Of Warmth and Websites

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Today’s teachers often create their own web sites to attract students. A teacher remarked recently on a forum that she was having trouble getting a full class. So I went to have a look at her website on which she gave a list of the characteristics parents should have as well as what would be expected of parents and students in order to learn and play the instrument successfully. You might think this is reasonable. But the effect this had was to give students and their parents reasons NOT to study with her. The first requirement (parental musical experience) was off-putting enough. Some of her other requirements had the same deterring effect: obligatory daily practice and very few other outside activities, for example. If I were a qualified and dedicated prospective parent, I would fear that I lacked the commitment and other qualities to match those high expectations. In other words, her site was not warm and welcoming, but scary and off-putting. If you met all the requirements, you could consider calling her. It’s no wonder that very few did. She came off as interested in teaching the violin, not the student. She seemed interested in success, not the student. She even posted a video of her possibly most advanced student playing a difficult concerto, something that could discourage beginners or less advanced players of the same age as that student.

Contrast this with the website of another teacher who teaches beginners up through advanced students, some of whom she has gotten into the better college and conservatory programs in the USA. Many of these former students still come back to her for lessons anyway. You wouldn’t know it from her website which is brilliant in terms of warm and welcoming. She gives very few parental requirements other than that they attend the lessons and take notes (for the young ones) and that practicing should be done every day but she would accept five days a week. There is a lovely gallery of pictures of her smiling, surrounded by happy students of all ages. There are no videos or mention of her advanced students who, other than the ones she brings up herself, come to her by word of mouth – she is trying to attract beginners. You take one look at this website and grab your telephone. Instead of running the other way, you would LOVE to have lessons with this warm and inviting individual who is giving you every reason to want to study with her – whatever she may teach. She makes having lessons with her sound easy and relaxed. She seems approachable, warm and accepting to students of every kind and age. No prerequisites other than what any parent or older student is easily capable of. However, if you think she is not a demanding and exacting teacher, you are wrong. But her students adore her and the occasional student who is mired in the practicing doldrums will continue to practice anyway just to avoid disappointing her.

She also knows something any good salesman knows: you have to get people in the door first so you have the chance to allay their doubts and convince them of the value of your service in person. What if the parents want little or no involvment in their children’s music education? If you scare them off with your website, you will never be able to convince them to change their minds. People can change and it’s up to you to make them want to, not issue ultimata.

The same goes for terms and conditions. One experienced, successful and business-like teacher Continue reading

2 August 2017

Mind, Body and Don’t Forget Soul

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“I would love ideas about how to take an advanced player who plays “mechanically” and get her to “feel” the music a bit more?  I should add that she does tons of dynamics and plays very aggressively. It just doesn’t come off in a natural, organic way. It feels canned.”

This was a great question on a web site and, I fear, is a very common problem. Instead of thinking how to get students to play expressively, I often find I first have to deal with what blocks them from doing it.

For me, the point of playing music is to live where you don’t. In my way of seeing things, a human being has three components: physical, mental and emotional. Very few activities I can think of require us to use all three of these components to the highest level at the same time. Music does. Playing music expressively makes us feel like whole human beings and is a wonderful experience – one reason why some students are willing to practice many hours a day. Most of us tend to identify with one aspect more than the other two. The teachers therefore have to modify their approach according to where their students tend to spend most of their time.  My explanations to children who live in their intellect, for example, are often quite different from those to students who live primarily in their bodies (some of my students are serious dancers or athletes).

The student mentioned above has no doubt thought out everything – dynamics, phrasing, fingering, bowing, etc. But she just can’t let herself live in the other parts of herself. You can hear her thinking when she plays and that is what is bothering her teacher. Students who are stuck in their heads (which society generally praises, values and promotes), are not aware that there is more to themselves than what is going on in their heads or their bodies.

How to approach students who may even be afraid of what they can’t see or think through?  You talk to them. They need explanations, intellectual ones. You can give all kinds of musical examples to students like this but it will mean nothing to them unless you try to explain the mystery that is music and help them have an intellectual insight. This way you give them an approach they can understand to help them accede to the other aspects of themselves.

The way we teach music is often just like sending a child to house of worship, teaching him to pray without ever telling him there is a God – if she has “talent” she’ll figure it out on her own! Obviously, those who give their children a religious education, talk about God from the beginning of their children’s lives. Why should we not talk about the spiritual aspects of making music when needed? I often tell my students that playing music is another form of prayer or meditation, a manipulation of subtle energy. Music is about transcendence, trusting our minds and bodies to do the job they have been trained for so we can free our spirits to express something more. It is not thinking only about ourselves or how we are going to put our definitive stamp on the music. So far, I fear that the student mentioned above thinks she is just the sum of her body and her mind.

There are other factors that sometimes block students from expressing themselves musically.  Here is a list of a few of them: Continue reading

12 July 2017

Giving Up

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“How do you cope with ending lessons with a student who you so desperately want to help? I’m not reaching this student and it’s affecting me negatively at this point.”

Another excellent question from an anguished teacher. My answer? I wouldn’t give up. In fact, I never give up no matter how provoked. Before you think I’m preaching from a high horse, know that I am speaking from painful experience.

Once, at the beginning of my career, I had two students who were driving me crazy. I must have given the same lesson twenty times to each of these children. Neither had any help at all from their parents. I thought that the parents were wasting their money and when I informed them that their children weren’t getting anywhere, they appreciated my honesty and stopped the lessons. No teacher or parent has ever told me I did the wrong thing.

Oh wait, there is one: me. On reflection, I later realized that I had my priorities all wrong. What were they?

  1. My comfort. As you may have noticed above, I said they were driving me crazy so I certainly wasn’t thinking about my students.
  2. That the parents weren’t getting their money’s worth. Who am I to decide that?

This brings us to the problem of what is the teacher’s responsibility? To whom does the teacher owe allegiance and best efforts? Whom should the teacher be worrying about? What is a teacher’s bottom line?

I have come to the conclusion that my responsibility is to the student and only the student. I have now and have had my fair share of unhelpful, indifferent and even obstructing parents, parents who don’t/won’t listen or take my advice but I don’t give up. While I realize you can’t save children from their parents, you can certainly make things a little easier by having them know that at least one adult in their lives is on their side. How do you do this? You teach them no matter what. No matter if they have practiced badly or have been given the wrong information, no matter if their behavior is less than perfect, you persist. Why? Two reasons: Continue reading

27 June 2017