Disobedient Or Just Unaware? What to Do When Students Won’t…

Have you ever asked yourself why you can’t get certain students to, say, learn vibrato? No amount of imploring, explanations or threats, seems to have any effect at all. They try then and there, but the next lesson comes around and nothing has really changed.

Well, I have asked myself why, and I have discovered a Very Important Universal Truth:

You can’t make students do or learn something they really don’t want to.

So forget the imploring, threats and explanations if you have tried them all and gotten no results. The trick is to make them want to do it. But before you can do that, there is something important you might want to address.

Remember the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”  The corollary is: “You cain’t fix something ya don’t know is broke.” Therefore, the first problem is that you, the teacher, know something is “broke,” – certain students really not wanting to do what you want them to – but those students don’t know this, and thus the impasse.

So to make them aware that they really don’t want to do whatever it is that you’re asking, you have to get it out into the open where they can see what the cause of the problem is and examine it. I give them several possibilities to consider:

  1. They don’t think they’re capable of it.
  2. They don’t like it (some kids don’t like vibrato, for example. Really).
  3. They don’t see the need for it. Some students like things just as they are – it can be hard to get them to move from making noise to making music or to making better music. Once one of my students, when asked why she wouldn’t vibrate, told an astonished me that she didn’t need to because it wasn’t necessary – she played well anyway. (I had forgotten who it was but then a painful suppressed memory bubbled up to the surface and I now remember that it was my older daughter. Yes, 35 years later, she is still breathing and has a beautiful vibrato. Anyway.)
  4. They’re just plain lazy and don’t want to make the effort.
  5. None of the above apply, but they just plumb don’t wanna do it.

Once you get them to pick one and say it out loud, you have some hope of remedying the situation. Why? Because acknowledging their lack of desire to you and to themselves is a big step toward “recovery.” Students can’t fix problems they don’t know or don’t want to know exist. Take vibrato again, for example: you can play a passage for a student with and then without vibrato. Which does he prefer? The vibrated one, of course. (If not, then you have a discussion about how the baroque period ended several hundred years ago and, if this fails, how vibrato can help cover a slight wobble in intonation, an argument most students find appealing.) “So,” you ask, “what are we going to do about this?” And you discuss solutions with your student. You may both come to the conclusion that vibrato just isn’t for him at that particular moment and you let it go for another time in the future when he will be more amenable to the idea. To everything there is a season…

Or you could try the sneakier approach to try to get him actively want to do it. I did this, inadvertently, with my younger now professional violinist daughter. She was nine and absolutely would not vibrate – no reason, just NO. I didn’t know what to do. Then Salvatore Accardo came to town to play a concert, which the whole family wanted to hear. I considered leaving said younger daughter at home as she always slept through concerts but, as we had a box, we decided to take her with us at the last minute. What happened? She watched Maestro Accardo for no more than two minutes, remarked, “What a nice vibrato he has!” and then stretched out across all our laps and snored for the rest of the concert. What a waste of money, I thought.

Imagine my astonishment when, the very next day, she started to vibrate. It wasn’t perfect (yet) but she was trying, which was a hundred percent improvement from the day before. (I had the pleasure of telling Maestro Accardo in person about this episode more than 30 years later to let him know that his concert had an effect a lot more far reaching than he may have thought, which seemed both to surprise and tickle him.) The secret was showing her someone famous  whom she admired – she fell asleep every night listening to his recording of the Paganini 24  (some lullaby, huh?) – who was doing that mommy/teacher was asking her to do. Since then I have used this ruse countless times. That’s why I always take my students to see famous violinists’ concerts when they’re in town. If vibrato, changing position, holding up their violins, bending their bow thumbs, etc., is good enough for Gil, Vadim, Massimo, etc., then isn’t it good enough for them, too? It isn’t enough for students to hear it, or even see you do it (you’re probably not famous enough for them as they know you too well) – they may need to see a name musician putting in action whatever technical point you’re both stuck on.

As we all know, self delusion is very common among violin students. What they hear is one thing while what they are actually doing is often another. The same thing goes for obeying teacher. They may actually think they want to do as she asks when unknowingly deep down they really don’t. So if they’re doing as she says but without desire and full attention, nothing is likely to change much and they can lapse into “I can’t do it, I have no talent or it’s not that important…..” If they want to do it, then that’s a completely different story. So helping students become aware of all that inner conflict they didn’t know they had, so that they can actively decide to change or learn something new, is an important part of our job.

As an example of what can happen when that inner conflict is suddenly resolved, a few years ago someone posted on a forum for violinists a masterclass given by David Russell in which he solved all the problems a very advanced student had with a Mozart violin concerto in about five minutes. I mean all of them: phrasing, bow control, left hand, etc. It was pure genius. How? He told the student to hold his violin up and gently showed him precisely how that fixed everything. Don’t laugh. Many masterclass teachers would probably have figured there wasn’t much to do about the young man’s posture and would have worked on other things. After all, sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest ones to see – and fix. But Mr. Russell went to the heart of the matter and seemingly worked a miracle. Now do you suppose that that young man’s regular teachers hadn’t told him from Day One to hold his violin up? I’m sure they had, perhaps not so elegantly or persuasively and probably they had given up on this issue, thinking there was no hope. But while this young man surely knew he didn’t hold his violin up, most likely he was not aware that he didn’t want to do it, and so didn’t give it much importance. But put in front of a famous pedagogue who came to Portugal all the way from the USA to give him a lesson, this student was exceptionally receptive, really wanted to listen and, above all, make a good impression. And he did. The change was absolutely astonishing.

Obviously we can’t always send our students to famous pedagogues to get them unstuck from their suppressed opinions – nor should we. That is really our job. But the episode above is an excellent, if somewhat extreme, example of the metamorphosis a student can make when he goes from being unaware of his latent feelings and attitudes to really wanting to succeed at something.

Anything can happen!

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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29 August 2019

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