The Personality Prison

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“Well, that’s his personality, so what can you do?”

This was the end of a recent conversation I had with another violin teacher about a student we share (he’s in a music program in her high school) whose bow arm I am trying to loosen up, a student who tenses up needlessly whenever he thinks something might be difficult, whether it is or not.

What was my answer to this question? First of all it wasn’t a real question she posed –  it was a rhetorical question, meaning that she didn’t expect an answer: it’s a fact and that’s that. So my response was to mutter some nicety and hang up as quickly as possible.


She would be perfectly happy to leave this student in the prison of his personality.

I, however, am not. Here is what I would have also told her if I had thought for one nanosecond that she would have listened……

What Personality Is and What You Do With It

Notice I didn’t say what it does with you.

Reflect for a moment on the original meaning of the word “person” which comes to us through Latin, possibly from Etruscan: it meant “actor’s mask.” Personality is what activates this mask. Therefore, personality is a tool we use to deal with the everyday world. It’s what we present to the world. It’s what likes and dislikes things. It’s what exhibits everyday emotion. It is the most superficial part of us that is most apparent but it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, confused with our character, soul, animus, true nature, etc., which is what manifests art. The problem is that we tend to identify with our personality and think anything that it manifests is our “real” selves. Why? Because it makes the most noise and therefore gets the most attention. But consider this example: if you look at the sea, you may see great crashing waves on the surface – but it can be very calm below. Which one of these is the real sea? Where do all marine creatures live? What you see, therefore, is not necessarily what is. What is most obvious and makes the most noise can be so much smoke in your eyes, obscuring another reality. Look at personality as the great crashing waves which is what gets our attention and character being the deep calm underneath (where all the fascinating creatures live) which is what uses the personality, not vice versa, to transmit art.

Sometimes personality can be very commanding and therein lies the problem: it’s extremely useful for a musician to have a strong personality in order to get up and perform in public, just as it is useful to a teacher. In a way, it’s a sort of paradox – the very quality that is extremely useful to us to play and to teach is often the very quality that can get in the way of these activities – or having a relaxed bow arm in the case of my student. How to get past this? Continue reading

5 December 2017

Is Integrity All You Need?

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Integrity: another excellent quality for a teacher to have.

“Sure,” you say. But what does integrity really mean?

According to a very interesting book by Barbara Killinger on this subject, “Integrity is a personal choice, an uncompromising and predictably consistent commitment to honor moral, ethical, spiritual and artistic values and principles .” *

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But wait – shouldn’t we ask ourselves what those values and principles are? Lots of fine, upstanding people consider themselves to have integrity and we cheer them on. But what about all the mass murderers, cult leaders and others who have done great harm to humanity – were they not holding themselves to their own moral and ethical principles? Were they not absolutely consistent?

Now we are talking about teaching here, not about being faithful to one’s spouse or murdering someone for religious or other idealistic reasons. But being true to our moral and ethical principles and standards can often do a lot of damage if we don’t carefully consider what they are.

Here, for example, is the substance of a post I once saw on a music teaching forum where a violin teacher who teaches beginners on up talks about his program and his integrity…

He had decided he wanted a program of excellence so his students and their parents would need to follow the whole program consistently without fail. They would have to practice and listen every day, and come to group lessons as well as additional lessons outside of their regularly scheduled lessons if this teacher retained it necessary. If they complied, he promised he’d move heaven and earth for them. If, however, the students fell short on any of these requirements, he’d mandate that they follow corrective measures to restore what he considered was lacking. Failing to do so would result in everyone involved trying to find a way to “celebrate” the student in question leaving the program as the student and her family weren’t meeting the teacher halfway while he was moving heaven and earth to help them. His felt it would be a compromise of his integrity to take the student’s money, and a waste of his own time and energy, to not deliver his product of excellence that he had decided was important to him.

Let’s look at this closely. When you read this, you might say, “My, he is certainly true to his principles and ethics!” Yes, and he even uses the word “integrity” absolutely correctly. He is true to his values and no one is going to divert him from his chosen path.

A person of integrity? Absolutely, according to the above definition.

A person who is expert in certain didactic methods? Undoubtedly.

A good teacher? In my opinion, no. Here’s why: Continue reading

14 November 2017

The Care and Feeding of Prodigies

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Sooner or later almost every teacher gets a super talented student. While a teacher may initially get very excited about such a student, certain difficulties may soon reveal themselves. A prodigy can have one mental maturity level, another and different emotional maturity level all packaged in the body of a small child (a different physical maturity level). You may have to deal with a child who is mentally ten years old, emotionally six and physically four, for example, who may be capable of great things if you can keep all the above in mind and also deal with his frequently strong character.

Teaching any child is is an enormous responsibility but a prodigy is often an even bigger challenge as you have to keep the child playing until his various aspects catch up to his talent, without giving that talent much importance. This requires an enormous amount of long vision and self control on the part of the teacher. The biggest favor you can do a talented child, is to give him a certain humility – that his talent is a gift and not to let his ego grab his talent and take credit for it. He must be praised for what he does, but not be lauded for his talents, i.e., his good fortune. It is like telling a child how wonderful he is because he has rich parents or because he is physically attractive. Your student will get lots of fuss from relatives, friends, and practically anyone who hears him play. He needs you to keep his feet firmly on the ground. His and his parents’ – it’s so easy for parents to get over-excited and ambitious when they become  aware that they may have a genius on their hands. Teachers can exert a lot of  influence here and must use it wisely.

Why? Because prodigies grow up. And then what? One example of poor prodigy management is that many of them quit when they become adults because they no longer feel special. I will never forget a super-talented young girl I once met who told me she was 16 when I asked her age. Her mother later told me that the girl was going to be 17 in two weeks. What normal teenager wouldn’t tell you that she would be 17 very soon, or indeed that she already was 17? To her, becoming an adult meant becoming a violinist just like everyone else – no longer a prodigy and no more fanfare. A child should want to grow up, not want to remain small so she will continue to feel special. A special child may have the potential to become a special adult if handled properly, but if the child gets the understanding from her teachers, parents or surroundings that she is special because she is talented and small, then there will be trouble sooner or later.

The great teacher Elaine Richey once said, “A child may be precocious at the age of five but no one Is precocious at the age of twenty-five.” Precocious or prodigious children are not stupid – they know they have something beyond normal. The trick is not to let them identify with their precocity which may well mean keeping them off YouTube and avoiding making a three ring circus out of them: “I played it (the Tschaikovsky concerto) when I was 14 – this makes me sad,” was the comment of one grown up violinist on seeing a YouTube video of a ten year old playing that concerto. Instead of being happy that she could play such a difficult concerto at the age of fourteen, which is quite a feat, she is now unhappy that she feels she has been one-upped by a ten year old. But when they are both fifty will anyone know the difference? Is there any guarantee that playing a difficult concerto at an early age produces a better musician as an adult? Continue reading

11 October 2017