Slow Progress: Finding Balance, part 4

When a student is not going as fast as you, the teacher, would like, or as fast as you think he may be capable of, you might say he is making “slow progress.” But notice that this definition is centered around what you want and what you think. In other words, your frustration or fulfillment as a teacher. The important thing to remember, therefore, is that any qualifying adjective you choose to describe your student’s progress – slow, fast, not enough, poor –  is strictly your opinion. In my experience, there is only one absolute, which is NO progress at all. That’s pretty easy for anyone to see, any other modifier being a matter of interpretation. Of course, parents pay you good money to make sure their child does progress, but being happy or unhappy with the results depends on everyone’s expectations.

So let’s say that you are doing your best to stimulate your students to practice and still not “enough” is getting done. This brings me to a really important misconception that students, their parents and their teachers often have, which can wind up truncating our students’ music education:

How fast a child progresses on the instrument signifies how much talent she has and whether or not it is worth continuing.

Experience has taught me not to worry about how quickly a child progresses. It’s much more important for him to have the instrument in his hands and acquire a good technique, no matter how slowly he moves or how frustrated his teacher or his parents. One of the most talented students I ever had (although no one who heard her when she was 7 would have guessed it) took SIX YEARS to finish Suzuki Violin Book 1. The next year she went through three books, and at the age of ten she was doing Kreutzer studies and the Bach A Minor first movement, and very well, indeed. She is now a pro. I doubt she would have made all that progress so quickly if she had started from scratch when she was 8 instead of when she was 2 1/2. Time and again I have seen my students going slowly until they suddenly acquire the maturity to make their own decisions, to appreciate what they are doing as well as the many opportunities that music offers. Then they take off.

Or they don’t. It really doesn’t matter – I don’t know anyone who studied music as a child, no matter how poorly, who says that it was a waste of time. There is always some benefit in learning to play an instrument just like there is always benefit in learning to read, write and do math no matter what level of proficiency you reach.

Therefore, I don’t get discouraged when a student is going terribly slowly or is hampered by other interests and activities. Most of my students are not going to become professional violinists, so it is important that they enjoy their musical training and not become prisoners of their talent  – or perceived lack of it. Schoolwork should never have to play “second fiddle” to studying the violin unless it is obvious that a student is a prodigy, and even then I advise parents never to neglect their child’s academic education. I also try always to remember, especially when the going is slow, that if my student shows talent for the instrument, it is likely he has other talents he may want to develop that are also necessary for his overall development.

Finding balance is hard, I know, but we have to let each of our students develop his own ability and this means taking into account ALL the factors in his life. Whoever said it was easy to be a teacher???

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27 May 2015

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