There was something on the television this morning about people that, as young children or teenagers, are thrust onto the stage to perform. The piece was about the emotional and psychological damage that can result, when a young person is pressured or even bullied into being the next child prodigy, performing for audiences when they feel they are not ready, under-rehearsed, and under-prepared or perhaps even without their heart being in it at all. So many children become surrogate success vehicles for parents that didn’t succeed at the thing they are pushing their children into.
The devastation to a child’s self confidence can be irreparable and may negatively impact a lifetime. It can destroy a person’s mental health and render them incapable of making their way, confidently and with self assurance, in adult life. The push to have the young person perform in public, before their time or before they feel ready, is not for their benefit, it is for the benefit for the parent living vicariously through their child and for an audience paying to see a performing monkey, not a serious, well-rounded, mature artist, who has developed their own artistic voice.
The premature promotion of a budding artist to take on more than they are ready to tackle is a form of child abuse. They are placed under intolerable pressure. It is little wonder that there have been child abuse scandals in music schools. The culture of these places is to encourage youngsters to take whatever abuse and derision is meted out, as this is nothing less than an incessant competition to be the star of the show. There can be only one. Kids are manipulated into eschewing friendships and camaraderie so as to beat the other students to the solo or featured spot. There is no respite. There is no comfort. If a child reports abuse, they are instantly sidelined and passed over, which they know, so they don’t. Abusers and bullies thrive in such an environment. This is a gladiatorial fight to the death.
What is telling is how few of these promising young artists turn into serious, accomplished, adult artists. They either lose their ability to explore their art individualistically and so become unremarkable, journeyman performers, or else they give up on their art altogether. Some go skiing, instead. What was once a love turns into utter loathing.
Hot-housing robs promising, young, talented people of the ability to develop, as artists and find their own unique way of expressing their art. It steals the joy of experimenting, performing and participating in their art and replaces it with a judgemental circus spectacle, where what matters has nothing to do with art or being an artist. It becomes a fight for the survivor to take the prize. In short, by pushing young artists to display their work in public before they feel it is ready, we denigrate and belittle their efforts at becoming serious artists and turn them into sideshow attractions – freaks that can play an instrument at a seemingly early stage in human development. Nobody cares about the quality of their art, or its emotional impact; just that they can play an instrument at all, with proficiency, at such a young age.
Everybody wants their own personal Mozart, irrespective of the price paid in heartbreak, nerves, anxiety, isolation, humiliation, embarrassment and abuse by the young artist.
Music education, in particular, needs to respect the ripening and development of nascent artists. If a child shows promise and interest in music, it is vital not to kill the playfulness and sheer delight they experience in engaging in their favourite pass time. To make it into a regimented, disciplined chore, before the artist has found their particular place in the artform, is to kill all their potential at birth. It takes their promising potential and turns it into sheer waste, for the dubious and essentially valueless pleasure of seeing an implausibly youthful monkey performing for the baying, ignorant, uncaring crowd.
I cringe, when I see talent shows, young musician of the year competitions and anything else that exploits a child’s willingness to please, or sheer terror of not doing so, to provide entertainment for adults, whose sole focus is on the freakishness of the performer, rather than on their artistic merit. We’re old enough to know better. We ought not to be participating in the ritual sacrifice of young artists for entertainment.
I’d like to see art education that focuses less on examinations, competitions, premature public performance and constant criticism into an educational culture that fosters curiosity, exploration, experimentation, playfulness, delight and joy. These are the necessary conditions for the emergence of an original artist that has a vision, a style of their own and the drive to express their art. The alternative (and current) method is only fit for producing regimented soldiers, capable of marching in time and step, in artificial formations, with exaggerated and bizarre movements, while wearing overly elaborate and absurd costumes. That’s not what we want, from our most iconic artists.
With computer music sequencers now becoming ever more sophisticated, the demand for human juke boxes is diminishing. The quality bar for an artist to command an audience’s attention for their performance has never been higher. We shouldn’t be producing jobbing musicians. We should be encouraging musicians to find their particular niche. We should prepare them to discover their own excellence, in good time, when they are good and ready.
Art education also needs to recognise that becoming an adult artist is not compulsory. Children that delight in art are under no obligation whatsoever to share their gifts in adult life. They can, if that is their choice and they feel ready and in control of their artistic career, but there should be no expectation that the child eventually performs, as a quid pro quo, simply because attention has been lavished on their artistic education. There is more to life than performing the works of dead composers.
For a revolution to take place in the education of young artists, society will need to become kinder and gentler, more accepting of diversity and less institutionalised, in its production and presentation of art. We can’t crush any more young kids under these wheels.