] because I realised I didn’t want that which I’d worked so hard to achieve’.[7] One of Wagner’s contributors gave up at the last stage of training in order to study medicine because ‘When she played, she said, it was only her teacher playing through her’ (Wagner 2015, 201), a devastating and yet a brave and sane response.

What we see documented throughout Wagner’s study is the controlling environment associated by Bonneville-Roussy & Vallerand (2019) with ‘obsessive passion’ as opposed to ‘harmonious passion’ for music. ‘[W]ith OP, musicians feel controlled by external or internal pressures (e.g., external pressures from auditions or internal pressures to excel at all costs) that drive their involvement in music.’ Wagner shows all too well why and how this is common among high-achieving musicians. Obsessive passion for music can lead to ‘very positive emotions’ when all goes well but ‘overwhelming negative’ emotions when failure is perceived, leading to ‘burnout and injuries’. As Bonneville-Roussy and Vallerand wryly observe, ‘a controlling environment may lead to the development of a more obsessive type of passion. Unfortunately, controlling behaviors seem to be prevalent in classical music cultures (Evans, 2015).’[8]

Wagner’s study raises huge questions about this world, and whether the artistic results, wonderful as they are, are truly worth this level of physical and psychological pain or the level of abuse—because that’s what it is—that children suffer in the (usually fruitless) quest for success. Linda MacArthur’s 2011 study of emotional abuse by music teachers, cited above, bears out Wagner’s with testimony from North America, showing both the viciousness of the abuse and the students’ willingness to see it as justified and necessary for their success. Clearly, superlative technical control of one’s instrument is only possible with years of practice, assisted by an expert practitioner. But the requirement also to acquire and reproduce a standard interpretation of each canonical score, within a barricaded performance style beyond which you may never stray without censure however successful you may be, adds to that technical education a degree of obedience and non-creativity which prevent there being any significant reward or even compensation other than a fee and routine approval.

It’s not hard to imagine how the experience of being a performer could be transformed if personal creativity were a constant presence throughout training and professional practice. Then acquiring and maintaining a technique could be more than worth the work it unavoidably and constantly requires.

If, as should surely be happening throughout soloist training—which, let us be clear, is the initial goal of all musical training—a serious intervention was made for child protection, then it seems likely that fostering personal creative expression would necessarily become a key aim. The two go together. Nothing else is ethically defensible, or artistically desirable.

Continue to 7.7 ‘Micro schools and their discontents’

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[1] New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.
[2] I have previously summarised Wagner more briefly in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2018. The Danger of Virtuosity, afterword to special issue on virtuosity. Musicae Scientiae 22:4, 558–61.
[3] MacArthur, Linda. 2011. Behind Closed Doors: Emotional Abuse in the Music Studio. In ed. Aaron Williamon, Darryl Edwards and Lee Bartel, Proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science 2011 (Utrecht: Association Européenne des Conservatoires), 387-92.
[4] Recall Kingsbury 1988, 76–80.
[5] ‘Based on my research, it seems the primary function of the instrumental lesson is to uphold the values of the ‘system’, in other words that which the teacher judges to be valid. It is a self-perpetuating system which shows no signs of abating’ (Barton 2019, 208–9).
[6] Lehmann, Andreas C., John A. Sloboda & Robert H. Woody. 2007. Psychology for Musicians: Understanding and Acquiring the Skills (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 202–3.
[7] Ginsborg, Jane. 2018. “The Brilliance of Perfection” or “Pointless Finish”? What Virtuosity Means to Musicians. Musicae Scientiae 22:4, 454–473 at 464. Cf Hill’s participant quoted in the notes to Chapter 7.3 above.
[8] Bonneville-Roussy, Arielle and Robert J. Vallerand. 2019. Passion at the Heart of Musicians’ Well-Being. Psychology of Music 47:N, NN–NN (forthcoming). Evans, Paul. 2015. Self-determination theory: An approach to motivation in music education. Musicae Scientiae 19, 65–83.


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