Where’s the Balance?

Sometimes I get extremely frustrated in my teaching, NOT because my students don’t practice enough or don’t have enough interest in their own progress, but because their other teachers are demanding so much of them. Yes, schoolwork is extremely important and doing it well is essential to future academic success. Yes, it is important to play sports and exercise. But it is also important to play music, as studies – too numerous and ubiquitous to cite here – have long shown. Where is the balance?

The problem with many of my students is that they have talent. Why should this be a problem? Because if they have talent for the violin, they usually have talent for other things as well. The difference between me and their other teachers is that I do not think that my subject, learning to play the violin, is more important than all the rest. There is a whole great big world out there, OTHER than practicing a musical instrument, and children should experience it, but IN REASONED MEASURES. How many times do my students cut down or almost eliminate practicing their violin  because their tennis teacher, basketball coach, volleyball coach, soccer coach, gymnastics coach, dancing teacher, whatever, informs the parents that their child is really talented and should participate in competitions which require training 3 hours a day at least 5 days a week or they will let the team down? In fact, one of my older students told me once that her volleyball coach asked her to quit music so she could dedicate more time to volleyball!!! Of course these coaches get excited when presented with talent, but who benefits more when a student dedicates most of her free time to a sport involving tournaments and has to give up other valuable pursuits? The student or the coach? Whose resume’ gets beefed up when a team wins championships? The student’s’ or the coach’s? Where’s the balance?

I could say the same for certain music teachers. I once had a student who studied piano with another teacher and violin with me. When he was 9, his mother decided it was time to change piano teachers and had her son audition for one who told her that her son had talent but that he would only agree to take the child as a student if he practiced 3 hours a day and entered lots of competitions – because otherwise he (the teacher) would be wasting his time. Naturally, the child soon had to quit the violin. I would like to report that this boy (now an adult) is an internationally famous pianist, but unfortunately, I cannot. He is not even famous locally even though he won lots of those small-town competitions as a child. While he plays well, he is now paying the consequences of putting all his eggs in one basket. I wish him luck but can’t help wondering how different his life might be if his teacher had not built up his parents’ expectations, had not insisted on an excess of dedication from a small child, and had not given so much importance to countless small competitions. Where’s the balance?

My students frequently tell me that they 
haven’t been able to practice much during the week because they were simply overwhelmed with homework assignments or exams. Here in Italy most students go to school six days a week and even young children may have 3 to 4 hours of homework each day. This is the norm in superior school where they usually have to study even more. Many of my students are finding they must cut down on their sleep! While I would never tell a student to neglect his schoolwork in order to practice more, I can’t help but wonder what the school teachers and administrators are thinking. No employer here can legally expect an employee to work as many hours as our children do in school along with the required homework. Studies increasingly show that the study of a musical instrument is extremely beneficial to a young person’s development, but the schools seem intent on leaving very little time for this. Where’s the balance?

Competitions and grades today almost compel parents and students to give more importance to the activities that involve them. Must we instrumental teachers push our students into competitions if we want them to give more value to their music studies? Do we have to pit the violins against the cellos, or the woodwinds against the brass instruments on a volleyball court or football field in order to win priority for music? Whatever happened to doing something just for the lifelong satisfaction it can provide? Have people forgotten that diversity in education is what makes us educated? Yes, we music teachers can keep reminding parents of this fact but they often seem helpless to remedy this situation, given the ever more pressing demands of their children’s other teachers and coaches.

Where indeed is the balance?

Next: Finding balance – I don’t go down without a fight!

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22 April 2015

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