Patience Traps, Part 1

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:

Unrealistic Expectations

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. Registered & Protected 


5 October 2014

3 thoughts on “Patience Traps, Part 1

  1. Virgil T. Morant

    This is a difficult question, how much to plan and how much to know is out of one’s hands, and, as with your previous posts, not of course limited to music teaching. Do we not indeed often find that we simply do not control as much as we think we do? It is reasonable to have some goals, and it is important to instill discipline in children and students. One cannot merely leave it up to their immature view in all matters. It is perilous, though, to be unrealistic about those matters. That should, after all, be why we are the adults and they the children: that in some areas we can still make reasonable and realistic decisions that they are incapable of. Alas, many of the things we expect are not so mature as our more advanced years should dictate. ;-)

    Another good post, as usual. Would you forgive me for quibbling over one word? When you say, “An expectation by definition is unrealistic[, because i]t is not real,” my thought is that being realistic is more about being reasonably possible. The unrealistic expectations are the impractical ones. Expectations that are not fanciful, however, can still qualify as realistic. Indeed that’s the issue I meandered around up in my first paragraph.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      The point is that we teachers should not make decisions for a child based on what we think is good for him (I am talking long-range here) or what is good for us, according to his talent or lack of it. I know teachers (always private, non-conservatory) who, if students don’t make certain progress in a specified amount of time, make them quit. The same goes if the parents don’t make the child practice enough (according to the teacher). I do not feel that we teachers have the right to make these decisions. Music is for everyone at whatever level they want to achieve it. Of course, the parents have to make their children practice and instill discipline and I do make the point that teachers have to guide, instruct and inform their students and their parents. I have have had students in the past whose parents could not/would not help their children practice and other students who just weren’t that interested. I persisted and carried them along for years until one day they woke up and realized how important playing music was to them. I consider these to be my greatest teaching triumphs (even more the many fine professional musicians among my ex-students). If it were not for my stubbornness these children would have stopped playing years before and would never have known the joys of music. Of course, I have lost many students like this, too, but not from me giving up on them or telling them they were wasting their (and by inference, my) time. Many teachers do not want to “waste” time on what they consider to be useless endeavors. If you are a teacher, your time is NEVER wasted. A student always learns something. It is up to you, the teacher, to decide what that will be.

  2. Zala

    I like this article a lot. :) Unfortunately, in Slovenia, there are almost no private studios, only “conservatory” style music education (for beginners, of course, which is the topic we are mostly talking about)… That is why it is rarely possible to teach a student based only on what they are capable of in a certain moment…
    However, the point from this article is fantastic and I do have a small private studio of my own, where I would be able to teach this way. :) The only problem is, that this conservatory style is so “embedded” in our culture, that people really don’t appreciate private lessons (of classical music), because all they want is certificates and official recognitions, that they completed a certain level of music education in the “prescribed” time frame… Sad.
    Although this “public music school system” / “conservatory system” is financed from our state and we are all happy about it, I still wish that the day would soon come, when it would all have to go private!
    Then, this would be a joy to practice at our studios… I hope this happens soon. :)

    Otherwise – great theme again, great conclusions… :) Loving this blog! :)


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