I find it ironic that a very progressively minded (politically) artist like Marie Incontrera should have such a antediluvian attitude toward teaching. I know where she is coming from and there was a strain of it in my teaching over the years too. I was frequently tough with my students, telling them they were making a poor sound ("like a truck going uphill") or had soggy, lifeless rhythms, or poorly balanced chords and so on. "Where's the magic?" I would ask. But I never threw a cymbal at anyone's head (wouldn't that get you fired from any music school in the world?)--wasn't even tempted!
The idea that you can and should go to any lengths to "catalyze greatness" in your students is a tempting one to anyone who is deeply committed to music. As Incontrera writes:
After many years of teaching music to students of enormously varying potential my conclusion is that the line is not so fine after all. A small amount of challenging treatment of your students is extremely valuable. A large amount is pointless. You can be a vicious son-of-a-bitch all you want, but that is never going to "catalyze greatness". The nastiest teachers I have known have produced very little in terms of talented students. I have been astounded at the kind of negativity some teachers exhibit and often suspect it is because of their own frustrated ambitions. Like stage mothers, some teachers try to live vicariously through their students. With little success.
The best teachers I have ever encountered were quite the opposite. Yes, they would sometimes make some tough points and deliver hard truths, but the vast majority of the time they were leading the student towards greater sureness and confidence, not beating them into submission. I once knew a student of Julian Bream's (who taught almost no students) and he told me that Bream's method was like Marine boot camp: first beat the student down until they were nothing, then build them back up. I doubt this works in music, though it seems to in the military. This player was a neurotic mess his entire career, never becoming a strong, confident player. The best teacher I have ever worked with was Pepe Romero, whom I never heard abuse a student, nor even utter a negative word. Everyone that worked with him came away a better, more confident player.
Here is why I think that music and the military are different. In the military the goal is to take people who have the potential to be tough and push them to their limits. The ones that fall by the wayside need to be eliminated from the mix. In music we are looking for something that is truly rare: musical greatness. Or perhaps, more realistically, musical talent. I can attest that while nearly everyone can learn to play an instrument at a modest level of ability, to become a master or even just a good player is far rarer. Out of a thousand music students perhaps one hundred might become good players and one a really fine player. Most will either lack talent or be mere mediocrities. You can yell at them all you want and even throw cymbals at their heads and it will not give them greater potential. Yes, you can motivate them to work hard, which is important, but despite all that crap about the "10,000 hours", just working hard will not increase your potential, though it will enable you to access the potential you have.
You can't "catalyze greatness" if there is no greatness there. And greatness is astonishingly rare. Let me give a small example. I had a student who was intelligent and hard-working and really loved music. I worked with her for a couple of years and she really had the potential and fingers to be a fine guitarist. But she just had no sensitivity to timbre. I would work with her for an hour on cultivating a warm, expressive tone. Then she would come back the next week with the same harsh, naily sound. She just didn't hear it! This kind of spotty, uneven talent is pretty common. What is really, really uncommon is the kind of student that has potential and ability in all the necessary areas.
I also suspect that most people who really have the talent also find the motivation pretty easily. Talent tends to motivate itself. Those people who really have to play or compose, tend to do it.
I don't want to diminish the role of a fine teacher: what they do is absolutely essential in guiding talented students away from blind alleys and towards productive ones. The other essential role they have is in introducing and cultivating the love of music in those students of ordinary talent, because they will form the core of the audiences of tomorrow. It is an appalling misunderstanding of reality to think that there might ever be an occasion to throw a cymbal at someone's head!
Incidentally, there is a story that Andrés Segovia once taught a young Narciso Yepes in a master class and was so infuriated that he threw a music stand at him! But I very much doubt that that had a positive effect on Yepes' musical development.
Let's listen to a little Narciso Yepes. Here he is playing his transcription of Asturias by Isaac Albéniz: