My Pupil, My Friend

April 11th, 2015 by Christopher Wellington

“Hi, I’m your new Professor! Tell me all about yourself!”

This is surely a daunting moment for a student (especially at Conservatoire level); he or she may well be living away from home for the very first time and struggling on the leading edge of adult life. The realization may have arrived that turning to fiddle and bow as one’s main avenue of expression and progress coincides with a change in learning. Now it is mainly the student who invests the effort to work and learn rather than receiving instruction from his teachers.

This leads me to my main point. Unless both pupil and teacher enjoy and are sustained by a genuine and trusting friendship it is likely that only limited and shallow communication may be achieved. As Principal Study Professor you are your student’s primary contact with the college or university in which you teach. Thus personal problems may well get presented to you in the first instance. If a young man has just split up with his girlfriend or a girl has been thrown out of her lodgings they cannot do their best by the Kreutzer study you have just put in front of them or feel able to match the emotional demands of Brahms. Even if there is a trained counsellor in the college to whom you can lead the distressed student, the first help and comfort needs to come from you as a friend!

It is hard for students to learn how to invest their playing with appropriate emotion just when they are meeting the adult world with all its problems, excitements and turmoil (and feeling responsible for themselves for the first time.) I have found it helpful to suggest: “become an actor as well as an instrumentalist; then you can enter emotional waters beyond your personal experience without doing violence to your own idea of yourself.” I recall saying this to a shy Icelandic girl who was making a very tentative approach to the first movement of the Brahms F minor Sonata: “Look here, couldn’t you forget for a while that you are a shy Icelandic blonde and become Brahms: a great big man with a big beard and strong hands…?” Suddenly she played three times as strongly and really characterized what she had been barely sketching before. I was astonished, but it was instantly clear that this worked for her and it has helped many others since.

In the early stages encourage your new friends to accept what you are telling them wholeheartedly. (See Eugen Herrigel’s wonderful little book, Zen in the Art of Archery.) They will reject what doesn’t suit them as they become individual musicians. A sensible range of technical advice can be laid in front of every pupil but that extra spark of friendship and trust is needed to venture further. Thus it is pointless to ‘hang on’ to a student who might progress better with another teacher. Those who study with me need to survive a mixture of respect and leg-pulling humour. I generalize, as I expect to create an appropriate friendship with each pupil, but a sense of humour is surely an essential component of survival in our musical profession!

Distinguished British violist Christopher Wellington has held principal positions in many ensembles.