By Patrick K. Feely

Does music teaching carry moral implications and obligations? Some contemporary thinkers, such as the American neuroscientist Sam Harris, posit that values and morality can best be viewed through a scientific lens. Others, such as the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, think that lifting a hand to reach for a glass of water implies a moral decision. And those who espouse the post-modernist view, such as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, deny that objective moral values exist – that the question itself is meaningless. Morality is concerned with the distinction between right and wrong. An obligation, on the other hand, is concerned with a specific course of action to which a person is morally bound. Small (1997) states that, “If knowledge is to be sought, the question may fairly be asked, Who is the knower and who the known? and if power is sought, one may ask, Power for whom? and even Power over whom?” (pp. 70-71). Small’s main ethical concern in this statement is, “power over whom?” In his Meditations Sacrae (1597), Francis Bacon famously stated that “ipsa scientia potestas est”: knowledge itself is power. Music teachers attempt to pass knowledge on to their students. These educators often abuse their position of power over their students. Many of these abuses are due to cultural biases. Sometimes the abuse is intentional. Analyzing these biases and abuses of power within the teaching setting, with the goal of arriving at moral imperatives, requires a critical assessment of one’s belief system and epistemological assumptions. In this blog, I examine two teaching scenarios – one ethical and one unethical – using the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Moral Imperative theory as the basis for my assessment. Kant’s moral imperative contains two axioms: 1) we should behave as if our actions will become a universal law for all people at all times; and 2) every human being must be treated as an end rather than a means to an end.

There are several prominent 20th century thinkers who espouse moral philosophies of education. The French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and the Russian social psychologist Lev Vygotsky, figure predominantly among these thinkers. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) identified three possible states of learning readiness: (1) activities or knowledge that a student possesses or has mastered (2) activities or knowledge that a student can learn only with the help of an experienced peer or teacher; and (3) activities or knowledge that are outside the student’s grasp. Learning cannot take place when the student has already mastered the task. This is self-evident – they already possess the necessary skills and will become bored. Learning cannot take place when the to-be learned task is too difficult for the students to accomplish on their own – they will become frustrated. In between these extremes lies a sweet spot – the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. In this zone, learning can take place with the aid of an experienced other.

Identifying the ZPD of a student requires an assessment of their skills and knowledge. A plan of action can then be constructed and implemented that is designed to raise the student’s level of expertise. During private studio instruction, this assessment and planning becomes a regularly reoccurring event over the course of many years. For classroom music educators, the process is more difficult. The sheer volume of students in a classroom exacerbates this assessment and planning/implementation process. As well, having new students each year means that instructors may not be familiar with the educational history of each student – limited skills and knowledge may go undetected. Regardless of the educational environment, the theory of ZPD aligns with Kant’s moral imperative theory in at least two ways: (1) if ZPD were to be implemented as a universal teaching method, in all places, and at all times, human learning would flourish; (2) the ZPD theory describes the manner in which teachers facilitate educational development in their students – from a lower resolution representation of the world, to a higher resolution representation of the world. Students in this educational paradigm are viewed as ends in themselves, not merely as means to an end.

On a macro level, we might say that the core tenant of an abusive student-teacher relationship is manipulation. However, as we have seen, it is unethical to manipulate others for one’s own goals. This manipulation is most evident within a “top-down”, inflexible, teaching style. The eminent Spanish guitarist Andrea Segovia clearly demonstrates this teaching style during a master-class with Michael Chapdelaine, at the University of Southern California in 1986. In video below, Chapdelaine begins by playing Mallorca, by the late 19th century Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz. Fifty seconds into the performance, Segovia abruptly stops the performer and begins to chide him for altering the fingerings of the musical score (the performer was using Segovia’s edition). Chapdelaine explains to Segovia that these were “artistic decisions” that he had made. Segovia asks if he thinks the altered fingerings are good. Chapdelaine responds, “I think they are good”. Segovia scowls at his response and tells him to continue. It is important to note that this piece was originally written for the piano – not the guitar. Segovia’s fingerings may be considered all the more subjective for this reason. Chapdelaine continues to play; this time eliminating all of the portamento indications from the score (which, again, were not part of the original piano score). At this point, Segovia begins to berate Chapdelaine, gives him the score and tells him to leave.

Throughout this altercation, it is clear that Segovia viewed the musical text (which he had arranged and edited) as “gospel”: no deviation was to be permitted. It is also evident that Segovia viewed himself as the final arbitrator in all artistic matters related to the piece. He was inflexible, unable to see beyond his own ego. The eminent Australian guitarist John Williams has gone further, saying that Segovia bullied his students, stifled their creativity, forced them to play in his style and was musically snobbish (Alberge, 2012). Segovia’s goal was to create carbon copies of himself. He had no goal of raising students to a higher artist level. He dominated and manipulated them to his own ends.

The effects of this teaching style can be seen on Chapdelaine in the final, awkward, seven minutes of the video. In this section, Chapdelaine acquiesce to the narrative that Segovia has presented. He believes that Segovia is right to treat him so poorly. Chapdelaine’s rationalizing clearly exhibits signs of the psychological condition known as “learned helplessness”. Martin Seligman, the late 20th century classical conditioning psychologist, viewed this as a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.

To summarize, music teachers are charged with the care of students. Their goal, as Small indicates, should be to use their power (knowledge) to maximize student flourishing through learning. This learning is best achieved when a teacher identifies a student’s developmental level, constructs learning activities just above that level, and works alongside that student to help them reach a goal. Manipulation of a student by a teacher is immoral in the Kantian sense. Those individuals taught in an abusive student-teacher relationship tend to be timid, unsure of themselves, and psychologically damaged. As music educators, we have a profound moral obligation to our students. We need to put our student’s best interests first. We need to be aware of our predilection to manipulation. We need to be on guard against the inherent conflicts of interest in the teacher-student dynamic. As much as possible, we need to use our “power over” to facilitate student learning; to lift them to a more complete understanding of the world.


Alberge, D. (2012, October 14). John Williams says that guitar maestro Andre Segovia bullied students and stifled their creativity”. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Small, Christopher (1996). Music, Society, Education (Music Culture). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition


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