Recently I got a message from two gentlemen in an anglophone country, asking me (I’m in Italy) if I could help them find a violin teacher. They are beginners and couldn’t find anyone in a large metropolitan city to teach them as no one there will accept adult beginners, only children. This breaks my heart. So many people never had the chance to play music when they were little (according to a statistic I read somewhere, 20% of children study music and 70% of adults wish they had) and they would like to start now. I have also heard several teachers talk about how they dislike teaching adults for various reasons which also saddens me. I have had many adult beginners and I love them. It takes a lot of humility and desire to put yourself literally in the hands of a teacher who is going to have to treat you, physically anyway, like a four-year-old. And this strong desire to learn a musical instrument should be respected.
Why? They could learn woodworking or any other craft, so why a musical instrument, especially one as difficult as the violin? A quote I read recently comes to mind:
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
― Miles Davis
What on earth did he mean by this? I suspect that most musicians, professional or not, would understand what this means. But let’s start at the beginning.
The reasons for playing a musical instrument are too numerous to list, but here are a few:
1. It makes you smarter
2. It’s fun
3. It teaches you cooperation and to listen to others more than to yourself
4. It teaches you to listen to yourself
5. It teaches you to find yourself, or better, find out what and who your self is so you can sound like it
In previous posts I have discussed the various merits of learning music and why we should make, or should I say, strongly encourage our children to practice. What I have never discussed until now are reasons 4 and 5 – that learning to play an instrument teaches you to listen to yourself. It sounds quite banal until you try to define what “yourself” is. And there’s the rub. What in heaven’s name did Miles Davis mean in the quote above?
There are two phases to his statement: One is that until you have the technique and experience necessary, you cannot possibly express yourself. A lot of people stop right there.
The second is to ask yourself what is “yourself?” Even with all the technical and musical mastery possible, you can still sound like a hack if you are not expressing “yourself.” Each one of us has to discover this “self” for himself, but a teacher’s role in this process is important.
Experience has taught me that when I take on a student, any student, I must NEVER confuse personality with what I call character. The personality is the person we show to the world – outgoing and gregarious, timid and reserved, shy, stingy, mean, selfish, generous, whatever. Contrary to what many parents think when they bring me their children, this personality has NOTHING to do with what their children are capable of expressing in music. I have been amused to watch some of my parents realize that they don’t know their own children as well as they thought. It’s also wonderful to see a child surprised to discover there’s a lot more to herself than her everyday personality. So many seemingly timid children learn to whack out great big sounds, and so many children who speak in monotones become extraordinarily expressive musically that I have found that what we see is surprisingly often not what we actually get.
This is a true paradox for any musician. The more he thinks about the music (instead of himself) and expresses his self through the music, the less anyone knows about him. The less his personality rules, the more we know about the music and the less about him. This is a very convincing argument that I use with some of my adolescent students who are afraid to express themselves for fear of giving themselves away or revealing something about their everyday selves. I show them that this fear they exhibit really does give them away, but that completely involving themselves in the music and doing what’s good for the music says everything about the music and nothing about them, even though people may compliment them on how expressive and musical they are. To prove this point I challenge them, or anyone, to listen to recordings of any professional violinist and tell me what his or her personality is like. Some musicians are extremely reclusive, others hail fellow-well-met types, but we can’t tell by their playing. We can’t even tell if they are young or old, fat or thin, tired or energized, male or female by just listening to their playing.
This rather round-aboutly brings me to my point. I’m here to help the student find the self he can listen to so he can sound like himself. To find his own character, to give it a word, so he can express what we cannot express with words. To help a student understand that his personality is not what he really is and that he is capable of so much more. To help him get his everyday personality out of the way so he can get to the self that can express something important to himself and to others. Playing a musical instrument is a way for people to communicate with themselves, their more profound selves and you know what? – they like it, once they get used to it. Therefore it’s a shame to deny adults, who are asking us for help, the chance to find their own selves to communicate with. And playing music is a real shortcut to the self.
So for those of you out there who don’t want to teach adults, please reconsider. They are not harder to teach, no matter what you may think, and are usually a lot more motivated than their younger colleagues. They need the chance to play. They will probably never play Paganini but so what? I have had various students who started as adults play Vivaldi violin concertos and even the ones who don’t get that far can still derive enormous satisfaction from learning to pull out a beautiful sound from their instruments. They are also a wonderful example for our young students at group lessons when they realize “these guys practice willingly!”
I hold my adult students to the same standards as my younger ones: they must program one lesson a week and make the same financial arrangements as my other students. I do not insist they make a certain amount of progress – an adult has many responsibilities and can’t always find time to practice, but they can make the commitment to come to a weekly lesson and pay their tuition on time, which tends to guarantee that they practice. I use the same teaching system with everyone, changing the way I talk to them and my vocabulary according to the age and comprehension level of the student, and so far it has worked very nicely. A student is a student as far as I am concerned and age doesn’t matter. A soul is a soul and is ageless, no matter how old the packaging is. I aim to teach souls who are in search of expression and help people give birth to “themselves.” And I feel privileged to be able to do this, no matter what the physical age of the student. Remember, adults are people, too!
Post Author: Eloise Hellyer