Or, You Can’t Lose it if You Don’t Have It
The best way to avoid losing patience is not to have it in the first place. How can we avoid patience?
Look at it this way: if you are on a diet and just love chocolate ice cream, don’t keep it in the house. Don’t put yourself in temptations’s way.
In teaching there are several patience traps. The first is:
An expectation by definition is unrealistic. It is not real – that is, it’s not in the here and now. If you expect something, then it doesn’t exist yet. Who is it you are teaching – the great virtuoso of tomorrow or the small child standing in front of you who just can’t get his bow to make a nice sound on the A string?
I have been told that it is a good idea to set specific long range goals for our students. However, the beauty of private teaching is that we do not have to adhere to a curriculum which must be achieved in a set time. So having such goals for our students only means that if they don’t reach them, for whatever reason, the teacher feels she has failed. So do the students and the parents involved in practice. Result: patience (or loss of it) and disappointment with resulting feelings of inadequacy on all parts. But is the teacher not playing God just a little by deciding that a student must accomplish X or Y in a specified time – based on what and whose criteria?
Where is it written in stone that we should make these decisions for our students? I call this the Procrustean Bed Theory of Teaching – the student must fit the model, which gives lots of opportunities for everyone to achieve unhappiness. Even if the student does live up to our expectations, we are then mildly satisfied and he is relieved (I did it. Whew!). Isn’t it better to be really happy about any success our students may have? Can we not deal with whatever problem that presents itself to us in this minute instead of setting up possibilities for failure (and patience) in the future? The small successes of today will eventually add up to make the big successes of tomorrow.
Sometimes you have to help parents with their own unrealistic expectations. This is part of the job. But the biggest problem I have had has been to train myself to live in the moment and deal with problems as they come up, to try to stick to one point per lesson (boy, is that hard sometimes) and be happy for my students for every little bit of progress they make, pointing out to them that they should be happy, too. Happiness is infectious.*
The only long range goal to have for our students is that they learn to play their instrument on whatever level they and their parents are capable of and want to achieve. That they learn to love music and to love making it. Who says everyone has to play a Mozart concerto? These decisions are for the parents and students to make, guided by us. Recommending to our students that they practice an hour a day is a lot different from expecting them to. Telling students that we KNOW they can do something (so keep on trying) is different from EXPECTING them to do it.
What if they don’t know what they want? Of course, most of them don’t, which is why they come to us in the first place. So we must instruct them, not make decisions for them. Once we have instructed them, they will have enough information to make decisions for themselves based on their own desires, possibilities and capabilities.**
The idea is to give freedom of choice to our students, not imprison them in our own unrealistic expectations.
End of Part 1
*This approach must work – a lot of my students have gone on to have careers in music while many others have continued to play for their own satisfaction and amusement.
** Students will often set their own goals anyway. If there is a particular piece they really want play, then they will willingly apply themselves so they can master it. There are several standard repertoire pieces I use just for this reason – the carrot and stick approach.