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.¹
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Your feeling passionate about your instrument and music.
- Your desire that your students feel passionate about it, too.
- 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