Bad Habits

Sometimes I have students who are so hard on themselves that it is difficult to teach them. They take every correction to mean that they are incapable, stupid, untalented – whatever negatives they can apply to themselves. I have tried to build up their self-confidence with encouragement and by pointing out their successes, but it wasn’t effective as such children don’t see or accept anything positive about themselves. Why? Because anything they do well is, by their definition, easy and therefore, by the same definition, doesn’t count. They notice only what they do wrong and never what they do right. If you compliment them on something, they don’t believe it even though they graciously accept the compliment.

I was trying to help these students learn better and wasn’t satisfied with the results. Their parents were paying me to teach them to play the violin, but their attitude was blocking their progress. I had to come up with something else. But what DO you do when you have a student who is far more critical of himself than you, his teacher, could ever be?

1. Blame the parents. They must be too hard on this poor child.

Not a good approach. The problem may or may not be the parents, and it’s the easy way out to assume that it is. Besides, in my experience, children whose parents are really hard on them are rarely so hard on themselves. So throw that theory out right away. Also I have seen cases of highly self-critical children who have brothers and sisters who are the complete opposite. So you can then……..

2. Blame the birth order.

Nonsense. Or better, it may be that the older children in a family tend more to be self-critical, but this isn’t anyone’s fault and you certainly can’t change their birth order, so blaming the problem on this is just another easy out.

3. Decide that some kids are born with certain tendencies and parents and teachers can only try to help them as best they can.

This is a pretty good choice for two reasons: first, I am not a therapist and don’t pretend to be and second, I can then deal with what is happening in the moment instead of trying to psychoanalyze the child.

The more effective choice, however, may be………

4. Read about Marlon Brando.

Apparently Brando said in a forthcoming autobiographical film that “We spend all of our life trying to fix the bad habits picked up in the first ten years.” *

Bad Habits???? This was an eye-opener for me. Could it be that our miserably hyper-self-critical students have merely formed a bad mental or emotional habit???? Is it possible that what we have assumed to be a child’s nature (which we can’t do anything about) is just the result of a bad habit? Bad habits are a music teacher’s specialty. We confront them countless times every day in our crusade to supplant the bad technical habits students acquire, in spite of our constant efforts, with good ones. Bad habits!! THAT WE CAN do something about! What’s the difference if it’s a mental habit or a physical one? They are both intertwined anyway. Bad mental habits get in the way of learning, which IS our territory. Part of my job as a teacher is to train a child how to think like a violinist. And part of that task means how to recognize and correct mistakes without endless fretting about what a mistake means: it doesn’t mean anything other than we have to be more careful or practice better. Period. Any further thought about what it means about ourselves is pure self-indulgence, an excuse to think about ourselves instead of what we are doing, a time waster and above all A VERY BAD HABIT.

A case in point: I have two students who are brothers, both under 10 years of age. They couldn’t be less alike if they came from different families on different continents. The older boy is hyper-sensitive and extremely hard on himself. I spent a great deal of time trying to build up his self-confidence and thought I was making progress until his mother told me that as soon as I was out of ear-shot he would start saying how untalented and stupid he was. So, thinking about what Marlon said, I decided to approach this problem as a simple case of a mental habit that had gotten away from the child. I gave him an exercise: every time he says (or his mother can see he is thinking), “I play so badly” or, “I am so stupid,” or any other negative self-critical remark, he has to say out loud to his mother or father three positive things about himself. His parents can help him think of the positive things in case he gets stuck. I explained to him that he has simply formed a bad habit, just as we often form bad technical habits on the violin, and that he can stop being so hard on himself – it’s just a question of practicing a good habit to take the place of a bad one.

This little boy’s parents are very concerned about his being so hard on himself and are helping him avoid situations that particularly provoke his negative thinking (anything involving competition) until he learns to accept his own foibles and recognize his virtues with equanimity. And guess what? Playing the violin, or any musical instrument can help with this – especially playing in groups where he can see that everyone makes mistakes and no one gets too upset about it or judges anyone else. Also playing in situations where he can shine all by himself has helped him a great deal – playing for his school class, for example. This and the little exercise I gave him seem to be working, his mother tells me. He smiles a lot more, too.

Post Author: Eloise Hellyer

* He was also quoted, although slightly differently in the following articles:  and and To know what his exact words were, we’ll just have to wait for the film to come out. But I think his meaning is quite clear. Registered & Protected  MSSU-D6QY-TKLN-JYT7

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10 January 2016

6 thoughts on “Bad Habits

  1. gipsika

    “Any further thought about what it means about ourselves is pure self-indulgence, an excuse to think about ourselves instead of what we are doing, a time waster and above all A VERY BAD HABIT.”

    Spot-on! What a lovely post, E!

    I had a student (teenager at the time) who apologized every time she made a mistake. Eventually with much laughing-together, I got it drilled into her that she is not allowed to apologize for a mistake while playing, and she’s not even allowed to fix it while we’re playing duets (unless I stop her of course). Instead, she must make a mental note, and at the end of the piece, return to it and fix it then. Not easy at first, but the discipline of carrying on playing and returning to fix the mistake afterwards (instead of halting the music for every pothole) gave great results.

    I’m very strict with my students’ thinking – they are not allowed to say “that was bad”, or “I’m dumb” or “I can’t do this”. Instead of “that was bad” they need to be specific. “I have to fix that intonation” or “I need to practice that run”.

    Ultimately the job of every teacher, mentor or guide is to replace herself gradually so that the student can eventually stand on his own feet.


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