Life in the Time of Cholera, er, Covid-19: Online Lessons

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Over the centuries the teaching a musical instrument has essentially changed very little. Except perhaps for repertoire, the violin lesson you see today could easily have taken place in the 18th century. So when I informed my students and their parents weeks ago that because of the current Covid-19 crisis here In Italy I was going to start giving lessons online, some of them protested strongly. It seemed like they thought I was trying cheat them, that doing lessons online wasn’t really “work” for me, and that such lessons wouldn’t be effective. They were mollified after I explained I have been teaching my grandsons successfully online for two years and, yes, it can be frustrating. There are less than ideal internet connections, you can’t hear as well as you would like, the tone can be distorted, you can’t see as well (really important with beginners), and there just isn’t the same exchange of energy that you have in a one on one situation, all of which mean that I actually have to work a lot harder than in a normal lesson situation.

To the skeptical few who still wanted to suspend lessons until “this is all over,” I pointed out that they have invested a lot of time and money in the musical education of their children and that it’s a pity to lose all the momentum we have created. Besides, who knows how long this health crisis will really last?

But then on talking more to all of them I found out what was really behind some of their protests: Continue reading

22 March 2020

How Do You Talk a Parent out of Quitting Music Lessons?

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Indeed! A question often asked by perplexed teachers. Some of you may not be sure you should try to change a parent’s mind on this issue, but first know that if parents are willing to discuss it with you, you have a chance of convincing them to continue. Some of them even want you to. Others talk about quitting because they’re afraid to bring up what’s really bothering them and that’s the only way they know to start a conversation about it. In any case, those who have firmly made up their minds to stop lessons will not give you this possibility.

There are lots of reasons, sometimes reasons underneath reasons, that families want to quit music lessons. But sometimes you have to figure out the reason the parents want a child to quit – or are letting him quit as they don’t always tell you the truth right away. Why? Because they often don’t know the truth themselves. And that’s why we have to get into a conversation with them about it.

This isn’t the old school way of doing things, however. I once had a student who got a hard time from her grade school and then middle school friends about playing the violin. So at the beginning of every academic year and at her mother’s behest, I would spend the whole first lesson talking to her about why she should continue. Years later she made the same announcement to her next teacher (I pass them on when they get to a certain level) after the summer vacation and he immediately said, “Fine, I’m sorry to lose you. Goodbye.” Her mother told me that her daughter was expecting the usual arguments in favor of continuing and was quite upset about him letting her go so easily. I explained that old school types like this teacher, who was from the then recently broken up USSR, would never argue with you about your decisions. (You also had to pay them with money in an envelope or they wouldn’t take it, just to give you an idea.) They considered this to be unprofessional. And professionality was of upmost importance to many of these teachers, no matter how they felt personally about the issue. They feared that to try to convince students to continue, would be seen as protecting their own interests and we can’t have that!

Or can we?

I must not be very professional then, because I never go down without a fight. The violin is wonderful, music is wonderful and I always try to “save” students, no matter what others may think. So here are some of the reasons that parents often give for quitting and a few tried and true rebuttals from the arsenal I have developed over the years:

Their child has no passion for playing the instrument.

1. Their child may not show passion NOW, but there’s nothing to say he won’t develop it. This has happened with my students so many times that I have lost count. Also in my now quite considerable experience in teaching, the children who show the most interest in playing when they’re little (and even ask for the instrument) usually don’t continue as pros. Instead  the ones who kick up the most fuss, protest, don’t want to practice when they’re little and don’t even want to play the violin in the first place, may wind up going whole hog when they’re teenagers, much to their parents’ and my surprise – and sometimes even their own.

2. Even if they never develop passion, there are so many upsides to learning a musical instrument at any level, that it behooves child to continue until at least 14 years of age. I did this with my own children: “You do as I say until you’re 14 and then you can make your own decisions.” I knew that they would play so well by that age that they wouldn’t quit altogether. And they didn’t, even though my older daughter pursues another career. She is a high level executive in her workplace and sometimes takes her violin to work to demonstrate cooperation to her rather bemused employees. Well, if it keeps her practicing…

You take music lessons because you want to become a professional. My child doesn’t show the desire to pursue a profession and therefore the whole endeavor is a waste of time and money.

Do you learn to read and write only so you can be Shakespeare? How about maths and science only if you want to become a nuclear physicist? If you don’t take these subjects to the highest level is it ever a waste of time to study them?  Most people would agree that it is not. You might pull out the statistic that 60% of CEO’s of multinational companies play music up to a professional level. That may be apocryphal – I don’t remember where I read it – but the following article definitely helps:   (Sorry, but you have to cut and paste.)

My child has the passion but not the talent to have an important career.

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27 February 2020

Jumping the Gun…

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“I’m a Suzuki teacher and have been teaching my own son for the last three months. He is so anxious to go ahead with his songs and goes so fast that I am afraid that his technique can’t keep up.. In fact, his technique is not great, and I wonder if allowing him to go at the pace at which he can learn notes is going to erode it. He’s moving way faster than I have my 4-5 yr old students learn because of these  circumstances. What to do?”

What to do, indeed. What happens when you get such a motivated, talented and powerful child?

Been there, done that! Circumstances (living in remote places) forced me to teach my own two children for many years before passing them on to other teachers so I can definitely identify with this young teacher’s/mother’s angst. I can also identify with her as I have had my fair share of precocious/prodigious/difficult students over my rather long career.

The beauty of having experience is you learn to have a very long view of things. Experience makes you realize that in the long run, some things that seem so important now may not be as important as you think in that particular moment. Why? Because your nose is so close the canvas, i.e., your student, that you can lose sight of the big picture and get bogged down in details, to the detriment of your students.

So my answer is as follows:

You have a very talented, if not gifted child. You can blame it on DNA, Suzuki, hearing you teach, whatever, but the fact is that he obviously loves the violin and wants to go on. Your problem is, like with most gifted/precocious kids, his intellectual age is one, his emotional age is another and his physical age yet another. You also have a child with a very strong personality which he will no doubt find useful in life but doesn’t make it any easier at the moment for you, his teacher/parent.

What to do? The choices are several but may not get the results you want – or at least want in this moment. Continue reading

28 January 2020