How to Build Your Reputation – the Kind You Want

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“Do you worry that your poor students will ruin your reputation? I am trying to build my studio and worry that these few students (among many who are good students) may affect my ability to earn a living.”

A young teacher, rightly concerned about building her studio and keeping it thriving, asked me this question.

My answer? It all depends on what kind of reputation you want. There are lots of different ones and some of them can be combined while others are in a class all by themselves. Here are a few examples:

  • one who turns out only competition winners
  • one whose students all play well up to teacher’s very high standard
  • one whose students faithfully obey all teacher’s studio strictures – or else
  • one whose students enjoy playing music at any level
  • one who wants her students to love music as she does
  • one who will teach any student who wants to learn, no matter what
  • one who will teach any student as along as the parents are willing to continue, no matter what

The first three don’t have to worry about poor students: they don’t have them. Who might worry would be those in the last four categories. So I will address this to them and my young colleague who said that she believed all students should have lessons as long as they enjoy them. Continue reading

28 March 2019

Think Twice Before You Take Advice

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There exist many excellent forums where teachers with problems, problematic students or problematic students’ parents can ask other teachers for help and advice. Often lots of interesting points of view are offered by experienced and inventive teachers. I have taken advantage of some of them myself.

However, lately there is a tendency that has been troubling me. When teachers ask advice about what to do with “difficult” parents, I sometimes find the advice given to be hurried, not thought through, provocative (in the bad sense), slightly hysterical and sometimes just plain ill-considered, and thus could cause all manner of trouble for the teacher who may choose to follow it.

Its important to remember that not everyone teaches for the same reason or has the same philosophy as others of us may have, even if everyone is using the same method. Therefore, their advice is coming from their point of view, from their idea of what teaching is, from their own good or bad teaching and life experiences (which may have nothing to do with the problem at hand), and we may have difficulty discerning any of this even though some of these teachers may have excellent reputations or at least are highly visible on the music/teaching scene.

As an example, a common response to a teacher who is having problems with certain parents is to get rid of them, or “fire” the family. Now while I can concede that there are circumstances where it may behoove a teacher to cut ties with certain families, rarely in these pieces of advice did I find any concern for the children involved. We might want to consider this, for example, before we take any advice, no matter how well-intentioned. If our philosophy, work ethic, monetary situation, studio size, ambition and life experience are exactly the same as the advice giver’s, which we have no way of knowing, then their advice may be right for us. But if our situation is completely or even partially different? What may be good advice for one person may bring total disaster for another. So before acting on any advice, I’d ask myself a few questions:

  1. As I am trying to help children and adults play an instrument well and trying to foster good relations between parent and child, do I want to bail out at the first or even second or third difficulty?
  2. Is it my style to insist on absolute obedience to myself and/or my method?
  3. Am I in this work to satisfy and serve my own philosophical principles (and to maintain them at all costs) and/or to earn a living in the least stressful way possible?
  4. Is the love that Dr. Suzuki, among others, talked about important to me? if it is, then I would ask myself where the love is in the advice I’m getting. Where is the love for my students if I act on the advice to not deal with their parents because “I’m not paid enough” to put up with certain problems or that my method “isn’t being respected?”
  5. When parents send me not very nice emails are they really “abusive” not only to me but, according to some advisors, to their child and/or spouses?  Should I call in the social services, as some have advised me, even though I have not seen or indicated in my request for advice any evidence of any child or spousal abuse?
  6. And, if the child is important to me and if a parent does try to bully me, am I really so meek  and defenseless that I can’t at least attempt to handle such a situation for the benefit of that child?
  7. Is letting a family go really the only way to handle the situation I’m asking about?

You see, many advice givers are not terribly worried about the welfare of the student. Maybe you aren’t either. But whether you are or not, before you act on the advice to “respectfully” get rid of those families, or even to call the social services, you should consider a few potentially serious consequences. Continue reading

27 February 2019

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

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“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? Continue reading

10 January 2019