Desperate Times, Desperate Measures. Or How to Deal With Your Strong-Willed Stubborn Student and Survive

“What to do with a stubborn student who insists on playing a piece I don’t think she’s ready for?” asks a perplexed teacher.

Well without being told, I can tell you right off the bat that this student is an adolescent. How do I know? I have/have had lots of students of all ages and have raised two daughters. Yes, passing through the murky shoals of darkest adolescence can by trying for everyone. So how do we navigate them with particularly high spirited and determined students? Naturally, when I say high spirited and determined, I mean they are high-spiritedly determined to do as they want, not as you are advising, otherwise we would be calling them obedient and otherwise perfect students. So what to do?

Of course, many of the comments and advice given to this teacher included lots of “you’re the teacher and what you say goes” stuff. If you really want to get into a battle of wills, go right ahead and try that tactic. One of several things will happen:

  • You’ll get a sullen and uncooperative, and perhaps discouraged, student who will do what you ask but not very well.
  • Your student will do as she wants anyway on her own (music is easily had by everyone nowadays at the click of a mouse) and do it badly without your supervision, making everyone’s life a lot more difficult in the long run.
  • Your student will quit.
  • Your student will cheerfully acquiesce to your mandates. Oh wait – we’re talking about stubborn and strong willed students, aren’t we? Scratch this last one.

So I have developed a few rules on dealing with this wonderful but potentially problematic type of student:

  1. Never forget that while adolescents may be children in your eyes, they are all grown up in their own opinion and think they know a lot more than you do, you old fogey. It will take years before they realize how much they don’t know: after all, humility is not a known symptom of adolescence. I would remind you of Mark Twain’s famous observation: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
  2. Not all students are heading for careers and need to tick all the boxes to get into a good conservatory. While I don’t advocate skipping steps, we should remember that students are also supposed to have fun and with some of our students we can be a little more lenient and experiment with them to see what works.
  3. Just because you were a perfect student (and were you, really?) doesn’t mean your all students will or even should be.
  4. The high-spirited, stubborn and/or determined ones can be a lot more fun, if not more challenging (no one ever gets bored!) and are often the ones who will succeed at whatever they choose to do in life (see Mark Twain, above), if they are handled properly. That means you have to stay one jump ahead of them. It also means you have to find a way to deal with them that won’t exhaust you, so….
  5. They think they’re grown up? Then treat them like grown-ups: negotiate and share the responsibility. It’s a lot easier and more effective than constantly trying to impose your will on an incalcitrant subject.

A worried young teacher asked my advice not long ago about a really difficult (you guessed it, adolescent) student she had. To make matters worse, she had to teach this young fellow via internet, certainly not an ideal situation even though it’s very popular nowadays, as they live in different countries. It seems the lad just wouldn’t do anything well this teacher was asking him to do. Also, the personalities of the teacher and the student are almost diametrically opposed. The teacher had been a wonderful student, had had wonderful and famous teachers, had gone to wonderful conservatories where she had contact with lots of other violin students, and comes from a culture where teachers are held in high esteem and are to be obeyed. The student lives in a remote area with no contact with other instrumentalists and has a contrary, rebellious and strong-willed personality, although talented and ambitious like his teacher. You can see why the teacher was disconcerted – she had never encountered such a creature before: one who wanted to play well but wouldn’t obey the teacher!

What was my advice? Stop giving assignments and ask the student what he wants to play. The teacher, after expressing doubts (but she was at an impasse and didn’t have much to lose), did this and was quite shocked when the student came back with one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire. My advice? Let him try it. Two measures at a time, and have lots of little exercises and etudes ready to help him when he would run into the inevitable technical problems that she knew were in his path. I know this is unorthodox advice, but with unorthodox cases….. desperate times call for desperate measures. After all, she was having no success with the usual way of doing things.

What happened? My young friend was quite surprised at how well her student did, how much more cooperative he became and how things started going much better.

It’s a question of what is your bottom line? If you want students who obey without question and defer to your superior wisdom, then you may sometimes find yourself in difficulty, especially with certain adolescents who are trying out their wings, trying to find their power. The better approach with them, in my experience, is to ask yourself, “how am I going to get this student to get where I think he needs to go while letting him think he’s running things?” Easy: let him tell you what he wants to do and then work with him to achieve it. Your student is going to love the feeling of being the boss. After all isn’t that what we’re training them to do – not need us anymore? Slowly, slowly we have to give up the reins and go from dictating, to guiding, to advising. It’s a long and slow process but it has to start somewhere. Where better than when your student lets you know in no uncertain terms that he’s ready to start?

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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10 January 2019

4 thoughts on “Desperate Times, Desperate Measures. Or How to Deal With Your Strong-Willed Stubborn Student and Survive

  1. Carol de la Haye

    Beautiful, Eloise — another excellent piece of advice. This is exactly what I did with my recent most challenging pupil. Well — it didn’t take her long to be subdued by the incredible difficulties of the Bach solo Siciliana (Sonata No.1) she had been insisting she wanted to play, because she “…just LOOOOVES double stops…”, no matter how much I tried to convince her she wasn’t ready for it. However, though she felt vanquished, I could see her self-confidence withering, partly, I felt, by having to face that her ambition sometimes overshoots her assessment of her own abilities. Anyway, so far, she’s still working through it, bar by bar, because I told her it’s a good idea, not only to stretch herself, but also to accomplish at least some of what she started here, rather than just giving up because she finds it’s beyond her in the short run. And, bit by tiny bit, she’s learning what it takes… At the same time, she’s now more than willing — and relieved! — to go along with my suggestions of what she’s actually more able to tackle.

    You really do have to find a publisher for your excellent series of blogs — they’re truly helpful, to the point, and make great sense. Such a book would be worthy to sit on the shelves of any teacher, along with those of violin history’s other great pedagogues, from Leopold Mozart to Suzuki, etc. Brava!!

  2. Maria

    You are so right. I’m very thankful to my daughter’s teacher, who let her try to play with 3 fingers in her second lesson instead of just open strings when she was still 2 years old as she wanted to use her fingers. And that she gave us preliminary vibrato excercises when I asked for them at the age of 4. The result is that at 5 years she is end book 3 student with a nice vibrato and 3rd position shifting.

    So I’m all for letting students try things they are not supposed to be able to do. Sometimes students surprise the teacher.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      That’s a wonderful story! Yes, teachers must be flexible, especially when faced with unusual students. Thanks for sharing!


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