The Paranoia of Progress

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“How do I help the mother of one of my students manage her anxieties about her child’s rate of progress?”

Another excellent and thought provoking question on a private music teaching site.

Often parents identify themselves too much with their children. “If my child is a success, that means I’m a good parent and if my child is not a success, well………” This causes anxiety. So the problem can be broken down into two aspects:.

1. Parent is comparing her child to other students. This is often fatal to the learning process. Kids get enough of that in school with everyone comparing grades and test results. Music lessons are about the only area where there is no competition (formal) or comparison. And it should stay that way – a safe haven to learn safely.  But if students and parents are making comparisons, it’s often because of the second problem:

2. Teacher is consciously or unconsciously making comparisons herself. Here I am not talking about ambitious teachers who prepare their students for a constant round of competitions. I mean normal teachers who can easily fall into the trap of: “this one is better than that one, has more talent, is more in tune, holds his instrument better, etc.” We are human beings, too, after all. However, this is a dangerous, ineffective, harmful and counterproductive habit. One of the best pieces of advice I could give any teacher is never compare your students. Why? They will know it if you do and what possible good could be achieved?  Children are very sensitive. If you compare your students to each other, then they and their parents will, too, so we have to be on guard about our own thoughts.

But there is a way to truncate this whole thing and resolve the problem of the anxious mom: Continue reading

7 May 2018

Tinker, Tailor, Teacher, Spy…

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The beauty of private teaching is that you, the teacher, can be anything you want to be. We are all actors and can choose our roles. If you want to be an autocrat, go right ahead – axing your students or their parents when they don’t live up to your expectations. You can be a babysitter, wearily dragging along your students with uncooperative parents, just waiting for the half hour to be over. You can be the frustrated virtuoso who would rather be playing but has to teach to survive, and take out those frustrations on your less than perfect students. You can be your students’ best buddy, cultivating, above all, a wonderful and loving relationship with your students and to heck with any kind of discipline.

Or, like any good actor, you can be all things to all people. The bad actor is the one who can only play one role. That’s also a good description of a bad teacher, in my opinion. Yes, sometimes we have to be autocratic when the situation calls for it, i.e., when the student needs it, not when we need to do it; when the student needs to be waked up, not when we are thinking of our own comfort. Yes, we may have to be a confidante when students need this due to some trauma in their lives, not because we want or need them to love us. Yes, we may be a frustrated virtuoso, but we realize that true immortality lies in teaching so our frustrations are left outside the studio door – but we use our fabulous technique to our students’ advantage and not our own (i.e., showing off when it’s didactically necessary).

I am particularly disturbed by a recent thread on a music teaching forum where a young teacher wanted some ideas on how to deal with two hard-to-handle young students whose parents don’t cooperate. Many teachers gave great ideas, some practical and others just plain compassionate. But other ideas offered were simply, “You’re not a babysitter so get rid of them.”

Well, you’re only a babysitter if you want to be – or a dictator or any other role, for that matter. Show me another profession, however, where the professional tells his clients/patients, “Either do as I say or out you go!” Rarely would a doctor, lawyer, or dentist do such a thing. Actually, my grandfather, who was a dentist, did in his youth throw someone out of his studio. He had reason to bitterly regret this, learned to control his really pretty awful temper and became highly respected in his profession. He learned an important lesson: we are in a service profession. Meaning we serve, not we get served. Continue reading

26 March 2018

To Scale and Etude. Or Not.

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A recent question on a music teacher’s forum asked how to motivate two middle school students who won’t practice well their assigned scales and etudes even though the teacher is happy with how their pieces are progressing. This is a rather more complex issue than you might think.

First of all, I have interviewed an awful lot of teachers and Famous Musicians and many seem to be divided into two camps:

  1. I did scales and etudes and by God you will, too.
  2. They traumatized me with scales and etudes and I won’t inflict that on anyone.

I had both kinds of these teachers myself. Neither of these philosophies works well and here’s why.

Philosophy 1.

Teacher being right and student being wrong is not a good way to get through to your students. The question here seems to be if the student is going to do what you say or not. Expecting obedience is a parent’s job. Yours is to help your students get the best possible result. If that means forgoing a scale or two, especially if their pieces are going well, no one is going to die. There will be plenty of time for scales and etudes when they are old enough to appreciate their value. Middle school students just don’t/can’t/won’t and perhaps shouldn’t. They don’t care how their smart phones work – they just want to use them. They can learn about code when they get older.

There is also something else to consider – do you realize how many things they have to do in the course of their schooling that they don’t want to do? I include even getting up too early in the morning when many studies show that adolescents do better when they start school at 9am or even later. Here in Italy, and I am told also in the USA and other countries, these kids are so burdened with homework and outside activities (many already aimed at getting them into a good college) that having to face yet another thing they don’t want to do is just the last straw. And I can’t blame them. So the “Procrustean Bed” school of teaching (one size must fit all, whether you have to stretch them or trim their legs a little) is guaranteed to fail for most of your students who simply can’t bring themselves to practice what they don’t want to.

“Ah,” you say, “but some students willingly practice what I give them to do, so these others are just undisciplined.” Yes, there are some perfect students out there. Somewhere. But the world is also divided in another more-than-one-camp. There are people (I am not one of them but I have lived with some of them and have had lots of students like this) who just cannot do something they don’t like or don’t feel like doing. It’s useless to argue, plead, bargain, bribe (which may work for a while), threaten, whatever. It’s simply physically impossible for them. It isn’t a question of discipline. Plus, can we really expect middle school students to have the discipline we have now (and probably didn’t have at their age either)?

Philosophy 2

This consists of taking every single beautiful piece that your student will learn and making a study out of it. Yuck. This was an important principle of the method I use when I started using it (back in the Middle Ages). I found out fairly quickly that this didn’t work very well for my students when they got to more advanced pieces. Why? Because, not having prepared for, say, the Bach Double’s difficulties with judicious use of etudes and scales, the piece was too difficult for them and remained so in their minds even when this was no longer so. My teacher (the old school type who had studied with Sevcik but never assigned me any of his studies) did this to me with my first concerto. I always avoid listening to that beautiful piece – too much baggage. Continue reading

18 February 2018