So you have picked option 2 and decided not to give up on your student. There can be many reasons for this decision, for example:
- It’s against your moral principles to give up on anyone, including yourself.
- You have an economic necessity to keep as many students as you can.
- You are convinced that playing the violin (for example) is the most marvelous thing in the world and you think everyone should play it.
- You firmly believe that music is an essential part of anyone’s education just like the 3 R’s.
Whatever your reason, all of the above are valid and probably have something to do with your decision. It really doesn’t matter WHY you have decided to keep your non-practicing student. What’s important is HOW YOU THINK about it. So how do you keep such a student without going nuts?
It’s actually quite easy. Change your perspective. Become aware of EVERYTHING you are doing. Take a step back and have a really good look at your work, just as a fresco painters do to get perspective. You may feel that you are paid to teach someone how to play a musical instrument and if your non-practicing students don’t make the progress you feel they should, then you may be frustrated because you don’t think you are doing your job properly. Or you may be worried that others will think you’re not doing your job at all. It isn’t that simple, however. Effective teachers actually do a lot more than give information and feedback. And you can’t see the whole situation by just examining YOUR feelings and YOUR point of view.
Think of it this way. If parents continue to send you their children, it must mean these students are getting something out of their lessons with you. It may not be what you think they ought to get, but it may nonetheless be of great value to them. I have been polling adults, poor practicers as students, who had highly competent teachers they liked. None of them has told me that their lessons were a waste of time and money. Most of them enjoyed the time they had with these teachers and benefitted from it. Remember that a private music teacher’s contact with a student is usually one on one, which makes for a very intense and personal relationship. At the same time, however, the teacher is a professional whose relationship with her students is not based on emotion. She views her students objectively and for the time allotted for the lesson, the student has her complete attention, something that is both seductive and rare in a child’s experience. Parents sometimes tell me that their children always want to come to lessons even if they haven’t practiced. And don’t think I am always Mrs. Nice Guy, either. I tell the truth. Always. No matter how awful. Sometimes loudly. Of course, I couch things in terms that are acceptable and always touch on the positive side, so no one ever leaves a lesson deflated. My students seem to enjoy their lessons even if they have not practiced well. If they like their lessons and their parents are happy, it doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not. Yes, my job is to teach someone how to play the violin, but it often turns out to be more than that.
For example, years ago I taught a brother and his younger sister. The sister was a very good student but the brother did very little. The mother, a high school teacher, told me that even though it was obvious that the boy would never become a violinist and was not interested in practicing, she was continuing his lessons with me because she said he was learning a lot from me besides how to play the violin. I was flattered but did not really understand what she was referring to. I was simply too close to the nuts and bolts of teaching the instrument to have a full view of what I was doing.
As teachers we may have our noses so close to our work that we may not realize for years what a profound effect we have had on our students’ lives IN ADDITION TO musical training. While it’s obvious to me what my old students who have gone on to careers in music got out of their lessons with me, I have been getting a lot of surprising feedback from quite a few of my old non-practicers. Some, who I had thought had learned very little, are telling me years later that I gave them “life lessons” they have never forgotten. Others tell me that the discipline they learned from me has helped them with other endeavors in their lives. Many continue to play for their own enjoyment or at least tell me they learned to appreciate music. And some of my former students are now bringing me their children, which I see as a real vote of confidence.
Conclusion? RELAX and enjoy your students in their infinite variety. Unless you specialize exclusively in very serious students, do whatever you have to in order to get your non-practicers to practice but remember that if you don’t succeed in this, you have not necessarily failed. There are going to be students who will never practice no matter what. This doesn’t mean that their time with you is wasted. Just as your student can change his attitude towards practicing, we can change our attitude towards our non-practicers and realize that whether we produce great virtuosos or not, WE ARE DOING SOMETHING IMPORTANT when we teach. Just the one on one relationship with our students is something they may remember with great affection and view as having been important to them in their formative years. If nothing else, the faith we show in them may carry them through many difficult moments in the rest of their lives.
So DON”T GIVE UP. You never know, you may succeed in helping your students find their own motivation and they might start practicing. Everyone wins. But I have found out that everyone wins, no matter what, because something positive is always learned from a determined teacher.