Encouragement without being Patronizing

Encouragement without being Patronizing

I was having an email conversation today with a fine gentleman whose session I played at last night. He has two young children (don’t know their ages, but I’d guess 9 and 12). Both of them are really wonderful fiddle players for their age (inherited from Dad, who is truly great).

In our email conversation, we were talking about ways to motivate and encourage the kids. Since I have not been playing for all that long, I still have people giving me encouraging remarks like "wow, you sound great", etc. And that always grates on me a bit, because I know what I sound like, and I don’t consider it "great". It’s more like "acceptable". What those people tend to mean is "wow, you sound great for how long you’ve been playing", or "wow, you sound much better than you did last time I heard you play". So when I get a comment like that (from a fellow player), I always feel like I’m being patronized to an extent.

I heard a quote from a piper who said that the only compliment he ever got that he trusted was after a gig when a friend said, "you didn’t embarrass me." 🙂

But how do you encourage a beginner without coming across as patronizing? One of the ways might be to include them in the group and make them feel like they’re part of it all (which is what we really want most of the time as beginners).

And how do you compliment a great player without coming across as a brown-noser?

Pete

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

When I was a beginner, I didn’t notice the "patronizing" issue. My teacher acted astounded with the speed I was picking things up, so it never occured to me that I wasn’t picking things up fast. I realized I sucked, of course, but I thought I was getting better at supernatural speeds, so I didn’t care how much I sucked.

To summarize (room-mate insists it’s my turn to go for beer, so I have to be brief). Say "Genius! Brilliant! I’ve never heard anything like it! Now do it like THIS!"

Above all, try to give a clear picture of which sessions in the area will welcome beginners and which ones will use their instruments for kindling and express it clearly and with a bit of tongue in cheek humour. Make sure your students know they will be welcome at top notch sessions in about 5 or 10 years if they keep up their supernatural level of trad absorption.

My personal motto, Always encourage. Even if you’re cheezy and insincere, eventually your students are bound to meet someone who has the power to extinguish in a single phrase all the years of positive reinforcement you’ve invested and they’ll lay their instruments aside and become tax accountants. You do NOT want that kind of karma on your shoulders, bro. Don’t participate.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

I know what you mean, sometimes compliments can sound kind of patronizing. I’m probably not too much older than the kids you referred to (I’m 15) and I can tell you that my biggest form of encouragement is when my role model (a great fiddler) gets excited enough to give me a high five or a huge smile. Her excitement spreads to me and really makes me feel good. It lets me enjoy the music even more, and that encourages me much more than words.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

Well, IMO you probably do sound great. I once told a teenage girl who was bemoaning how "awful" she sounded, "NO. You sound GREAT." She said doubtfully, "I do?" You sound like someone who’s working hard to learn something excellent instead of sitting in front of the TV set."

Viva beginners!

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

Ooh, footnote, I didn’t realize it was a ‘dad-kid’ relationship. Your friend’s job is to be impossible to please so that his kids will dedicate the rest of their lives trying to add up.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

If I’m playing with a beginning fiddle player and I know them, I’ll try to say something about their playing that I notice is different. For example, I think some beginning fiddle players are a little timid and maybe reticent to play too loudly. When I hear one of the beginners playing out in a session I’ll say "I like the sound you’re getting on that tune, very solid and steady." Or if they’ve been practicing a particular kind of bowing and are doing well at it, I will let them know that I notice and that it is making a difference.

I like how fiddlekit said it, too.

When I was just starting to play, there was a bunch of us all at about the same level. Seems like we had a session in somebody’s two or three nights a week. I remember one where a famous fiddle player showed up and after a couple of hours paid us all a great compliment - he said he was really impressed that we all had learned so many tunes and it was wonderful for him to come and just listen to us play. We all felt like we were playing pretty well that night. He was very encouraging.

I don’t know exactly how to compliment the great player. I have heard people say things like "play somethin’ ya know" or "when are you going to learn that tune" after a a gret player plays a mighty set. And everybody laughs. Maybe that’s one way.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

Being new to session playing, my last time sitting in the session leader, noticing me quietly going over Da New Rigged Ship between sets, said "go ahead, kick it off". This did more to make me feel like I was contributing to the evening than anything else and I really look forward to returning.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

A beginner hears only how far they still have to go, while a better player hears how close the beginner is to being a fluent player.

My hunch is that each of us has our own insecurities about our own playing. We can only hope that the more we play, the more accurately we understand our strengths and weaknesses. So the insecurities may diminish, but probably never go away completely—they just get more realistic.

I’ve also found that nearly everyone brings their own insights to the music, or passes along what they’ve learned from others in insightful ways. Pete, when you mentioned working on getting triplets to fire at the same volume as the adjacent melody notes, that gave me a new and useful way to think about "effortless" scratch triplets, on banjo and fiddle. Nevermind that I’ve been at this for a quarter century….
🙂

Posted .

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

There’s a teriffic 15 year who comes to our session occassionally (when her mum and dad drive her in, she lives miles away) and I find the best way to treat her is exactly the same as all the other great seasoned players. She not as good, yet, but she deserves to be treated the same.

Posted .

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

I don’t think you need to worry about appearing patronising if you compliment someone on their playing. If you really mean it, it will sound genuine and supportive. If you are saying because you think they need the encouragement, it will sound patronising - mainly because it IS patronising(!)
You compliment a great player by insulting them, that lets everyone off the hook. i.e. G.P. finishes great version of tune, full of witty variations. Bar is silent, apart from cracking noises from a couple of now ex-fiddlers grinding their instruments under their heels, and you say, "Well, you almost had the tune there, G.P." in as deadpan a voice as you can.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

If you’re a parent teaching a kid, the best thing to do is to just simply say something along the lines of "You’re making a lot of progress and I’m really proud of you." I have learned a lot of things from my dad (although he’s not really teaching me, per se; he doesn’t play any of the instruments I do), and deep down, more than anything else, I want to please him and make him proud. I guess all kids are the same way-they want their parents to be proud of them.

As for how to compliment a kid, my advice is to say ‘You’re really starting to sound good!" It doesn’t crush the morale or sound patronizing, but it also doesn’t tell them that they’re better than they actually are (which can lead to trouble if they decide to go onstage).

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

That sounded kind of confusing. In the second paragraph, I meant a kid unrelated to you.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

Michael and the Otter have really got it right.

Especially the bit about treating beginners just the same as others - i.e. with respect.

Obviously, in a session situation, you can see the person you are dealing with and can make some sort of judgement as to just what sort of thing to say. Sometimes it needs to be quiet, sometimes loud, sometimes serious, sometimes humourous.

The following, for example, would not suit all people, and certainly not in Michaels situation with a teenage girl.

We had two young lasses, probably in their mid 30s, appear at our session, and playing fiddles very nicely, but very quietly, with mutes on. Having weiged up the situation, and made sure in my own mind that it would not offend, I waited for a pause in the proceedings and said "You can’t play with mutes on - get em off!" This was followed by several cries of "get em off" from assorted middle aged men around the room. They acknowledged this as the good humour which was intended, removed the mutes and treated us to some really beautiful playing.

Above all, be friendly and sincere with beginners. But when it’s your own children, remember that just because they are good at it, doesn’t mean it’s what they like doing: encouragement is different from pushing.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

I think the trick is to be positive without exaggerating—tell them what they are doing right, but not blow it out of proportion—when you give unending praise, the feedback is misleading and in the end, useless.
When pointing out flaws, don’t tell them what they are doing wrong, give them the solution—"here’s something you should try to make that sound even better." That little trick, to give solutions rather than problems, is one of the keys to success in life.
Don’t set the bar too high—to reveal a little personal family info, I always felt that my father had a tendency to be too critical of me as I grew up—he applied the same standards to himself and others, so he wasn’t picking on me—but it did make things a bit difficult. Of course, on the positive side, I may not have gotten as far as I did without those high standards pulling me along.
For another story from a recent session, don’t hang back from giving bad news. We had a VERY novice fiddler show up with his lesson books, could barely get through a tune in time and on pitch. After determining that we didn’t know the tunes he did (we did try to play along with a few of the simple songs he knew, Molly Malone in the key of F for example), he sat down and proceeded to try to "learn by ear" by trying out whole notes loudly to see if they fit the tune. And of course, by the time he found one that fit, we were to another part of the tune where it didn’t fit. He was in way over his head, had never even listened to a session before. We let this go on a bit longer than we should have, when one of the players finally gave him the hard, but good, advice to pack up his fiddle, listen, bring a tape recorder next time, play along with the tapes, buy some tune books, etc. This young man not only didn’t really know what he had gotten into, he was not sensitive enough to adapt to what was going on. Negative feedback is hard, but sometimes necessary.

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

Wow, lots of great stuff here. Kerri, I hadn’t thought about the ‘dad-kid’ relationship bit that you mentioned… I’ll pass that along actually 😉

For me, it is difficult to take praise, but I am working on trying to accept it graciously.

And I especially like the comments about how to compliment a good player. There is no doubt that I will use that from time to time. I’ve actually heard people blurt out "Rubbish!" after a particularly stellar set of tunes (in the same spirit as "Play something you know", or "Well, you almost had the tune there"…) Hehe

Pete

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

We have a 15 year old who comes to our session. She is not as good as the others yet, but she deserves to be treated the same.

Michael, how patronising can you get?

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

In Milltown this year a couple of kids joined a seisiún I was in. They must have been about 10 and 7 years old but were both absolutely astounding and not just for their age! one played box the other played whistle. The time they started playing was coincidentally the same time as most of the other players decided to leave. I don’t know whether it was deliberate because they didn’t want to play with kids or just genuinely that they needed to go, but I tell you it was their loss! I felt a bit bad for the kids that they might think people left because of them, so I made sure I played a few sets with these kids and encouraged them in how I would see the best possible way, i.e. tell them they are great, which they were, but say it to them like you would say it to an adult, don’t do it in a patronising ‘you’re a great little player’ kind of way. Just say it in a genuine ‘that’s lovely playing’ way like you would if you were sitting next to Matt Molloy!

Another thing is that I tried to give them the experience of leading the seisiún by encouraging them to start all but one of the sets, I don’t think they knew many tunes, but the ones they did they could play really amazingly.

There are some kids out there who are just great players, also demonstrated in Milltown at the afternoon seisiún in the Central Hotel run by Gerry and Clare (don’t know their surnames). They also lead a great example. These guys are great musicians but they make a point of directing this seisiún towards the kids and always ask individuals to either play or sing something, which gives everyone from a 6 year old to a 60 year old playing or singing a tune and most of the time it is great. The main thing though is that it is never patronising, praise is always given genuinely because for the most part the kids deserve it.

Posted .

Re: Encouragement without being Patronizing

A word on encouragement.

I remember when I was learning ( I can hold a tune now….just about ). We used to have this thing in NPU where at the end of the nights lessons a rake of people would congregate in the kitchen in the basement, drinking tea, eating biscuits and yapping away. Anyway there was this thing called the pipers chair, basically someone, anyone would play a few tunes then could call on the next player and no one was safe ;). Well I had been playing playing for about 3 months and someone I can’t remember (sorry) was playing away, anway after he finished playing he got applause and a few cheers but lots of "Jaysus would ever practice that thing?" "any chance of a good tune now?" and that kind of thing, anyway I got called up and only knowing one tune (Mo Ghile Mhear if memory serves me right) I managed to squeeze and squeak and huff and puff me way through, murdering the thing! Anyyway all these other pipers cheered and clapped and shouted and told me I was great and keep going, and "Give us another one" made me feel like a million bucks. Really did help a lot. Seems to me with pipers anyway, when you are crap everyone tells you how brilliant you are, but whene are good, thats when the good slagging starts ;)
Oh Jim, thanks for the encouragement, it really meant a lot.
Pol.