Observation as a Superpower

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Sometimes I get asked what my superpower is as a teacher. I find the question a little ridiculous – who has super powers? I certainly don’t. But it did get me to thinking. What can I, or any instrumental teacher for that matter, do for my students that very few other people in their lives do for them? Several things come to mind, but one thing stands out: dispassionate observation. That is, observation without judgment. Lots of people observe your students, their parents, for example. But what gets everyone off track is the judgment part. “This child does A so it means that this child is B.” Or “This child does A and if I were to do that, it would mean B about me so therefore it means that about him, too.” We all tend to judge others by our own yardstick.

What’s the difference between observation and judgment?  Observation is noticing something. Judging means assigning a quality to it: good, bad, what are we going to do about it, etc. Noticing someone has strong muscles = observation. Assuming therefore he must be a bully = judgment.

I’m sure this happens to most teachers at one point or another: parents trying to help us by cataloguing their child’s “characteristics.” (meaning what they consider to be their poor qualities). In my experience, these judgments often have nothing to do with reality. It’s very difficult for parents to be objective – they’re emotionally involved with their progeny, after all. And we all know that “love is blind.” Or better, love can obstruct our vision.

And this is why dispassionate observation is so important. I once had a brother and his two years younger sister both start studying with me at the same time. It became apparent after a few months that the little girl (Miss Perfect) was going to surpass her older brother. I had a chat with the parents as I could see they were worried about this and they wanted me to hold the little girl back so her brother wouldn’t feel bad – and I couldn’t blame them as this might normally be the case. However, I knew from observing these children that the brother didn’t care one way or the other and when I pointed this out to the parents, they agreed to let me handle the situation as I saw fit. The little girl quickly went way beyond her brother who wasn’t concerned in the least and happily continued to play and learn at his own pace. Every situation is different and we may not see this if we only listen to the parents (or even “conventional wisdom”). But by observing a situation for a short while, we may indeed see things parents and others do not.

I have one student who seems so meek, mild and even timid. Her mother appears to be that way, too, and she thought her daughter was just like her. I think it was in the very first few lessons that I told the mother, who seemed quite protective of her shy and retiring daughter, not to worry – that her daughter has a will of steel, a character to match and wasn’t so shy and retiring as she seemed. What looked like timid behavior was merely this little girl observing and sizing up a situation before acting. Turns out I was right, much to the mother’s shock. How did I figure this out? Just observing, never judging and observing some more. How did I find out I was right? First of all, they can’t get her to eat her greens, no matter what threats, imprecations, and bribes they use – and she’s now twelve years old. Secondly, this supposedly fragile little retiring flower just loves to play in public and volunteers for it at school. She has a nice big sound, too, and when she finishes playing, she puts away her violin and goes back to pretending she’s shy and retiring. Smart kid. Just because she puts on a show of being timid doesn’t mean she is timid. And, contrary to what you might think on casually observing her, she never minds or gets offended on the rare occasion I have to bawl her out (she’s an adolescent now). Her mother has learned to stop being surprised – or worried – by this.

Parents often assume that their children are just like them; that if a child finds himself in a certain situation, then his reaction would be what theirs was when they were little or would be now. An awful lot of potential harm or misunderstanding can happen because of this, but it’s even more dangerous when teachers do it. Here are a couple of examples. Continue reading

31 May 2020

To Make Up or Not to Make Up, That is the Question…

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What to do about the parents who insist we should make up lessons anyway, even though our clearly stated policies, which they agreed to at the beginning, say otherwise?

There has been a lot of discussion about this lately. Some teachers give these parents an article (complete with an awful grammatical mistake which isn’t going to help our credibility) on how it’s unreasonable economically to expect teachers to make up lost lessons. This is fine if you’re talking to economists and business people. Or is it really?

What you don’t hear about is why it’s a good idea to make up lost lessons whenever possible. So while I recognize the myriad reasons why we should stick to our guns, er, the terms and conditions we pass out to our clients or put on our websites, I’m going to play the devil’s advocate and argue the other side.

There are lots of reasons I can cite why you should do everything in your power to make-up lost lessons, but the most important one is:

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30 April 2020

Life in the Time of Cholera, er, Covid-19: Online Lessons

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Over the centuries the teaching a musical instrument has essentially changed very little. Except perhaps for repertoire, the violin lesson you see today could easily have taken place in the 18th century. So when I informed my students and their parents weeks ago that because of the current Covid-19 crisis here In Italy I was going to start giving lessons online, some of them protested strongly. It seemed like they thought I was trying cheat them, that doing lessons online wasn’t really “work” for me, and that such lessons wouldn’t be effective. They were mollified after I explained I have been teaching my grandsons successfully online for two years and, yes, it can be frustrating. There are less than ideal internet connections, you can’t hear as well as you would like, the tone can be distorted, you can’t see as well (really important with beginners), and there just isn’t the same exchange of energy that you have in a one on one situation, all of which mean that I actually have to work a lot harder than in a normal lesson situation.

To the skeptical few who still wanted to suspend lessons until “this is all over,” I pointed out that they have invested a lot of time and money in the musical education of their children and that it’s a pity to lose all the momentum we have created. Besides, who knows how long this health crisis will really last?

But then on talking more to all of them I found out what was really behind some of their protests: Continue reading

22 March 2020