Tinker, Tailor, Teacher, Spy…

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The beauty of private teaching is that you, the teacher, can be anything you want to be. We are all actors and can choose our roles. If you want to be an autocrat, go right ahead – axing your students or their parents when they don’t live up to your expectations. You can be a babysitter, wearily dragging along your students with uncooperative parents, just waiting for the half hour to be over. You can be the frustrated virtuoso who would rather be playing but has to teach to survive, and take out those frustrations on your less than perfect students. You can be your students’ best buddy, cultivating, above all, a wonderful and loving relationship with your students and to heck with any kind of discipline.

Or, like any good actor, you can be all things to all people. The bad actor is the one who can only play one role. That’s also a good description of a bad teacher, in my opinion. Yes, sometimes we have to be autocratic when the situation calls for it, i.e., when the student needs it, not when we need to do it; when the student needs to be waked up, not when we are thinking of our own comfort. Yes, we may have to be a confidante when students need this due to some trauma in their lives, not because we want or need them to love us. Yes, we may be a frustrated virtuoso, but we realize that true immortality lies in teaching so our frustrations are left outside the studio door – but we use our fabulous technique to our students’ advantage and not our own (i.e., showing off when it’s didactically necessary).

I am particularly disturbed by a recent thread on a music teaching forum where a young teacher wanted some ideas on how to deal with two hard-to-handle young students whose parents don’t cooperate. Many teachers gave great ideas, some practical and others just plain compassionate. But other ideas offered were simply, “You’re not a babysitter so get rid of them.”

Well, you’re only a babysitter if you want to be – or a dictator or any other role, for that matter. Show me another profession, however, where the professional tells his clients/patients, “Either do as I say or out you go!” Rarely would a doctor, lawyer, or dentist do such a thing. Actually, my grandfather, who was a dentist, did in his youth throw someone out of his studio. He had reason to bitterly regret this, learned to control his really pretty awful temper and became highly respected in his profession. He learned an important lesson: we are in a service profession. Meaning we serve, not we get served. Continue reading

26 March 2018

To Scale and Etude. Or Not.

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A recent question on a music teacher’s forum asked how to motivate two middle school students who won’t practice well their assigned scales and etudes even though the teacher is happy with how their pieces are progressing. This is a rather more complex issue than you might think.

First of all, I have interviewed an awful lot of teachers and Famous Musicians and many seem to be divided into two camps:

  1. I did scales and etudes and by God you will, too.
  2. They traumatized me with scales and etudes and I won’t inflict that on anyone.

I had both kinds of these teachers myself. Neither of these philosophies works well and here’s why.

Philosophy 1.

Teacher being right and student being wrong is not a good way to get through to your students. The question here seems to be if the student is going to do what you say or not. Expecting obedience is a parent’s job. Yours is to help your students get the best possible result. If that means forgoing a scale or two, especially if their pieces are going well, no one is going to die. There will be plenty of time for scales and etudes when they are old enough to appreciate their value. Middle school students just don’t/can’t/won’t and perhaps shouldn’t. They don’t care how their smart phones work – they just want to use them. They can learn about code when they get older.

There is also something else to consider – do you realize how many things they have to do in the course of their schooling that they don’t want to do? I include even getting up too early in the morning when many studies show that adolescents do better when they start school at 9am or even later. Here in Italy, and I am told also in the USA and other countries, these kids are so burdened with homework and outside activities (many already aimed at getting them into a good college) that having to face yet another thing they don’t want to do is just the last straw. And I can’t blame them. So the “Procrustean Bed” school of teaching (one size must fit all, whether you have to stretch them or trim their legs a little) is guaranteed to fail for most of your students who simply can’t bring themselves to practice what they don’t want to.

“Ah,” you say, “but some students willingly practice what I give them to do, so these others are just undisciplined.” Yes, there are some perfect students out there. Somewhere. But the world is also divided in another more-than-one-camp. There are people (I am not one of them but I have lived with some of them and have had lots of students like this) who just cannot do something they don’t like or don’t feel like doing. It’s useless to argue, plead, bargain, bribe (which may work for a while), threaten, whatever. It’s simply physically impossible for them. It isn’t a question of discipline. Plus, can we really expect middle school students to have the discipline we have now (and probably didn’t have at their age either)?

Philosophy 2

This consists of taking every single beautiful piece that your student will learn and making a study out of it. Yuck. This was an important principle of the method I use when I started using it (back in the Middle Ages). I found out fairly quickly that this didn’t work very well for my students when they got to more advanced pieces. Why? Because, not having prepared for, say, the Bach Double’s difficulties with judicious use of etudes and scales, the piece was too difficult for them and remained so in their minds even when this was no longer so. My teacher (the old school type who had studied with Sevcik but never assigned me any of his studies) did this to me with my first concerto. I always avoid listening to that beautiful piece – too much baggage. Continue reading

18 February 2018

Peace of Mind and Acceptance

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Ah, Peace of Mind. It’s given a lot of lip service. But what does it mean?

“I learned to accept who I am not what I am.”

This was the conclusion of a post I read on Quora recently. It was written by a man with  personality and mood disorders in a marvelously cogent answer on the value of seeking a diagnosis for certain suspected mental health problems. If you think of it, his is a very profound statement. How many of us go through life with labels either given to us by ourselves or by others? How courageous and wise of this individual to decide that he wasn’t a series of capital letters all strung together – his diagnosis – but a real person who has a few important problems and isn’t going to let it ruin his outlook.

How many of us decide we are a “what” instead of a “who?” I’m bright, I’m selfish, I’m organized I yam I yam I yam, etc… How much better to just accept whoever we are in that moment without putting a name or a personal pronoun on it, live it to the fullest and thus be a lot nicer to ourselves: correct what we do, not what we are and thus be who we are, not what we (or others) think we are?

In corresponding with students, violinists, and teachers on various social media I have noticed a certain amount of unhappiness, or non-acceptance, out there. I know one violinist who is convinced that he’s not very good (he is, but doesn’t seem to realize it), and will never be as good as so-and-so. Just how much is he enjoying his playing? What effect will his frustrations have on his teaching? You can well imagine that he has nowhere near the student load he would like to have and needs economically. In fact, I spent a good bit of time convincing him to be kinder to everyone – himself, first and foremost. Unaccepting people don’t attract students and may have a hard time keeping the ones they have.

This lack of self-acceptance is not limited just to teachers: one adult student I know told me that because she would get very angry with herself when she made mistakes, her teacher decided to stop giving her lessons. Why? Because the teacher took this anger to mean that her student was cutting herself off from the teacher. Seriously? If this is how this teacher felt, she should have been breaking her neck trying to reconnect with the student and helping her deal with her self-flagellation, instead of kicking her out of her studio. That’s what we are supposed to be doing: helping our students direct their energy, focus, and passion away from themselves and towards the music. I reassured the student that nothing was wrong with her and everything was wrong with the teacher, a person perhaps so upset by and taken with her own self-perceived defects that she couldn’t handle the misdirected energy of her student. A student like this can be helped by a compassionate and outward looking teacher, which I hope she found. But this student was so traumatized by this experience that it took her three years to get up the courage to even talk about it, let alone look for another teacher. Continue reading

25 January 2018