November 12, 2011 at 8:18 AMThank God for my core of faithful, hard-working students who come to their weekly lessons prepared to show off their progress. Were it not for them, I would give up altogether and admit defeat as a failed teacher. As much as I absolutely love teaching, even the positive lessons can be emotionally draining. It takes a lot of energy to see into a person's needs and find ways to meet them in a 30-minute session. But those few who didn't prepare for their lesson this week, who came with nothing... My last three lessons today, all siblings, did not practice, for all their various usual reasons. The oldest one told her mom as they waited in the living room, "Maybe we shouldn't have come at all; she sounds so happy in there, and I don't want to bring her down..." As we headed back to the studio, she told me she'd be fine with reviewing scales all hour.
"I understand that sometimes life just gets out of control, and there's nothing you can do about it. But if you really had some time this week, and you wasted it, you're losing your opportunity to rise to your potential." Seeing her eyes beginning to well, I hurried on, "I want you to know that I'm not mad at you, not mad at all, and we can still go and have some productive time together, but not if you're upset, so calm down, cheer up, and let's go." We spent most of the lesson experimenting with arm weight and its effect on tone, picking various weights for various bow strokes. Then some second position scales. For homework, I gave her an arrangement of Grandfather's Minuet from the Nutcracker Suite.
"I really do want to be good at the violin."
"I know you do, but you need to understand something thoroughly right now. You may think you want something, but perhaps you don't realise the amount of daily persistence it takes to get what you want."
Julie looked down at her violin with a sigh. "That's just it: I've never been able to follow through with anything I like. If I were to choose just one thing, I guess it would be violin, but I don't know..."
I sat down on the piano bench and thought for a second. "It wasn't until college that I realised that I didn't want to put in the effort that I needed to put to get where I wanted. At least not at that time. Why, just this morning, I was watching a monumental recording of Itzhak Perlman playing the finale of the Tchaikovsky concerto. It was absolutely breathtaking, but for a moment, I was remorseful and resentful. I wished I could play like that, and I remember a time when I thought I would. But you gotta understand, they don't just get that way by wishing. They made a lot of lifestyle sacrifices and thousands of hours of consistent dedication. So, I look at someone like him, and I simply enjoy his brilliant gift that he is to the world (and take some notes on his bow technique).
"Right now, I don't see myself practicing strategically for several hours a day, and unless I decide that's what I really want to do, then I don't really want to get myself to the Tchaikovsky concerto."
She thought about this as she tucked her instrument away. "Speaking of Tchaikovsky, is there an arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite for violin?"
"That's exactly where I'm taking you, Julie!" I exclaimed. "Here you are, at the beginning of book 4A. At the end of the last book in level 4, your graduation prize is this wonderful arrangement of all the dances from the Nutcracker Suite. See? Look at them--they look hard, don't they? But by the time you get through all these exercises and pieces leading up to it, you'll be ready."
"What happens after level 4?"
"After level 4? You're done with the books. Then we can talk about the real concertos. And all that orchestra repertoire that seems too hard right now will become easy. It's all right around the corner."
The family rounded up their belongings and put their shoes and coats back on. I thought of something that might work. "Tell you what, Julie. Why don't you set up some appointments with your violin, like you would with a doctor. Try an hour a day for two weeks. You can split it up to make it fit. After two weeks, see if you like your violin more or less. Then you can decide if you want to get serious about it." With as much cordiality as I could muster, I ushered the girls with a wave and well wishes into the white and windy night. I do love them.
The house is silent. I am completely empty. I am completely alone. Outside, a blizzard howls. I will watch reruns of Northern Exposure the rest of the evening and disappear.
I feel like too often a healthy realism and awareness of limits, especially when exhibited by students and young people, gets dismissed and put down as "not believing in yourself" or "killing dreams" or some other even more harmful, stressful nonsense. But there are ways to find deep meaning in playing the violin, and to touch others with music, without having to follow or believe in pipe dreams that will never come true.
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