Lesson Interrupted? How to Intercept Interference and Keep the Ball Rolling

Published Post author

How do I stop parents from piping in and giving additional instructions to their children during the lesson?

Nowadays, many music teachers face this problem as we are encouraging, if not requiring, the parents of our students to be present at lessons. How to get parents to stop distracting their children with extra instructions and allow us to get on with our job?

First of all it’s important to remember that this isn’t about us or our authority. It isn’t a wrestling match to see who runs things. We may sometimes see such interruptions as disrespect for us or for the process. It isn’t. And even if it is, we gain nothing by interpreting it that way. As soon as we allow our egos to intervene, we are no longer seeing the situation clearly and can make a mistake, to the detriment of our students.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of the parent. Who has not had the following scenario at a lesson?

  1.  You ask Johnny a really difficult question like, “Where is the A string?”
  2.  He looks at you blankly.
  3.  Mother gets frustrated and jumps in with both feet.

This is completely understandable. Parents go to a lot of trouble to get lessons for their children. They don’t want to waste time or money, especially when they get from us so little of the former and give us so much of the latter. So they break in. It can be very frustrating to be a parent, to sit and watch your child struggle with something you know he knows or do something badly you know he usually does very well. After all, their child has only so many minutes with us a week and parents want to make the most of them. One thing none of us should ever forget is that it’s hard to be a parent – and there’s no training for it. Your students’ parents need your help and your understanding.

So first it’s important to remember a few basic points:

1. You are giving a service for which you are being paid.
2. You have to give customers what they want. The problem is that they often don’t know what they want and you have to help them realize what that is or change their minds if they have the wrong idea (see point 4).
3. You can’t teach effectively if you are worried about your own position or authority. Teaching is something you do with someone, not to them.
4. Teaching is essentially a sales job. We have to find a way to convince our customers to do things our way in a way that makes them think it’s their idea or in their best interests.
5. If you don’t succeed in getting them to do what you think is necessary, then go back to the first two points.
6. Contrary to what you might think from their behavior, almost all parents are there because they want you to teach their children and, by extension, them. They want their children to look good in your eyes and so try to help.
7. Even if point 6 is not true – that the parents really are evil and trying to undermine you – you still have to think that point 6 is the case and act accordingly. Sometimes truly unmanageable parents can be turned into the best behaved ones just because the teacher treats them like they are. People will live up to your worst expectations if you have them.
8. Let’s say that you just can’t bring yourself to assign good motives to some parents’ behavior. What are you going to do – make your student pay because his parents are so awful?

I’ll admit that I once had a mother I just couldn’t shut up. This mother was almost pathologically nervous and jumpy. As a result of her constant interruptions, her eight year old would talk back to her quite rudely during the lesson, not that I could blame her. It was an odd situation because normally parents will always allow me an opportunity, an “in,” to talk to them. She didn’t. So finally what I did say was this – and to the little girl, not the mother, under the guise of reproving the child for her manners: Continue reading

16 October 2018

Turning Your Perfectionist Student into a Perfect One: or How to Handle the Perfect Storm

Published Post author

“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

“Why Does My Teacher Get So Frustrated?” Letter to a Perplexed Student

Published Post author

I think teachers can all admit that circumstances may arise in our professional lives that would send the most forbearing and saintly of souls over the edge and down into the black pit of frustration. When I saw the above question on my blog stats, which must have troubled a student enough to pose it to the World Wide Web, I realized that many students may not understand how or why this can happen. His search engine sent him to one of my blog posts but, as I usually write articles about how teachers can avoid frustration and stay happy in their work, I don’t know which of my posts could have directly answered his question. I’ll try to answer it now. 

Dear Violin (Oboe, Double Bass, Marimba, Tuba, Whatever) Student,

Yours is indeed an excellent question. Indeed it’s one I often ask myself: why indeed do we teachers get so frustrated?

I’ll let you in on a little secret – I hope you’re sitting down because this is going to blow you away…

Teachers are human beings, too – not, as most students seem to think, unfeeling torture machines put on the face of this earth with the sole mission to annoy you.

Yes, teachers have hopes. aspirations, emotions, hobbies and a life outside their studios, believe it or not. I know how shocked some of my students are when they run into me at the grocery store, see my thriving geraniums when they come to my home, or find out I can make brownies. And, I must confess, I felt the same way about my teachers when I was young. Therefore you should know that we feel all the same emotions you do – and that includes frustration.

I think you know frustration: it’s that feeling you have when you are trying to tell someone about something important to you and that person doesn’t listen or give any consideration to you or to what you’re saying. Remember how you feel then? In fact, frustration is defined as “the feeling of being upset or annoyed as a result of being unable to change or achieve something.” *

I know this is hard to believe but we teachers were also students once, too. And not necessarily perfect ones either (we probably don’t want you to know this as we would like to forget it ourselves – and some of us succeed). Therefore, we know what it means to waste time and opportunities and how, in some hidden away part of our souls, we wish we hadn’t.

So when we see a student has potential (and all students do) and is perhaps making the same mistakes we did or is inventing some of his own, we get frustrated. We know how happy we are that we can play our instruments, and we want you to be happy, too.

And that’s really the root cause of all our teacherly frustrations. You see, we want you to be happy. And happiness comes from doing something well. We know what it takes to do something well. We understand the trials, tribulations and, yes, the frustrations of music study, but we know how happy and fulfilled it makes us feel and we, generous souls that we are, want you to feel the same way.

However, your teacher needs your help. When you don’t cooperate, she’s frustrated and thus miserable. Do you want her to be unhappy? When you put obstacles in her path by forgetting your music, your music stand and sometimes even your instrument, she may start frothing at the mouth. Do you want this responsibility? When you don’t care about all the effort she makes to write in bowings and fingerings and you ignore them, can you blame her for getting upset and gnashing her teeth? When you give ridiculous excuses for not practicing like, “It was raining” or “I had too much homework” or “My friends came over to play” or, worst of all, “My soccer coach called extra practice sessions,” can you really blame her for tearing her hair out? When in a group or orchestra practice, you’re late, have brought the wrong music, poke your neighbor with your bow or other instrumental accessory, talk when you shouldn’t or inform the conductor that you don’t agree with her interpretation of the piece in question, can you blame her for having the sudden desire to change her name and move to an unspecified and uncharted desert island somewhere, anywhere, in the Pacific Ocean? When you make the same mistake over and over because you haven’t practiced that passage the way your teacher has told you (also many times), can you blame her for wanting to throw your instrument out the third story window of your conservatory or music school (I know a teacher who actually did this, poor fellow)? When your teacher has told you the same thing at least 5,000 times and she knows you aren’t listening, can you blame her for looking at you with an desperate gleam in her eye when you innocently ask why she didn’t tell you that before? When you miss recitals, which have taken months to prepare for, because your presence was vital in an impromptu tennis tournament or last-day-of-school party organized at the last minute, can you blame her for wishing she hadn’t given up her career on an automotive assembly line to teach you? Continue reading

24 August 2018