Criticism as an Educational Stimulus
Given the traditionally high social expectations of French society, parents recognize that it is their duty to prepare their children for the rigors of the outside world. French toddlers at a playground are admonished to keep their clothes clean and not wander too far away, while American parents simply tell their children to "go have fun." This more positive, optimistic American view of life runs counter to the more pessimistic, or realistic, French beliefs. American children read The Little Engine That Could and, when they begin school, their teachers and the media encourage them to believe that they can be all that they want to be. French children, on the other hand, read cautionary tales warning them of the wolf lurking in the forest, and in school they are reminded by parents and teachers that they need to study hard and that success is not guaranteed.
Whereas American society promotes "self-esteem" which can quickly become an unproductive sense of entitlement, French society makes it clear that success is a rare prize which needs to be earned. Thus at a soccer game, for example, when a youngster misses a goal, the American parents tend to praise their child's efforts ("That was a good try") and focus on the next play, while French parents will express a critical opinion ("You should have aimed more to the right"). In America, criticism when given is done in private, so as not to shame the child publicly. In France, critical remarks are made in public, since shame is thought to be an incentive for the child to perform better the next time.
When it comes to flute playing, the French conservatory method consists of group lessons, where students take turns performing and being criticized in front of their classmates. Teachers are accustomed to using irony which to the outsider may appear to be verbal abuse. French students, however, are accustomed to this type of severity and take it in stride. Inwardly they promise themselves not to make the same mistake the next time.
When Marcel Moyse was teaching in the United States, he would utter the types of exaggerated criticisms that he had been accustomed to in France: "You play like shit." "You play like a Nazi [without emotion]." "You know nothing! Nothing about music!" "You should [give up the flute and] go tend cows." Many American students were deeply upset by such perceived "cruelties", not realizing that this was simply Moyse'sway of trying to shock them into better performance. Indeed, as Trevor Wye noted,Moyse reserved his severest criticism for the most advanced students and could be very patient with the less talented ones. Students who learned to focus on his constructive criticism found him to be an excellent mentor.
For Jean-Pierre Rampal, also, criticism was an important part of instruction. When working in Nice with American flutists who were themselves teachers in the States, he would explain: "It's the trouble in America. If students have no rhythm, teachers are afraid to tell them and be strong for fear of giving them a complex.... You must be strong and tell a student he is terrible. Don't take it easy."
Both French and American flute teachers wish to bring out the best in their students and to encourage a high level performance and a love of music. They simply have two very different culturally-determined ways of mentoring.