“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.
- You can insist on perfect technique and bore him to death (and he will stop cooperating),
- You can let him go ahead as he pleases,
- 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
- What is best for the child in that moment and in the long run,
- What is best for your teaching method,
- 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