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

Light My Fire…

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A violin teacher recently asked me my method for “lighting the fire” in a student – how to get a student excited, enthusiastic or passionate about what we are teaching

To start a fire, you need several things: Fuel and ignition – and something to burn.

Let’s talk about the something to burn first. As we were taught in middle school science class, not all materials will flame as brightly as others. Some materials burn up quickly, others smolder and, while not flaming brightly, may last a long time. So the brightness and duration of the flame you light will be in direct consequence of the type and composition of the substance that has to light up. The same for students: some have a greater capacity and propensity for passion¹ than others. In my experience students come in various packages:

  1. The ones who come already passionate about music in general, and the violin in particular. I don’t think I have ever had one of these. One reason is that most of them are so young that the only thing they feel passionate about is ice cream and their afternoon naps (i.e., not taking them). Another reason is that most students come to us not to nourish their passions but to find them in the first place. You find passion by trying out lots of stuff until one or more things calls to you. That’s what people think anyway. They often don’t realize the vital importance of the teacher in this process.
  2. The ones who like music a lot and seem to have an instinctive understanding of what it’s all about. Rare, in my experience, but while they may have a small initial flame, teacher has to work hard to maintain it by not boring them to death with constant, unrelieved technical exercises. Yes, it is possible to kill passion (ask anyone who has been in and fallen out of love). You can’t get and keep your students excited about something unless you continually give them something to be excited about – and it may not be what excited you, so flexibility is a must here.
  3. The ones who don’t seem to feel passionate about anything. That’s fine. Some people never feel passion in their lives. What’s wrong with that? Everything nowadays, apparently. The most common question you hear at cocktail parties or even, I’m told, job interviews is, “What do you feel passionate about?” God help you if you don’t have an answer. I personally find the question offensive. One of my mothers, herself a musician and daughter of a very successful and well-known artist, once came to her child’s lesson with her older teenage daughter in tow complaining sadly that this lovely girl had no passions, as if this were some kind of defect or incurable disease. I explained to the mother that perhaps this young woman just hadn’t found her passion yet, and even if she never felt really passionate about anything, this didn’t make her a failure in life. She certainly wasn’t apathetic and a lump of clay – she was just, well, normal. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Passion, after all, does not guarantee happiness – it can consume a lot of time and energy without necessarily giving fulfillment or satisfaction. Passionate people are lucky and cursed at the same time: while you may consider yourself fortunate to have a consuming interest and feelings about something, it can also be very difficult to own yourself and your life when you are in the throes of passion. However, it’s our moral obligation as teachers to try to help our more reserved students find a spark of some kind in themselves – there always is one.

So now let’s look at the ignition.

Three things are necessary for you, the teacher, to transmit passion, to light a fire:

  1. Your feeling passionate about your instrument and music.
  2. Your desire that your students feel passionate about it, too.
  3. Your ability to nurture your students’ passion by keeping the whole enterprise interesting.

Sometimes the first two are enough, or even all three. But what if they aren’t? What to do? Continue reading

21 December 2019

What I Wish All Parents Knew….

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Not long ago on a forum for teachers, the question was asked, “What do you wish that all parents knew?” What a question! But I do have a little list…

First of all, that parents (and the rest of the human race) knew that music is a core subject, just as important as reading and writing, even if it isn’t taught in school. Notwithstanding all the studies that abound on the internet that the study of music makes us all better in myriad ways, many parents seem not to be aware of this. Why? Because the schools don’t seem to be either. I wish I could count the numbers of times I have seen desperate elementary, middle and high school teachers lament on numerous forums how little support they get, how their jobs always seem to be in jeopardy, how they are constantly told that music isn’t important as a subject, how they are overworked and under-appreciated not only by parents, prinicipals, but even by other teachers. It’s disheartening, to say the least. This, of course, makes it very easy for parents to ignore the studies. If their local school doesn’t think music is important, then why should they?

An excellent example of school board short sightedness: my grandsons live in a very high-income county on the east coast with high property taxes and excellent schools. They have a string program in their elementary school (up to fifth grade) which is very well attended. The teacher does a magnificent job, way above and beyond the call of duty, and after their end of year concert I went to congratulate her. She then told me that there was some question on whether the funding would be pulled for this excellent program and she, an accomplished string player herself, would be forced to teach band. In third grade. Where conventional wisdom says that children that young really shouldn’t play most wind instruments as their lungs are not fully formed. And in an area where lots of these children were taking private lessons in stringed instruments anyway. Fortunately, disaster was averted and the program continues for yet another year. But the fact that the school board even considered stopping a very successful program and substituting band sends a very big message to parents: playing a stringed instrument simply isn’t important, even when you have a thriving string program. It’s more important to train a band to play at football games. What chance do parents have?

So, I wish all parents realized that music, especially the study of the piano and stringed instruments which are more suitable for small children, are important and that they should make sure their school boards know it, too.

I wish all parents realized that the discipline necessary for learning a musical instrument will help their children in other areas in their lives. That the same discipline applied to school subjects should be applied to music – it shouldn’t be a choice to do homework OR practice. I never cease to be amazed at how many things parents expect of their children, but when it comes to practicing a musical instrument – society tells them that it should be “the child’s choice” which translates for the parents into an excuse not to impose the necessary discipline. The problem is that unless they study a musical instrument, scholastically talented children who never have any difficulty in school may not acquire the mental and physical rigor that can be a big help when they run into something truly difficult when they grow up. I tell my students and parents that there’s nothing more difficult to do on the face of the earth than play the violin well. Therefore, if they practice it, they will acquire all kinds of benefits that will serve them well later in life (if not immediately): the main benefit being that they will learn how to face, work through and solve difficult problems that seemingly may have nothing to do with music. My older daughter, who has a MM in Violin Performance,, and who has achieved various successes in her professional life outside music, says she owes a great deal to the violin. I read somewhere that Einstein solved the mathematical problems of his General Theory of Relativity playing Mozart quartets. I also read that 60% of CEO’s of multinationals play a musical instrument to a professional level. This last statement may be apocryphal, but where there’s smoke…

But just to show you how pervasive and insidious the arguments are against music, I once got Continue reading

18 November 2019