Hi, come on in, you’re right on time for your lesson.

I have lots on things on my list for you today: we should double-check your rhythms on that etude, review those melodic minor scales that were giving you trouble last week, and discuss some finer points of vibrato.

But something about your sunken eyes when I met you at the door, the way you slouched into the room, the slept-in fashion statement, says that today you are Struggling. Not because you are lazy or undedicated. But because college life is fraught with deadlines for research papers and rent payments, and scheduled to the brim with marching band rehearsals and late shifts waiting tables, and fueled by store-brand Pop Tarts and never enough sleep.

And because of the heavy secrets that you carry. A friend spiraling into addiction. A boyfriend or girlfriend who tells you you’re not enough. A medical worry that you can’t afford to acknowledge. Sexual assault. Depression.

We can try to fight through your repertoire piece, but today Saint-Saëns isn’t breaking the top twenty things on your mind.

And while sometimes the biggest obstacle between you and your senior recital is sluggish articulation, sometimes it’s crippling anxiety about something else. And my calling is to get you from here to that recital, whatever is standing in the way. 

So for now let’s put off talking about how many practice hours you have logged. Instead I want to know whether you have eaten anything in the last 24 hours. How much you slept last night, and the night before. Whether you have gotten any sunshine this week. Sometimes, I think, the best thing I can do to improve your playing isn’t to harangue you about intonation, but to offer you a protein bar from my desk drawer, send you home for a nap before you have to clock in at the restaurant, or make you walk a few laps around the quad and take some breaths of fresh air.

Or sometimes to ask how you’re doing, ignore the reflexive “fine,” and wait for the real answer to come tumbling out.

I’m no therapist. And I’m not your parent or your doctor or a social worker. I might not always be the right person for you to talk to—luckily you have friends, family, clergy who are also ready to listen. And there’s the campus counseling center, for when you need to talk to someone who isn’t invested in your life, or someone who can offer a professional opinion when medications or other therapies are needed. But if I seem like the right person to open up to, then I want you to feel safe and unjudged doing it.

One thing, though: mentioning suicidal thoughts, even in passing, is a showstopper. Before we move on, I need you to tell me, emphatically, that you’re not in danger of harming yourself. If you can’t convince me, then I’m going to use this circa-1982 office phone to call one of the counseling staff for some help.

Your musical pursuits are important, but not more important than your life and health and happiness. So let’s make sure the real problems are at a manageable level first, and then I’ll resume hassling you about tension in your embouchure.

See you next week. Hang in there!

Thanks for reading! You’re awesome. If you found this post helpful, let me know with a donation or an email.


17 responses to “Hi, come on in, you’re right on time for your lesson.”

  1. […] With many thanks to Bret Pimentel: […]

  2. Brett:
    This is beautifully stated. As teachers, we are working with the whole person. What is happening in students’ lives affects their music-making. Bravo.

  3. Joseph Beverly Avatar
    Joseph Beverly

    Thank you Brett. What a great reminder of the most important things we can be and do as a teacher. Consider me inspired :)

  4. Should be required reading for every music student and professor in the country. I loved this.

  5. Pam Keisling Avatar
    Pam Keisling

    Thank you! I’m a school principal and I wish all teachers would understand the impact that real life has on their students. Awesome teachers do! Well said!

  6. Thank you for posting this! I find this to be a very important topic, and while I’m not a college professor, I find it to be an important reminder for all students and colleagues I’m working with.

  7. Jennifer Avatar

    There’s a certain university music professor’s door I’d like to nail this article to. He’s a well-known, world respected woodwind professor who crushed the dreams of my daughter in telling her she should not be a music teacher. She has mental health problems, and her instrument provided a safe haven when she needed it. Just 4 months before, he had invited her to come with him and a select group of students from his studio to a European country where she would work with international professors. So to go from that invitation to being told she would not make it is ridiculous. Her instrument no longer provided the safe haven it once was. She has only picked it up a few times since then. The only thing stopping me from going after him legally is that she is happy in her chosen career path. Thank you. Maybe one day, he will read this article and stop and think the next time he opens his mouth. Probably not but maybe. I’m a hopeful kind of person.

    1. I hear you. But bear in mind that professors get zero or near-zero training on this sort of thing. It can be a difficult line to walk. I’ve wandered too far to one side and then the other many times, and expect to continue doing so.

      1. Jennifer Avatar

        Normally, I would agree with you. I have been guilty myself of not initially showing empathy or understanding her struggles. Except by law he was required to tell her about the Disability Resource Centre on campus as soon as she informed him about her diagnosis, the year before. He did not. He should also have notified the DRC of their conversations. He did not. He was aware of that obligation. So setting aside his lack of compassion, he failed her in other ways. We fortunately found advocates in the DRC through our own means. One such counselor recommended we report his negligence. However, our other daughter still attended that school and we were concerned for any backlash that might impact her. She graduated last May.

  8. Christopher Weait Avatar
    Christopher Weait

    Am retired now. I agree “professors get zero or near-zero training on this sort of thing” but should be able to get training. Further, some universities or states do not allow faculty to refer students to counseling – the student must seek it. Thank you for this excellent, concise posting.

  9. You, sir, are an amazing human being. As the mother of young adults, I wish there were more out there like you. Thanks for being you!

  10. My son’s applied teacher shared this on his page, and I couldn’t have been more grateful to read it. A mom needs to know that Somebody is watching out for her newly freed child who has only recently moved away for college. Thanks for writing this – I taught applied lessons in a university for several years, and you just never know how much these kids are carrying around. It’s invaluable for them to feel that when things get overwhelming, that there is someone besides their buddies, or their parents, that there is an adult who is there, who will listen.

  11. Samantha Avatar

    Thank you for writing this! It was wonderfully put together and should be read by more people. As a music student who will be a teacher; who has suffered through all of this and will need to help my students, I can safely say that it really is the teachers/professors that can sometimes make all the difference when a student needs to reach out for help. The fact that I’ve had a professor sit down and take that time to see how I was has honestly made all the difference for me. I wish more people were aware of this and took the time to treat it as important and get some training on how to help our students.

  12. Kimmie Ladner Avatar
    Kimmie Ladner

    A lot of times you were this for me, Dr. Pimentel. Although i was not an accomplished clarinet player, you never belittled me and you kept working with me until I decided it was time to change my major. You never gave up and that has made me a stronger teacher and person. I don’t give up on my students and they do so much better in their are because if it.

  13. Thank you. That’s all I can really say.
    Even in my first year as a music major this is exactly what I needed to hear.

  14. Ii way with all my heart that daughter’s clarinet professor had been as understanding as you, She left the music dept at her university after suffering panic attacks during lessons, caused by much more than her musicianship. Thank you for watching out for your students. Your students are incredibly fortunate to have you in their lives.

  15. One of my students walked in to his lesson this week and told me he read an article that made him think of me and pulled this up. I consider it a great compliment that he thought this, as that shows that he recognizes that I do my best to try to help him (and others) navigate the troubles of life and want them to feel comfortable opening up to me in lessons as a safe place. My teacher in grad school would always ask us “how’s life” when we walked in, and always had the time to let me vent. As I started the journey of private teaching, she taught me that the most important thing we can be for the kids is a confidante.

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