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

A Good Bow Arm Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

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“What are your best methods and philosophies for helping kids learn to play expressively from the beginning? What does that mean to you?”

This question was posted on a music teachers site and got me thinking…. Most of my philosophy and my practice of it can be summed up in the following vignette:

During a lesson with a beginning student who has a very strong personality, I asked what she wanted to transmit when she plays: herself or what the music suggests? I then gave two demonstrations: the first how she looked when she played for me (and I hammed it up), asking her if I wasn’t transmitting that I was a willful child who was only thinking of myself (and don’t I look silly?). The second was how she ought to look and play, asking if she thought I was transmitting what was good for the music. Of course, she liked the second option much better and then proceeded to play the first line of one of the Twinkle variations very well indeed with a very nice sound – for the first time. She’s on the road! She is going to forget sometimes and her parents and I will have to remind her, but she has understood two Very Important Principles:

  1. You are always transmitting something when you play, whether you think you are or not.
  2. You have to decide what you want to transmit: yourself or the music.

And she is only four years old.

After many years of teaching, I never cease to be amazed at what you can expect from children – even the youngest ones. While this little girl is certainly very bright, I cannot say that she is musically precocious. She just needed to be told what music is all about in terms she could understand.

A child is always expressing himself from the very first time he puts the bow on the string. He is expressing himself within the limits of his technique and his awareness of what music is all about. These are both things a teacher can do something about from the beginning.


I wish I had a dollar for every colleague or recital observer who made the following comment: “Your students are so musical!!!” My answer to them is that it’s because my students have control of their bow arms and that they are, as a rule, not more or less talented than any other child. You can’t be expressive without technique. You also, in my opinion, cannot separate musical technique from instrumental technique. Continue reading

5 June 2017

“What if You Don’t Like the Parents?” Emotional Control

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“What if you don’t like the parents?”

This is a question asked on a teaching blog I read recently. The blogger (an experienced school teacher) replied that teachers are only human but generally succeed in separating the parent from the child.

I disagree with the second part of this answer and here’s why: it should never be necessary to separate the child from his parents because we must never allow ourselves when teaching to get emotionally involved in disliking anyone in the first place. This doesn’t make us any less human but it does make us a lot more professional.

This problem can be especially prevalent for private music teachers because of the close working relationship we must often have with the parents of our students, especially the younger ones. We see our students maybe a half an hour a week and their parents must help them practice at home. This means that we are teaching our students and their parents. Given that private music study is not part of compulsory education (unless an illuminated parent sees it that way) we must often convince the parents of the value of steady practice and listening, the importance of a decent and properly adjusted instrument, etc. Therefore a good relationship with the parents is of utmost importance. No separation here of student and parent here! School teachers have their students all day and have much less contact with the parents. Perhaps they can permit themselves to like or dislike a parent but we can’t also for the following reasons. Continue reading

28 April 2017