Beware of herding! It may be harmful to your health!

Herding may be at play whenever you are expected to check your intelligence at the door. Sounds familiar? Except in cases of imminent mortal danger, herding mostly benefits the herder. The herder gathers the flock, which in following their master, may gain a false sense of security. The animals do not get to choose where they are led. In blindly trusting their master, they may be walking to their deaths.

A man herding goats in Tunisia. The goats look reasonably happy, or perhaps they are afraid to tell

A man herding goats in Tunisia. The goats look reasonably happy, or are they are afraid to tell?

In educational settings, powerlessness is often the rule for the student. The student should exhibit the behaviors and responses desired by the teacher in exchange for good grades and, with a bit of luck, praise. Thinking for oneself is usually not part of the equation.

In the same manner, follow the leader is the motto in most work situations. Lip service may be paid to including individual contributions and to independent thinking, while in reality, any deviation from the norm or any opinions that do not conform to the status quo land one in the “difficult person” category. Conformity rules: better to smile, look stupid and above all, not to make waves!

In the field of music herding has a field day. The great expert from afar always knows best. Think of the endless string of worthless master classes in which the expert usually ends up giving himself the nicest strokes. A few intense faces from the expert, a couple of cryptic or even glib statements, perhaps the demonstration of a musical phrase- tossed off in an apparently innocent manner- that the student can never hope to emulate- is all it takes to complete the performance. The audience, meanwhile, having been made aware of the privilege of being thus enlightened, must keep a happy face.

After the applause, check in hand, the expert is often rushed off to the other side of the globe, never to be heard from again, while the now deflated aspiring artists and the bored audience are left with little more than a couple of useless tips to their names.

Ira Siff -as Mme. Vera Galupe Borksht- in his brilliant masterclass parody perpetrates this line of travesty on aspiring young diva Kavatina Turner, demonstrating, in a humorous manner, his keen insight into these twisted power dynamics.

Another dis-empowering experience of the herding kind is the sacrosanct music competition, in which a panel of experts is encharged with deciding- among dozens of aspiring performers- who the best contestants are, based on a few short performances, without enough time to acquaint themselves with the artistic palette of the participants. Under the category of herding belong also numerous music programs and degrees that -by their very nature- promise more than they can possibly deliver.

Powerlessness is reinforced by the inhumane audition system, whereby unfortunate musicians,  after being corralled  with competing colleagues, are made to perform in front of a jury what often amounts to meaningless fragments of musical works taken out of context. The performers submit themselves to this ordeal in hopes that they will come to the attention of powerful decision makers and ultimately be hired for this or that.

Of course, the epitome of the musical herder has to be the tyrannical orchestral director type. Were it not for the tireless efforts of the musician unions and the difficulty in finding enough adjacent toilets, this maniac would have all the orchestra players defecating simultaneously in tempo to the strong beats of a march. A strict daily schedule for such serious business would, of  course, have to be adhered to. Absolutely no exceptions!

Some famous teachers have been known to practice herding- and hoarding as well. Like malevolent sorcerers in pursuit of maiden princesses, they constantly cast their nets hoping to catch as many gifted students as they can, to display in their collections.

Frédéric Chopin, portrait by P.Schick,

Frédéric Chopin, portrait by P.Schick, 1873, long after Chopin’s death

Even Chopin almost fell prey to herding at the hands of none other than Kalkbrenner, the inventor of the hand guide apparatus, and a  “flavor of the month” teacher in 1830’s Paris. The celebrated pianist, cognizant of Chopin’s gift, flattered once his Polish colleague for possessing the finger work of Field and the execution of Cramer, but warned him that he could easily go astray.

And here comes the ultimate manipulation move: Kalkbrenner -positioning himself as the heir of the old school- tries to convince Chopin that he can not hope to create a new school without mastering the legacy of the old tradition, which, of course, only he can bestow on the younger colleague. As reported in Chopin’s letter to his friend Tytus Wojciechowsk, dated December 12, 1831, Kalkbrenner pressures Chopin into studying with him for three years and promises that at the end of that period he will have become a great artist! Sounds familiar? Great! The only problem is that Chopin was already a great artist by the time he arrived in Paris, and a genius composer to boot. As none other than Mendelssohn was prompt to tell Chopin “you play better than him (Kalkbrenner) ”.

After careful consideration and corresponding on the subject with friends and family, Chopin declines the lessons with Kalkbrenner

Kalkbrenner, a famous pianist who tried to recruit Chopin as a pupil! What nerve!

Kalkbrenner, a famous pianist who tried to recruit Chopin as a pupil! What nerve!

and decides to strike out on his own. Though he admires his German colleague, Chopin  is not intent on becoming a copy of Kalkbrenner, and as he puts it in a letter to his dear mentor Eisner “three years is too long”. Coincidentally, around that time, in 1831, the Revue Musicale publishes the announcement that Kalkbrenner would be taking under his tutelage four young ladies and four young men with the “promise of the greatest success.” Did he perhaps intend for Frederic to be part of this select pack of hand-picked epigones? In any case, there is a considerable financial reward for the herder. The tuition for the course of study is 1500 francs.

But -we may ask- is guidance at all necessary? Yes, temporarily, provided that one does not have to check one’s intelligence at the door. And for how long? For as long as needed, but no longer than that, certainly not for ever. But when does guidance turn into herding? Well, it is not so easy to say. One must stay alert and use one’s intuition. Some teachers run their studios as cults, making sure to surround themselves in a mystical aura of arcane knowledge and spiritual wisdom. Robert Jay Lifton, the author of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, points out some traits present in cults. You might recognize them at work within some studios:

  •  a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship
  • coercive persuasion or thought reform (brain washing)
  • exploitation of group members by the leader

Pondering these or similar questions may be of help: Are grandiose schemes and claims present? Does the teacher present him or herself as the foremost expert, the heir of some special arcane knowledge or of the true tradition? Is manipulation at play? Do feelings of dis-empowerment  ensue from the interactions with the enlightened being? If so, herding may be  at work. When a healthy relationship with the teacher can not be established and maintained, it may be safer to run the other way. If that is not possible for the time being, setting a time limit to the herding experience may be advisable. It may be helpful to bear in mind that, after all, even with the teacher’s full intervention, one will be doing most of the work. It is the student who has to process and make sense of the information, adapting it and appropriating it on the student’s own terms. Beware: one of the characteristics of cults is what Lifton terms the dispensing of existence. Be prepared that, should you dare to question the authority of the guru or leave the group, you might be deemed as of having no right to exist, and all ties of former associates to you might not be allowed by the enlightened being.

Emerson taught us long ago in his seminal essay Self-Reliance:

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion”.

Armed with that conviction,  one may yet avoid being subjected to the rigors of herding bondage –unless of course, one happens to enjoy it.

For that,  dear friends, I can  offer no remedy.