Picking Your Battles (Carefully)

A teacher recently asked me for advice: her seven year-old student was procrastinating when the teacher, upon arriving at the child’s home, asked her to take her violin out to prepare for the lesson. What to do? How could this teacher get her student to understand that she had to be ready to start the lesson promptly?

This seems like a pretty innocuous question on the surface but it actually brings up a really important problem for teachers and even parents: what should be insisted on, what should be postponed, and what should be dropped altogether? What is worth arguing about and what isn’t?

There’s the famous Serenity Prayer – God give me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference. That should be a teacher’s prayer only like this: God give me the serenity to accept what I cannot insist on, courage to change the things I can insist on and wisdom to know the difference. This very well-meaning teacher was asking for help on telling the difference: what is important and what isn’t in the overall scheme of things.

My advice to the teacher was to get the student’s violin out for her. While a child that age may sincerely want to play, she is not always up to the rigor required to do it. Just holding the violin is a real effort for a beginner and she may not have enough self-discipline to do certain things for herself yet. What was the teacher’s reaction to my answer? Pure relief – one more sortie avoided in the never-ending battle to get our students to put into action all the wonderful advice we are giving them. Pure relief because she then felt she could just get on with the lesson without getting stuck on what is really, in the long run, something of very little importance.

Here’s an example of a litmus test, what I call my Importance Test, that you can use – or you can make up your own for the next time you find yourself befuddled:

1. When your student goes to conservatory when she gets bigger, will she have learned how to take out her violin and rosin her bow by herself without your having made an issue out of it when she was 7 years old?

Answer: Most likely.

2. Will your student hold her bow or violin properly when she gets bigger without your being firm about it (within reason) when she was 7 years old?

Answer: Probably not.

So there you have it. What is more important – that the teacher and the child engage in wrangling over whether or not the child should take out her own violin or that the child get on with her lesson and learn something more valuable that is suited to her age and maturity level? Where does the teacher want to direct her own and the child’s energy? Children do have limited powers of concentration and stamina, even if they seem extremely active. How do you want your student to use her concentration – on getting a violin out of a case or thinking about a proper bow hold?  If you know that it’s going to be a struggle to get your student to do certain things for herself, then ask if you could help her or just wordlessly do it yourself. Unless you WANT the lesson to be about, say, taking out her violin on her own which is fine – but don’t expect to get much else done.

Sometimes we get so bogged down in details that we can’t see the big picture. Sometimes what we may think is so important really isn’t. Sometimes we get caught up in matters of principle when principles are not the point. Sometimes we get caught up in who is right when winning an argument is deleterious to the learning process. So the most important thing to remember is, taking a metaphor from baseball or tennis: keep your eye on the ball. What do you want to accomplish in the lesson? Decide what’s important. If a certain issue doesn’t pass the Importance Test, then don’t push it for the moment. Wait until the student is ready to do it – she shouldn’t have to do some things because You or The Parent are ready for her to take on this responsibility. We should also remember that all of us were raised in different ways, taught by different teachers; we started playing at different ages and have different personalities. Just because we did something at a certain age doesn’t mean our student is ready to do the same thing at the same age.

There are few hard and fast principles in teaching other than DO NO HARM, but I would add one: PICK YOUR BATTLES CAREFULLY. It isn’t a battle really, but a crusade. Still there are lots of tactics involved, so use your time and energy to best advantage by keeping your eye on your objective, remembering that every child is different and above all, decide in the moment what the small stuff is and don’t sweat it!

Post Author: Eloise Hellyer

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11 April 2016

3 thoughts on “Picking Your Battles (Carefully)

  1. Lyz Russo

    Yes. At age 7, that’s what the teacher should do if the student is reluctant to do it herself.

    But also, it helps to engage the mother. At age 7, kids are still very much in “play” mode. If the teacher arrives and the child is not ready, it is because the mother didn’t set the child up in time. I once had a student whose violin we had to go and search every time I arrived. She “couldn’t remember” where she had played it last. That kind of thing does not bode well, it tells you that there is no routine, no habit about it. It needs to be discussed in-depth with the parent. Violin is a discipline, similar to a martial art (except, if anything, an even more mental discipline), and small children (even teenagers) are not naturally disciplined. That is what parents are for, to set the standard and keep the frame. A challenge many parents face however is that they are also not as disciplined as they’d need to be. It is a huge thing for many first-time moms to get into taking the kid to school on time, pack lunch boxes, make sure the homework is done, start lunch at the right moment – I’m talking full-time moms, the working ones are even more stressed for time as they try to fit everything in. When your child is dead tired and you are dead tired, 7h at night after a busy day, it takes real iron to insist on a practicing session anyway. But after the 3rd week of insisting on this, the child knows and prepares for that there is no way around it, and resigns herself – and it becomes no more battle. Discipline is both a terrible and a wonderful thing.

    In any case it’s better that the student arrives at the teacher than that the teacher arrives at the student, because then the student is already psychologically in the mode for violin lesson.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      I wholeheartedly agree with you, but this teacher obviously does not have the cooperation of the parent and I did suggest that she consider trying to get it when I wrote to her. I also mentioned that it is a good thing for the student to make a pilgrimage to the teacher so that the parent is automatically involved in the lesson, having had to get everything and everyone ready. However, there are times when parents don’t cooperate and for various reasons you find yourself making house calls, which I’m sure is this teacher’s situation. And even if parents do participate in the lesson and make the “pilgrimage,” a teacher can still find herself faced with a similar problem – what to insist on. Or not. Thanks for your input!!! Much appreciated.

      1. Lyz Russo

        :-) I also do some house calls, but on the whole, the “pilgrimage” is the better idea. Another complicated situation arises when children get their lesson at school. No parent to be found far and wide.


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