Turning Your Perfectionist Student into a Perfect One: or How to Handle the Perfect Storm

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“I have a six year old student who, when she doesn’t get something right on the first try, plays the piece over and over, making the same mistakes or creating new ones. She then refuses to listen to any of my suggestions, getting increasingly frustrated and upset. On the rare occasion she’s willing to listen to me, she understands and fixes the problem pretty quickly. What to do?”

Finally a teacher asks a question about the perfect student – or rather the perfectionist student, not necessarily the same thing as we can see above. We teachers spend most of our working lives trying to instill some perfectionism into our more lassez-faire students. You know, the ones who when they make a mistake (if they notice it) just shrug their shoulders and go on, hoping you didn’t notice? I encourage my students to go through several steps when they make a mistake:

  1. Get angry – “What? How can this be? I’m much too intelligent to make that mistake!”
  2. Go, see and analyze why they made that mistake (perhaps the wrong hand position in beginners, not counting the half steps in intervals, etc.)
  3. Fix it, playing it slowly perhaps 10 times in a row (depending on the age of the student) without making a mistake.

The normal student sees himself as a victim of his mistakes – it’s easier and requires less energy than the above steps. Therefore,  I encourage these normal ones to get angry. Why? Anger must serve some evolutionary purpose, otherwise we wouldn’t all have it in our emotional make up. What could it’s purpose be? It gives you energy which you can use negatively or positively: you can either have a meltdown or you can use this energy to solve the problem that made you angry in the first place.

But what we have here is a little volcano who doesn’t need any help in getting angry. What she does need is help to stop it from turning into frustration. But first she needs help in learning to control her energy. That’s what anger is: energy in its most powerful form. Frustration comes from not using the energy properly. The problem is that she puts an extra step between Step 1 and Step 2 – she takes it personally, gets overcome by frustration and efficient learning thus goes out the window.

So the first thing I would tell this teacher is, “Congratulations, it looks like you have a budding soloist on your hands!” I have personally known four great and famous virtuosi who have made some small mistake in a concert and then wouldn’t look me in the eye afterwards. They were thinking about that mistake and were embarrassed. I was thinking of the magic of the music and their wonderful interpretations. Their noses were too close to the canvas, so to speak, and they were not capable in that moment of stepping back and seeing the whole picture – which is what the audience was doing. This level of perfectionism and fussiness is necessary to get to such exalted levels, but still they don’t let things get out of control when a little boo-boo happens.

They, however, are adults. This teacher has a six year old on her hands who doesn’t have control of her emotions or her energy. That’s what teaching an instrument is really all about: helping our charges to learn to control their energy and emotions so they can use them in expressing art. Not an easy task for teachers, especially when we are usually worried about getting our students to activate their energy and emotions instead of calming down an emotional atomic chain reaction like the one presented by this little girl.

So, what to do with a student like her? Ask the her any or all of the following questions. And don’t think she won’t understand them because she’s small. Ask which is better of the two choices: Continue reading

13 September 2018

“Why Does My Teacher Get So Frustrated?” Letter to a Perplexed Student

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I think teachers can all admit that circumstances may arise in our professional lives that would send the most forbearing and saintly of souls over the edge and down into the black pit of frustration. When I saw the above question on my blog stats, which must have troubled a student enough to pose it to the World Wide Web, I realized that many students may not understand how or why this can happen. His search engine sent him to one of my blog posts but, as I usually write articles about how teachers can avoid frustration and stay happy in their work, I don’t know which of my posts could have directly answered his question. I’ll try to answer it now. 

Dear Violin (Oboe, Double Bass, Marimba, Tuba, Whatever) Student,

Yours is indeed an excellent question. Indeed it’s one I often ask myself: why indeed do we teachers get so frustrated?

I’ll let you in on a little secret – I hope you’re sitting down because this is going to blow you away…

Teachers are human beings, too – not, as most student seem to think, unfeeling torture machines put on the face of this earth with the sole mission to annoy you.

Yes, teachers have hopes. aspirations, emotions, hobbies and a life outside their studios, believe it or not. I know how shocked some of my students are when they run into me at the grocery store, see my thriving geraniums when they come to my home, or find out I can make brownies. And, I must confess, I felt the same way about my teachers when I was young. Therefore you should know that we feel all the same emotions you do – and that includes frustration.

I think you know frustration: it’s that feeling you have when you are trying to tell someone about something important to you and that person doesn’t listen or give any consideration to you or to what you’re saying. Remember how you feel then? In fact, frustration is defined as “the feeling of being upset or annoyed as a result of being unable to change or achieve something.” *

I know this is hard to believe but we teachers were also students once, too. And not necessarily perfect ones either (we probably don’t want you to know this as we would like to forget it ourselves – and some of us succeed). Therefore, we know what it means to waste time and opportunities and how, in some hidden away part of our souls, we wish we hadn’t.

So when we see a student has potential (and all students do) and is perhaps making the same mistakes we did or is inventing some of his own, we get frustrated. We know how happy we are that we can play our instruments, and we want you to be happy, too.

And that’s really the root cause of all our teacherly frustrations. You see, we want you to be happy. And happiness comes from doing something well. We know what it takes to do something well. We understand the trials, tribulations and, yes, the frustrations of music study, but we know how happy and fulfilled it makes us feel and we, generous souls that we are, want you to feel the same way.

However, your teacher needs your help. When you don’t cooperate, she’s frustrated and thus miserable. Do you want her to be unhappy? When you put obstacles in her path by forgetting your music, your music stand and sometimes even your instrument, she may start frothing at the mouth. Do you want this responsibility? When you don’t care about all the effort she makes to write in bowings and fingerings and you ignore them, can you blame her for getting upset and gnashing her teeth? When you give ridiculous excuses for not practicing like, “It was raining” or “I had too much homework” or “My friends came over to play” or, worst of all, “My soccer coach called extra practice sessions,” can you really blame her for tearing her hair out? When in a group or orchestra practice, you’re late, have brought the wrong music, poke your neighbor with your bow or other instrumental accessory, talk when you shouldn’t or inform the conductor that you don’t agree with her interpretation of the piece in question, can you blame her for having the sudden desire to change her name and move to an unspecified and uncharted desert island somewhere, anywhere, in the Pacific Ocean? When you make the same mistake over and over because you haven’t practiced that passage the way your teacher has told you (also many times), can you blame her for wanting to throw your instrument out the third story window of your conservatory or music school (I know a teacher who actually did this, poor fellow)? When your teacher has told you the same thing at least 5,000 times and she knows you aren’t listening, can you blame her for looking at you with an desperate gleam in her eye when you innocently ask why she didn’t tell you that before? When you miss recitals, which have taken months to prepare for, because your presence was vital in an impromptu tennis tournament or last-day-of-school party organized at the last minute, can you blame her for wishing she hadn’t given up her career on an automotive assembly line to teach you? Continue reading

24 August 2018

Mount Rush-no-more….And How to Get There

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A teacher recently asked on one of those wonderful internet music teaching forums how to get her middle school and younger students not to rush in recitals. I saw lots of interesting and inventive answers about metronomes, playing with the cd, etc., but reading those answers, I realized that my younger students don’t rush when playing in public, even after they make some pretty egregious mistakes. I then polled many of my recitals’ spectators one by one to see if they noticed anyone rushing. Nope. Want to know my secret?

Here it is, but first I have a confession to make.

I don’t use a metronome on my students.

I can hear the collective gasp all over the English-speaking music world. But I really don’t. And here’s why.

First of all, time doesn’t really exist – it’s a perception. Haven’t you noticed that when you’re having fun, time flies? Conversely, ask any woman who has been through natural childbirth how long the minute (only a minute!) that a labor contraction actually lasts seems to last. Have you also noticed that an accompanist trying to hold back a rushing student usually doesn’t succeed and winds up running after him? So all the metronomes in the world aren’t going to help if, once they’re turned off, the student’s perception of time is skewed. So why is this? What messes with a student’s sense of time?

BODY MEMORY (it may not be remembering what you want it to):

A well known violinist, who I won’t name as I haven’t asked his permission, once told me that he had decided to learn the Barber 3rd movement (presto in moto perpetuo), listened to recordings, put them away and started practicing. But no matter how much he practiced, he couldn’t get it up to tempo. He then listened again to the recordings and discovered that he was playing much faster than those recordings. His conclusion was that the body has a memory and plays up to it’s habitual level of discomfort. Students usually start rushing when they get to the difficult parts, even when they are no longer difficult, as body memory takes over – it isn’t happy until it’s miserable sort of thing. So make students aware of this phenomenon, remind them that the once tricky parts are no longer difficult and not to let their bodies dictate tempo. Remembering to breathe through it helps, too.

THEY STOP THINKING ABOUT WHAT THEY”RE DOING AND START THINKING ABOUT THEMSELVES:

“Uh-oh, I made a big mistake (memory lapse, wrong note, whatever they find upsetting).” And things go in a downward spiral from there. They get flustered, convinced that the whole world heard that mistake, it’ll be on the front page of the NY Times, and so on. What has happened here is that they have forgotten two cardinal rules of playing music in public:

  1. Think about what you’re doing, what you’re going to do without ever (and this is the hard part) thinking about what you have just done. I liken it to driving down the street while looking back to see where you have just been. “What’s going to happen?” I ask my students. “Disaster,” they answer. Upon getting flustered, adrenalin flows and they want to get the whole thing over with as fast as they can. Ah, the poor accompanist. (I pay mine very well, just in case.)
  2. Think about the music, not yourself. Allowing yourself to lose control means you let that monkey in your head take over and you are only thinking of yourself instead of the music. And that is really a very serious thing, indeed. To transmit your anxiety, your thoughts, your fears is not why we play music for others.

THEY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY REALLY WANT TO ACHIEVE

If they don’t know what they want, how are they going to get it? Sometimes, students don’t have  clear ideas what they want to do with a piece. Just hearing it a million times isn’t enough. Playing by rote is not interpreting the music. And you can ask even rank beginners to interpret, have their own ideas and be aware of rhythm and pacing, among other things.

THEY RUSH WHEN THEY PRACTICE

They need to be reminded that how they practice is how they’re going to play and to always remember that they’re playing for the universe, not themselves. Music is something you do every time you play a note, even a scale, and deserves respect. A metronome doesn’t teach you this.

THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY ARE REALLY DOING WHEN THEY ARE PERFORMING. Continue reading

6 August 2018