Monthly Archives: September 2018

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