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 what the usual way of doing things.

What happened? Continue reading

10 January 2019

Difficult Student? Remember: You’re A Human Being First, A Teacher Second

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On a teaching site recently, I saw a post by a worried young instrumental teacher in a remote area who asked for help with her difficulties in teaching a neurologically atypical teenager who was also, for other reasons, an extremely difficult student. One experienced teacher gave her some excellent advice, telling her that this situation may be beyond her scope but still gave some excellent pointers on how to deal with it.

In closing however, he added the following:

“Your not being able to teach her is not your or her fault.” And “Not all teachers can teach all students and not all students can learn from all teachers.”

The first statement is downright discouraging – the absolute assumption that she is going to fail. The second is a truism that I have seen all over the place in various forms and gives us the excuse to shrug our shoulders and give up when faced with difficult and recalcitrant students.

What did the advice giver mean by ‘not be able to teach’ someone? Apparently when a teacher finds herself unable to teach what she wants to or what she thinks the student ought to learn. However, I have never seen a teaching situation where the student didn’t learn something, either positive or negative. And even the most difficult students also learn from any teacher. Whatever is being taught or learned may be completely different from  whatever lesson plan the teacher had in mind, but may be exactly what the student needs. In situations like this, there is no success or failure in the usual sense, but there is teaching and learning on both parts. The teacher learns a whole lot about teaching unusual students and the student may learn whatever he needs to, no matter how little that may seem to be – if you’re paying attention and notice it. If the teacher is thinking in terms of succeeding or failing, whether or not she is able to teach that student, she is thinking of herself and not what she is doing, thinking about what she wants to achieve and not necessarily what the student needs.

What is failure, or not being able to teach someone anyway? “I, a violin teacher, am going to teach you the violin. If you don’t learn it the way I want you to or think you should, if you don’t overcome your problems (behavioral or otherwise), then I have failed.” Right?

Wrong. For me, it’s in the eyes of the beholder. Success and failure are not absolutes. There are lots of shades of gray. You can make up your own definition of success and but then that means you have to decide who is succeeding – or not. Also, do you measure your success or the student’s? How do you define your success – by how many pieces the student learns, if they learn anything at all (according to you)? Is teaching about you or the student? Is there ever really any “not being able to teach a student?”

If you feel you are out of your depth, of course it’s best to refer the student to another teacher. If you’re a physics teacher, it’s probably better not to teach history. If you’re a horn player, you probably shouldn’t teach the double bass. In this case, the teacher was trying to teach a child with seriously difficult to handle issues that were beyond what any didactics course could have prepared her for. The responder gave excellent advice but at the end tacked on the above phrases to console the teacher when (according to him) she would fail, i.e., would not able to teach this child: a discouraging and very limited and limiting attitude to have about teaching.

If someone is referred to you and you can’t handle the situation as effectively as you would like, then by all means send your student to someone with more experience or qualifications (I prefer the ones with experience). But what if you’re the only teacher in the area as above advice-asking teacher?

Here’s what I would advise a teacher facing a difficult situation. Continue reading

20 December 2018

How to Pick a Private Music Teacher for Your Child

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Parents of prospective music students often worry about how to pick an instrument and a teacher for their child. My immediate and instinctive answer to one parent who asked my opinion was, “Find a teacher you like and not care about what instrument she teaches. The teacher is more important than the instrument.” Heresy, you say. The commonly accepted way is for the parent, the student or the parent and student together to decide on an instrument and then go hunting for a teacher.

If you live in an enormous city where there are lots and lots of teachers of every ilk and instrument and you have no problems with money, time and transportation, then this is a good possibility. If, however, you live in a smaller center or have limited time and transportation at your disposal, then perhaps you had better think again.

You see, the real question is if you want someone to tell your child how to play an instrument or if you want someone to teach him. These are really two different things. You can divide teachers into two groups: the information givers and the midwives.

The Information Giver: There are lots of them around. They will tell you what they think you need to know and how to do it – and if you don’t or can’t do it, then so much the worse for you. Appearances can be deceiving as they often get spectacular results when they succeed – or rather when their students do. But take a look at how many students leave such a teacher’s studio, either having been sent away or leaving on their own because they and/or their parents feel they can’t live up to the teacher’s expectations. This kind of teacher will often have an excellent reputation. But, you have to ask yourself, reputation for what? If it’s for being “precise” and not accepting anything other than her idea of excellence, look out.

It all boils down to if you want someone who is interested in what she can do for your child or if you want someone who is interested in getting results. If the latter is your main interest, then the Information Giver may be perfect for you, but ask yourself if she is perfect for your child before you embark on the project of keeping this teacher happy. Because that’s what you will be doing. You will be spending a lot of your time and money trying to satisfy her. Her expectations are the center of her universe. She thinks that the music is all important, that the method or even the instrument and excellence in playing it are of the utmost consideration. But here the student comes last. How do I know this? I have had teachers like this, have had students who come to me from teachers like this, and have interviewed famous musicians who have had teachers like this who caused them great suffering.

The Midwife: This is a person who is interested in helping a child realize something important about and for himself. She is interested in helping a child learn to think and approach a problem. She wants your child to love music and playing it, but not at the expense of his psyche. Her bottom line is the well-being of your child, not her own. This means that she may put up with students no one else would. She may tolerate lack of practice and other common problems. Why? Because she knows that if she perseveres with her more difficult students, some of them will perk up and learn something important for them. She knows that she is giving more than instrumental lessons – she is giving life lessons. She just uses an instrument to do it.

Now I have made some gross generalizations here, and there are many subcategories that many teachers fall into and some even between the cracks. But these are the two essential categories to look out for. You want to know what is your prospective teacher’s mission statement, her mission in life. How can you know this? Ask her. Some teachers are surprisingly forthcoming about their goals and have no qualms about stating them.

There is another and better way, however. Continue reading

5 November 2018