The Paranoia of Progress

“How do I help the mother of one of my students manage her anxieties about her child’s rate of progress?”

Another excellent and thought provoking question on a private music teaching site.

Often parents identify themselves too much with their children. “If my child is a success, that means I’m a good parent and if my child is not a success, well………” This causes anxiety. So the problem can be broken down into two aspects:.

1. Parent is comparing her child to other students. This is often fatal to the learning process. Kids get enough of that in school with everyone comparing grades and test results. Music lessons are about the only area where there is no competition (formal) or comparison. And it should stay that way – a safe haven to learn safely.  But if students and parents are making comparisons, it’s often because of the second problem:

2. Teacher is consciously or unconsciously making comparisons herself. Here I am not talking about ambitious teachers who prepare their students for a constant round of competitions. I mean normal teachers who can easily fall into the trap of: “this one is better than that one, has more talent, is more in tune, holds his instrument better, etc.” We are human beings, too, after all. However, this is a dangerous, ineffective, harmful and counterproductive habit. One of the best pieces of advice I could give any teacher is never compare your students. Why? They will know it if you do and what possible good could be achieved?  Children are very sensitive. If you compare your students to each other, then they and their parents will, too, so we have to be on guard about our own thoughts.

But there is a way to truncate this whole thing and resolve the problem of the anxious mom:

Define what is progress. Or rather, redefine it in such a way that everyone is happy. And everyone should be happy. Therefore, we must make it clear that learning to play a musical instrument is not about becoming the greatest virtuoso the world has ever seen (for most of us). It is about learning to solve problems. It is to acquire what I call the Habit Of Success. The world is full of fabulous prodigies of all kinds who fizzle out and amount to nothing – or at least don’t live up to expectations, poor kids. They are great learners who don’t necessarily become great doers as adults – two completely different things, as Malcolm Gladwell said in a lecture once.* Who is it that really succeeds in life in the long run? The prodigy? Or the person who knows how to take a problem, break it down into manageable bits, study it, figure out how to solve it, put it all together and go on to the next one with as little ego as possible? The late starters in the world, among whom number Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Newton, were completely unremarkable as children. And what are we doing if not preparing our students for adulthood?

We must convince parents that what we are really in the business of doing is teaching children this Habit of Success, which means putting in place what will become automatic mechanisms for successfully approaching and solving a problem – breaking it down into small steps and then even smaller ones if necessary (and how to do this) without recriminations or comparisons with others which is a tremendous waste of energy and time. Slow and steady wins the race. Success comes at first in very small increments. But where there is success, there is progress. Children need to have patience and if their parents don’t have it, they and their children will be unhappy and much, much worse will feel like failures. Above all, we have to help a parent understand that the more energy she wastes worrying about her child’s progress, the less energy she has to devote to making sure he achieves it. And if she sees her child as a reflection of herself, then any worrying about the child’s progress is only thinking about herself and taking energy and focus away from helping him.

Unfortunately this is something that teachers have to guard against as well. We often judge ourselves by how well our students do, instead of judging the job we are doing on them.
Teaching people to think not about themselves, but about the job at hand is something we have to make sure we do ourselves first.  It behooves us all to be aware of our mental processes, monitor them and remember that as musicians we are trained transmitters and can’t afford to think whatever we want without risk.

In any case, I am sure that experienced teachers all have tales to tell about the slowest student they ever had suddenly taking off, against all expectations, and breaking all records with spectacular progress. Others can recount how their students, who may not have achieved great heights with their instruments, come back as adults to thank them for the teaching that made it possible to achieve great success in other fields. Aren’t they all successes? How your students’ parents define progress and success often depends on how you define it yourself. So be careful.

Yup, the Habit of Success. If we can instill this in our students and get their parents to appreciate it, we have certainly done our jobs more than well. Let’s face it, most of our students are not going to go on to professional careers in music. That isn’t even the point in learning to play an instrument. Music should be a core subject as it is one of the few disciplines that requires not only the use of the mind, but also the body and the spirit, all together, all at once. Teaching a child to solve problems so that he can integrate all his possibilities as a human being is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities I have ever had. Now we just have to make sure parents understand this and stop the worrying that impedes progress on any level.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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*https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/the-myth-of-prodigy-and-why-it-matters

7 May 2018

6 thoughts on “The Paranoia of Progress

  1. Carol de la Haye

    Compassionate, common-sense counsel, as always, Eloise — thank you for this.

    Reply
  2. Douglas Kamholz

    Your wisdom as a teacher (the same art my wife practiced for 30 years) and your talent as someone who can articulate wisdom on paper (well, pixels) is exceeded only by your beauty in the “Many, many years ago” picture.

    Reply

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