Years ago I interviewed Emmanuel Hurwitz who had been first violin of the Aeolian Quartet and was also a well-known teacher. He told me something I found shocking at the time. Once, when he was playing as a soloist with an orchestra in England, the concertmaster remarked to him in reference to his musical interpretation: “You’re lucky, Manny – you know what you want.” Hurwitz told me that he remembered thinking, surprised: “Doesn’t everybody?” He then had the horrible realization that many people, musicians included, do NOT know what they want when playing or otherwise.
This is a problem that I often face in my teaching. Parents frequently do not know what they want and transmit this to their children. The result is that a child may flit from activity to activity without giving importance to any. They may only know what they DON’T want: hard work (practicing by the student) or unpleasantness (insisting on discipline by the parents). This is why many coaches can convince parents to allow their children to spend so much of their valuable extracurricular time on their sport instead of practicing the violin, for example. First of all, the teamwork and camaraderie help, but essentially the student wants to participate in the sport and the parents don’t have to make the child practice (the coach takes care of that) – it’s easy.
There is one other thing: the coaches’ conviction that participation in a sport is of overwhelming importance. This is very seductive to uncertain parents who don’t have any firm ideas or convictions and really WANT to be told what is important for their children.
So what makes the difference for music teachers? Our attitude. Knowing what we want and being totally convinced that music is an essential part of any human being’s education. I have discovered that what makes the biggest difference in getting cooperation from parents is not the numerous studies I indicate to them which show how beneficial a music education is to a student’s development and his future, but how strongly I believe in what I am doing. On numerous occasions I have overheard parents say to each other that they were making their children practice not because they were so committed to the idea of them learning to play a musical instrument, but that I WAS SO SURE that it is a good thing and they figured that if I felt that strongly about it then I must be right. Goes to show you how dangerous teachers (or proselytizers or evangelists or politicians) can be. If you truly believe in what you’re doing, then you can be dangerous, too.
Unfortunately, there are lots of teachers who are not able to develop a studio or keep their students for any period of time. Why? Some are incompetent and children quit from discouragement. Others, in my opinion, just don’t care enough. Teachers can’t afford to think that everyone knows what they know and appreciates what they do. People don’t. You have to pitch it and sell it. But first of all, you have to believe in it, just as any good salesman. So the best advice I can give any beginning teacher is to develop conviction and enthusiasm. Of course I don’t have to tell this to someone who always wanted to be a teacher. However, the music profession is full of people who must teach in order to survive because it’s extremely difficult to make a living playing and many don’t really want to. So they fall back on teaching. THOSE people have to be careful when starting out that THEY KNOW WHAT THEY WANT from themselves and their students and are prepared to fight to get it.
On the other hand, an abundance of conviction and enthusiasm, if not kept under control, can often do more harm than good, as we can see with teachers and coaches who believe the only worthwhile activity in the world is their own. So for me the most important thing to keep in mind is that I can’t help others achieve balance unless I have it in my own life. If I go nuts when I see talent and go all out to make sure it is developed without taking into consideration myriad other factors in a student’s life, then I am out of equilibrium and of no use to my student. If I consider a success only to be when a student becomes a professional or gets into a good conservatory, then I am not in balance. If I think that music training is the most important subject a child will have in his life and have disdain for other activities, hobbies and pursuits, then I am really off-base. If I take it personally when a student decides to quit or not practice as much as I think necessary for good progress, then I am too involved and thus out of balance.
In other words, to help my students I cannot allow myself to be like the many teachers and coaches who are so completely taken with their own spheres of interest that they insist that others have the same priority (or else) . But I can, in all good conscience and with great conviction, try to make sure that my students and their parents understand the importance of music training and find time (no matter how little) for it.