Is Integrity All You Need?

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Integrity: another excellent quality for a teacher to have.

“Sure,” you say. But what does integrity really mean?

According to a very interesting book by Barbara Killinger on this subject, “Integrity is a personal choice, an uncompromising and predictably consistent commitment to honor moral, ethical, spiritual and artistic values and principles .” *

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But wait – shouldn’t we ask ourselves what those values and principles are? Lots of fine, upstanding people consider themselves to have integrity and we cheer them on. But what about all the mass murderers, cult leaders and others who have done great harm to humanity – were they not holding themselves to their own moral and ethical principles? Were they not absolutely consistent?

Now we are talking about teaching here, not about being faithful to one’s spouse or murdering someone for religious or other idealistic reasons. But being true to our moral and ethical principles and standards can often do a lot of damage if we don’t carefully consider what they are.

Here, for example, is the substance of a post I once saw on a music teaching forum where a violin teacher who teaches beginners on up talks about his program and his integrity…

He had decided he wanted a program of excellence so his students and their parents would need to follow the whole program consistently without fail. They would have to practice and listen every day, and come to group lessons as well as additional lessons outside of their regularly scheduled lessons if this teacher retained it necessary. If they complied, he promised he’d move heaven and earth for them. If, however, the students fell short on any of these requirements, he’d mandate that they follow corrective measures to restore what he considered was lacking. Failing to do so would result in everyone involved trying to find a way to “celebrate” the student in question leaving the program as the student and her family weren’t meeting the teacher halfway while he was moving heaven and earth to help them. His felt it would be a compromise of his integrity to take the student’s money, and a waste of his own time and energy, to not deliver his product of excellence that he had decided was important to him.

Let’s look at this closely. When you read this, you might say, “My, he is certainly true to his principles and ethics!” Yes, and he even uses the word “integrity” absolutely correctly. He is true to his values and no one is going to divert him from his chosen path.

A person of integrity? Absolutely, according to the above definition.

A person who is expert in certain didactic methods? Undoubtedly.

A good teacher? In my opinion, no. Here’s why: Continue reading

14 November 2017

The Care and Feeding of Prodigies

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Sooner or later almost every teacher gets a super talented student. While a teacher may initially get very excited about such a student, certain difficulties may soon reveal themselves. A prodigy can have one mental maturity level, another and different emotional maturity level all packaged in the body of a small child (a different physical maturity level). You may have to deal with a child who is mentally ten years old, emotionally six and physically four, for example, who may be capable of great things if you can keep all the above in mind and also deal with his frequently strong character.

Teaching any child is is an enormous responsibility but a prodigy is often an even bigger challenge as you have to keep the child playing until his various aspects catch up to his talent, without giving that talent much importance. This requires an enormous amount of long vision and self control on the part of the teacher. The biggest favor you can do a talented child, is to give him a certain humility – that his talent is a gift and not to let his ego grab his talent and take credit for it. He must be praised for what he does, but not be lauded for his talents, i.e., his good fortune. It is like telling a child how wonderful he is because he has rich parents or because he is physically attractive. Your student will get lots of fuss from relatives, friends, and practically anyone who hears him play. He needs you to keep his feet firmly on the ground. His and his parents’ – it’s so easy for parents to get over-excited and ambitious when they become  aware that they may have a genius on their hands. Teachers can exert a lot of  influence here and must use it wisely.

Why? Because prodigies grow up. And then what? One example of poor prodigy management is that many of them quit when they become adults because they no longer feel special. I will never forget a super-talented young girl I once met who told me she was 16 when I asked her age. Her mother later told me that the girl was going to be 17 in two weeks. What normal teenager wouldn’t tell you that she would be 17 very soon, or indeed that she already was 17? To her, becoming an adult meant becoming a violinist just like everyone else – no longer a prodigy and no more fanfare. A child should want to grow up, not want to remain small so she will continue to feel special. A special child may have the potential to become a special adult if handled properly, but if the child gets the understanding from her teachers, parents or surroundings that she is special because she is talented and small, then there will be trouble sooner or later.

The great teacher Elaine Richey once said, “A child may be precocious at the age of five but no one Is precocious at the age of twenty-five.” Precocious or prodigious children are not stupid – they know they have something beyond normal. The trick is not to let them identify with their precocity which may well mean keeping them off YouTube and avoiding making a three ring circus out of them: “I played it (the Tschaikovsky concerto) when I was 14 – this makes me sad,” was the comment of one grown up violinist on seeing a YouTube video of a ten year old playing that concerto. Instead of being happy that she could play such a difficult concerto at the age of fourteen, which is quite a feat, she is now unhappy that she feels she has been one-upped by a ten year old. But when they are both fifty will anyone know the difference? Is there any guarantee that playing a difficult concerto at an early age produces a better musician as an adult? Continue reading

11 October 2017

New Non-New Students or What To Do When Faced with Disaster

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What do you do when you get every teacher’s worst nightmare? New transfer students who have been so horribly taught that they have every bad habit in the book and a few no one has thought of yet (except them)?

Well, I can tell you what you don’t do. You don’t tell them.

  1. Never let on that you’re about to tear your hair out not knowing where to begin.
  2. Never let on that their previous teacher is a criminal who should be blindfolded and shot at dawn.
  3. Never let on that they are going to have to start over from scratch.
  4. Never let the student or the parent think that they have wasted time and money on previous lessons.
  5. Never let the student or parent think they have been a bad judge of teacher character or competence.

Why don’t you do this? You might think that this behavior is unethical. Yes, that is one reason. Another may be that you don’t want your student and his family to feel bad. Yes, that’s another. A third reason may be that you need time to discern if you have a poorly taught student in front of you  – or just a poor one.

The real reason? Because none of the above is true. Let’s see point by point:

  1. Of course you know where to begin. Have them play something simple, find several things to compliment (you can always find something positive) and give them one little piece of technique to concentrate on, acting like it’s no big deal. It isn’t that complicated. Also, don’t let them see much of your other students until they have improved a bit – it can shake their self-confidence.
  2. You may know the teacher by reputation (or lack of it) and feel you may be justified in wanting to eliminate her from the face of the earth to prevent her from doing further damage, but the fact is that your student did continue with her for a number of years so he must have been getting something out of the lessons.
  3. You aren’t going to have to start over from scratch. The child probably already knows a lot of music and even reads it. It just isn’t that bad.
  4. The parents haven’t wasted time or money. Yes, it would be better if the child had studied with you all that time, but just having had the violin in his hands for a few years is better than nothing at all.
  5. Perhaps they really liked that other teacher and are stopping with her for logistical reasons. Perhaps the parents realized something was wrong but the child is still emotionally attached to that teacher and you may need to win him or her over. Therefore, you don’t want to look like someone who badmouths others – they will wonder about your ethics, or what you say about them behind their backs. Besides, it’s a waste of time. Your new student and his family in time will understand your superiority – you don’t need to flaunt it. And they will respect you for your discretion.

Having said all this, I have to confess that a lot of the first list is often true. But it isn’t going to help you or your student to think about it that way. Go straight to the second list and all will be well.

However, and this is a really big however, sometimes you have to confess that the other teacher didn’t necessarily give the correct information. The problem is that most children under the age of 14 or 15 blame themselves when they don’t learn well. They are not in a position to understand that incorrect teaching was really the problem. The parents don’t always understand this either until some time after they have changed to you. It’s the age old problem of people assuming that if someone knows how to do something, then that someone also knows how to teach it. This assumption often creates lots situations where I find myself with transfer students who are convinced they are incapable of playing well and I have to very delicately let them know that it isn’t their fault. It usually goes like this: Continue reading

30 August 2017