Jumping the Gun…

“I’m a Suzuki teacher and have been teaching my own son for the last three months. He is so anxious to go ahead with his songs and goes so fast that I am afraid that his technique can’t keep up.. In fact, his technique is not great, and I wonder if allowing him to go at the pace at which he can learn notes is going to erode it. He’s moving way faster than I have my 4-5 yr old students learn because of these  circumstances. What to do?”

What to do, indeed. What happens when you get such a motivated, talented and powerful child?

Been there, done that! Circumstances (living in remote places) forced me to teach my own two children for many years before passing them on to other teachers so I can definitely identify with this young teacher’s/mother’s angst. I can also identify with her as I have had my fair share of precocious/prodigious/difficult students over my rather long career.

The beauty of having experience is you learn to have a very long view of things. Experience makes you realize that in the long run, some things that seem so important now may not be as important as you think in that particular moment. Why? Because your nose is so close the canvas, i.e., your student, that you can lose sight of the big picture and get bogged down in details, to the detriment of your students.

So my answer is as follows:

You have a very talented, if not gifted child. You can blame it on DNA, Suzuki, hearing you teach, whatever, but the fact is that he obviously loves the violin and wants to go on. Your problem is, like with most gifted/precocious kids, his intellectual age is one, his emotional age is another and his physical age yet another. You also have a child with a very strong personality which he will no doubt find useful in life but doesn’t make it any easier at the moment for you, his teacher/parent.

What to do? The choices are several but may not get the results you want – or at least want in this moment.

  1. You can insist on perfect technique and bore him to death (and he will stop cooperating),
  2. You can let him go ahead as he pleases,
  3. You can find some kind of compromise.

The first two choices can cause anguish (Oh my, oh my, am I doing the right thing???) for you as teacher and/or a mother. So let’s talk about compromise. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean finding a compromise with your student – with some young children that just isn’t possible. It means making one with yourself. So, first of all, decide if you are going to do

  1. What is best for the child in that moment and in the long run,
  2. What is best for your teaching method,
  3. Or what is best for the violin.

If you pick one of the second two, then you’re not making a compromise. The compromise comes when you alter your teaching techniques and even principles to fit the student you have in front of you. Most students don’t send us into this territory, but get a highly motivated, talented, precocious, strong-willed young child and there you are – in the forest with no compass and grizzly bears everywhere. The only choice is not to panic and adjust yourself, your teaching and your attitudes to the circumstances – or risk losing one for music.

I once had a super precocious two and a half year old student who had taught himself to read at that age.  He was also extremely strong-willed and manipulative (yes, even at 2 years old). While I insisted on class discipline and good manners, I had no choice but to let him go ahead with his pieces as he pleased, i.e., as soon as he learned one song to his satisfaction, notwithstanding his atrocious technique (he was also left handed) until he was about seven.  They say seven is the age of reason and they’re right. At that point his various ages mostly caught up with him and I could reason with him, so we went back and fixed his technique. Yes, we spent a year doing it, but better lose a year than a student lose interest and quit. Yes, it was painful for me to teach this way, but causing this boy to quit by boring him to death was not an option.

My older daughter was like this: she could hold the violin or bow any old way she wanted and still get results that pleased her. She, too, was very talented. It took me ages to get her to do certain things right. It isn’t that she didn’t obey, but that as things went well for her anyway (so she thought), proper technique slipped – she just forgot. She is now a fine violinist, perfect technique and has an MM in violin performance. The trick with her, also another strong personality, was to wait until she had enough years on the instrument so her level of consciousness was raised enough that she could hear that when she did do things with the proper technique, it sounded better. While this is possible even with four year olds, it’s not easy as everything is still so physically difficult for them and they don’t yet have high aspirations for their sound and phrasing. They’re mostly just happy to get the notes out: it’s still an intellectual exercise for them. When they’re older, they have mastered a fair amount of technique, hopefully acquired a bit of musical taste, consciously understand the difference between playing notes and making music, they then can be brought to awareness of where their technique is lacking so they can fix it. This may take a long time, so you must grit your teeth and tolerate certain technical lapses that you wouldn’t from other easier to handle students. The long view, remember?

I had another highly precocious student whom I couldn’t get to bend his thumb on the bow. According to him things went well anyway. In desperation I sent him to study also with a famous virtuoso (with enormous personality and charisma) who took ONE SOLID YEAR to
convince this kid to bend his thumb. Where is this child now? He is the concertmaster and soloist in a German orchestra, Herr Professor in the university (in his early thirties) and is becoming a conductor. So although it certainly would have been better if he had done so from the start, it really wasn’t so important in the long run if he bent his thumb at 4 years of age or at 9. The point is that we got through to him eventually and his career certainly didn’t suffer. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to instill proper technique in our students (I never gave up on that thumb until I had to finally call in “The Marines.”), but we must realize that we can’t always have things the way we want them, how we were taught to have them in didactics class, how they just generally ought to be and when we think it’s appropriate.

With highly talented and motivated students, all bets are often off and you have to really dance with them and give them what they need in that moment. I worried about my children and other students just as you do, but I have learned from long experience to relax and keep my eye on the important thing: keep’em playing while giving them as much technique as I can without making them feel stuck in the mud. To do this means you may well have to modify your teaching values somewhat.  But that’s what teaching really is about anyway, isn’t it? Give the student what he needs, not what you need to give him. You’re going to have to teach your little boy differently from how you teach others. His technique will catch up when it becomes important to him to sound really good. Of course, you’ll keep after him anyway in the meantime, but he will realize eventually that to make music, he must have the means to do it. Four year olds, especially the precocious and stubborn ones often, in my experience, have trouble wrapping their minds around this.

So don’t worry if things aren’t perfect. Don’t worry about what the other parents in group lesson think because your child’s not doing what the other children are or how they’re doing it. Probably no one will take much notice anyway. You want your child enthusiastic and playing. Yes, you can insist on some things but you must carefully find a balance, the line you must not cross in order not to stifle that wonderful and rare enthusiasm.

It’s students like this that make us call into question just about everything which, again in the long run, is good for us and will make us better teachers not only for gifted students but for all the rest of them, too. You may feel slightly out of control as you play catch-up, running breathlessly after your child/student, but learning that sometimes letting go of total control and putting aside certain principles that they ingrained In us in our own training, may give us more control of the results in the long run when we can reason with our charges. At least they’re still playing!

We have to have the long view of winning a war. To win that war, you may have to cede a battle or two. Or three. Or four. So to help you gird your loins, here’s the mantra that I recite to myself in times of utter exasperation:

“I’m bigger, I’m more educated, I’m smarter (well maybe not, but it helps to think I can still outwit a 4 year old) and it’ll all be okay.”

And so far, it always has.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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28 January 2020

4 thoughts on “Jumping the Gun…

  1. Alan Duncan

    Violin parent here. This article arrived at such an opportune time. A low-grade background sense of anxiety over technique has been bothering me. My daughter, 11, moved through the repertoire at a good clip and is finishing up the Mozart No. 4 this year. But there remain a handful of foundational things that I wish were better – bow hold, her bowing action, a few things with the left hand. Some of these things I’ve been making a point of in practice for some 7 or 8 years. Her teachers, likewise.

    I suppose we could have stopped the train and refused to budge until she fixed these things. But I’m suspicious that she also wouldn’t have developed the fine musicality that she brings to the table, had we been too dogmatic.

    In short, I appreciate your stance here – that there’s an opportunity to move things along in parallel, taking a long view.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      The response to this post on the internet has shown me that many parents and teachers face this dilemma.

      As fussy as I am about technique, sometimes you have to realize that even great violinists have and have had technical flaws that didn’t/don’t seem to bother them too much. Robert Mann, first violin of the Juilliard Quartet for over 40 years, was famous for his seemingly atrocious bow arm. But it worked for him and his teachers had had fabulous bow arms!

      There are also different schools of thought on the correct bow hold. If you have a malleable personality who will take orders, then you may be able to indeed “stop the train.” But if you have talent with a very strong will, then sometimes the only thing is to take the long view to keep them playing. Your daughter will get to the point where she will either understand that certain things have to be fixed or she will incorporate her flaws into her playing without much trouble.

      Gil Shaham told me (in an interview) that his bow arm was changed, which was quite an adjustment for him, when he came to New York and he had had an excellent teacher in Israel. He doesn’t seem to be having any problems now! Nicola Benedetti always moves her wrist before she puts down her little finger – something I wouldn’t tolerate from my own students. Yet, she plays very well.

      There’s also the question of backsliding. Things are going swimmingly until all of a sudden the bow arm looks funny, for example, and has to be adjusted. This happens all the time with all students, no matter how talented. So it’s a continual building and adjusting of technique. And sometimes a child won’t hear and incorporate something until she is ready. My own daughter had a very good sound but when I went to hear her rehearsal for her senior recital, I was struck by the gorgeous big fat sound she suddenly had. I asked her what had happened. Her reply was that she cried every day in her practice room because she didn’t have the sound she wanted (the most important step) and so she did the unthinkable: she asked her older sister and her boyfriend for advice. “That’s easy,” they said, “you need to keep all the bow hair flat on the string and play close to the bridge.” Younger daughter slapped her forehead and the rest is history. Now do you think no one from me on (including famous teachers) ever told her that, nay insisted? Of course we did – she just wasn’t ready.

      I would draw your attention to the video of a 7 year old playing Zigeunerweisen that’s making the rounds on various internet fora. She plays fabulously, but I noticed a corn plaster on her bow which undoubtedly serves to keep her little finger in place. Hmmm – a little problem here?

      So take heart. If your daughter is playing Mozart 4 at eleven years of age, there’s hope. Take an aspirin, keep after her and keep the long view!

      And thank you for your kind comment.

  2. Lyz Russo

    Hi Eloise, I’m delighted to read this. I was so worried you’d insist on instilling the correct technique first (then again I wasn’t really, because that would have been unlike you).
    100%, there is no space for being rigid with highly talented and motivated kids. The key is to match their pace and keep them challenged and fascinated at exactly the right level. Our most important job is to keep the kid loving the music – most of the rest will follow naturally.

    Once again a fantastic post. I’ll reblog it if that’s okay?


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