Musicians, especially young musicians, are bombarded with advice over the course of their career, especially in those early, fledgling years. Most advice will come from teachers, but also from peers, colleagues, friends, promoters, agents and critics. Knowing how to take and react to advice is an important part of the musician’s skillset, and the ability to sift through advice and take it on board or reject it is an art in itself. The way such advice is given also has an impact on how one values it.

Young and amateur musicians in particular may find it hard to strike a balance between taking advice which will be useful to them and rejecting that which is not. In part, this is due to confidence: if your teacher suggests playing a passage in a certain way, or taking a particular interpretative stance on a piece of music, you may feel obliged to bow to what you perceive to be their greater wisdom, and blindly accept what they are telling you. I encounter this attitude quite frequently amongst amateur pianists in particular. Some years ago at a piano course which attracts highly regarded professional pianists and teachers from around the world, not just the UK, I chatted to a student who had participated in masterclasses with a number of internationally-renowned pianist-teachers. “I’ve got five different ways to play the end of this Schubert sonata”, he said to me over tea, “and now I don’t know which version is the right one!”. Such confusion suggests, to me at least, a student who is either not very confident about their own interpretative choices or who believes that because such-and-such Famous Pianist told him to play the passage in a particular way, it must be the ‘right way’.

As we grow more confident as musicians – whether amateur, student or professional – we learn how to filter and question advice to suit our needs, and also to appreciate the importance of reflecting on that advice, because its usefulness may not be immediately apparent. It is not necessary to blindly accept everything that a teacher, or teachers, tell us. Instead, we need to be selective about the advice we are given and ensure that it is the right advice for us. A good teacher or mentor will understand this too and make suggestions, rather than didactically “telling” the student how to play the music. One of the most useful aspects of attending masterclasses and courses, where one will meet and play for other teachers, is that one is exposed to a broader range of expertise and viewpoints, which can fuel one’s ideas on how to approach the music, from a technical and artistic point of view.

The way advice is given also has an impact on how it is received. I have been lucky in my experiences with both my regular teachers and those I have encountered on courses and in masterclasses that their advice has always been given in a positive and supportive way. This makes one far more receptive to the advice, and suggests a degree of respect between teacher and student.

Sadly, now and then one will be given advice which may be well-meaning but is delivered in such a way that one feels discouraged or demoralised, or the advice is just given at the wrong time; many musicians are at their most sensitive in the moments immediately after a performance. Some years ago, I played a late work by Mozart at a concert at the end of a piano course, and during the post-concert reception, another of my teacher’s adult students told me in no uncertain terms that the ornaments were “all wrong”. This statement was made without any context nor suggestion as to how I might have played the ornaments “correctly”. I was so astonished, and hurt, that I couldn’t reply and despite receiving praise from my teacher, and very positive comments from other students on the course and audience members, this comment stung for some time afterwards and affected my attitude to the music I’d played. It proves that advice should be given discreetly and with care.

One of the rules of the piano club, which I co-founded in 2013, is that comments are kept positive and supportive. The club includes some players who are less advanced than others, and they can be particularly sensitive to negative feedback, which may affect their attitude to their practising and dent their confidence.

The teacher with whom I studied for six years, after returning to the piano seriously after a long absence, was adept at giving feedback and advice which was practical and supportive. Even when highlighting an error or weakness, she could frame her comments in such a way that one did not feel discouraged, and her skill in imparting advice clearly and articulately was a mark of her experience as a teacher and respected pedagogue.

“Best are those times when, as you listen to suggestions, you feel as if you’ve always known them to be true, somehow – but now you’re hearing them from another voice. There will always be degrees, shades; one can accept certain ideas from one musician, reject others. The only rule, perhaps, is that one should constantly remain alert, constantly ask oneself: ‘Is that true for me? For the music as I feel it inside?’”

– Steven Isserlis, cellist