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Laurie Niles

Six ways to put your students at ease during their lessons

September 6, 2011 at 5:12 PM

How can violin teachers ease their students' anxiety during lessons?

A member recently posed this question to me in an e-mail. She said she struggles with her anxiety over the fact that she knows that her teacher is going to jump in and point out mistakes. "I try to remember that I am there to make mistakes!" she wrote. Indeed, as a student, you are progressing, with a teacher's help. If you were perfect, you wouldn't need a teacher!

I've taught for more than 20 years, and you'd have to ask my students if I have any success, putting them at ease! But I do have some ideas on the matter, and I welcome yours. Here are six ways to put your students at ease during their lessons:

1. LISTEN. Your job is not just to correct, it's also to listen with a thoughtful ear. Allow your student to play through their piece/etude/scale at least once without interruption, even if it's "wrong." You might want to change your mindset about "wrong," too. However your student is playing something, it's likely they played it that way all week. "Meet your student where they are at," said Shinichi Suzuki. You can only know "where they are at" if you listen to the way they are really playing something and think about why they are playing it that way -- the good and the bad. So they mis-read the rhythm. Why? They have certain notes out of tune. Why? And how will you give them the tools to read it correctly, play it in tune, practice it correctly, in the future? If it's something you told them before, why is it still a problem? Do you need a different approach?

2. OFFER SPECIFIC PRAISE. It's easy to take everything good for granted and focus completely on what needs fixing. It's human nature. But students need positive feedback as much as they need correction. It has to be TRUE positive feedback, though. "Great job," rings empty because it's too general. "I noticed that F sharp we worked on is totally in tune now, nice!" or, "You really nailed that fifth-position part," or, "I'm so glad you are using your vibrato, the more you use it the better it's getting." Praise those things that you'd like to continue hearing from your student's playing.

3. FOCUS ON HOW TO DO IT RIGHT, RATHER THAN HOW THEY DID IT WRONG. Rather than nagging, "That G was too low, in fact, all your G's were too low," get in the habit of framing things in terms of how to do it right, "Let's hear that G a little higher." Even better, show your student how to do it right, and why it works: "Make that G higher, do you hear how it rings now? Great!"

4. KNOW YOUR STUDENT. What works with one student may not work with another. One student might enjoy a little humorous ribbing, but another student would burst into tears. One student can stand 10 straight minutes of drilling a passage and another might get flustered and start making mistakes. Be sensitive to your student's personality, abilities and feelings.

5. MAKE IT ABOUT THE MUSIC, NOT ABOUT THE STUDENT. "You always play out of tune," or "You have no sense of rhythm," or "You can't hold the violin straight," … Just banish that kind of criticism from your teaching altogether. You also should banish that kind of praise as well. "You are my best student," is a pretty big burden to put on someone. Separate the person from their playing, and respect both for what they are.

6. TAKE THE OCCASIONAL LESSON YOURSELF. It's easy to forget how much you put yourself on the line during a music lesson. When you play a new piece for someone whose opinion you respect very much, you put yourself at their mercy. It's a good idea to put yourself in that situation on occasion, to remember how it feels!


From pold poldi
Posted on September 6, 2011 at 5:28 PM

Good article, the best teachers in reality they never try to "teach", but they rather learn together with their students.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 6, 2011 at 7:43 PM

Thank you, Laurie, for such concise and practical good advices. 

It goes without saying that a good teacher should listen and watch you like a hawk.

As a student, I find the best praises my teachers gives me were the small ones (such as "good for you", "nice") coming right at the moment that I did something praiseworthy. 

Most of all, a good teacher focuses on the work on hands. Rather than wasting time commenting on me as a player, she constantly asks "why this doesn't work?" and says "let's see how to fix this" to help me to improve my work.

From Diane Allen
Posted on September 7, 2011 at 2:30 PM

I love Laurie's choice of words "put at ease". She didn't say "keep students happy". Learning is not necessarily a "happy" kind of thing. Teachers need to be able to teach effectively without destroying a student's self esteem. At the end of her blog she states that you would have to ask her students her success at keeping them at ease. I'm sure she knows the answer.

Teachers can tell if their students are "put at ease" by these clues: the student is teachable, repsonsive, can easily focus.

While I use all of Laurie's tips regularly - every once in a while I find I need to teach something in an intense way. Knowing this - I warn the student. Here are a couple of examples:

I have a few "young" students who are "advanced" players. Because of the discrepancy in their age compared to the literature they are capapble of playing I'll need to stretch their maturity level. When I really want a certain result I will tell them "this is one of those times to act like a grown up". While the student doesn't know what that means - they usually well up with pride and search for what that must mean!

Another example is when a student has numerous random mistakes. I warn them ahead of time. "I don't like teaching this way but sometimes it really works. I know it's annoying. We are going to play Green Light Red Light. Green Light - start playing your song. When I hear something that needs attention I'll call out Red Light - you'll stop and we'll address that spot." etc. etc. etc.

Lastly - I remember all too well what it's like to have weekly lessons for years on end. Just when you know you've practiced your best and you play great at your lesson, your teacher loads you up with another huge lesson to achieve. Knowing this I remind my students that violin is a lifelong pursuit and to enjoy the process.

Smiles! Diane

From Ray Randall
Posted on September 7, 2011 at 3:28 PM

  Although I flew for TWA for a living I studied violin with two household name teachers in my young adult and adult days.  Retired now, a few years ago I started taking lessons froma superb vilinist in the St. louis Symphony and I have progressed as a violinist more under her in a shorteer amount of time than with the previous two Pedagogues.

  She never says I'm making mistakes, she corrects by showing me a better way to do something. With humility I am playing quite decently now and give her all the credit. This might say something about her teaching. Last year I asked her "just what the heck have I learned from you? I'm playing a hundred percent better now, but can't exactly pinpoint what you taught me. She laughed and spent some time pointing out the individual skills that have made me better. As she said so well, "learning violin is cumulative, tiny little improvements, some not even noticeable, over time make all the difference."

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 7, 2011 at 8:46 PM

I really like your advice, Laurie.  As you said, it is easy to overlook or take for granted the things that a student does well.  It's important to give honest praise.  I like to say things like, "Last week you had trouble with [the double stops, slurs across strings, etc.], but just now you played them much better."  Sometimes at the end of the lesson I say, "Your playing overall is improving week by week.  The increments are small and easy to overlook, but I see steady improvement every week."

There is another aspect of a positive approach that you mentioned that I consider very important.  Our job as teachers is not just to point out mistakes, but to figure out why the student makes a certain mistake and help him/her correct it.  This week I told one student, "Your bow is sliding out of control.  Why is that happening?"  Then I watched her bow hand and saw how the bow grip should be modified.  I had the student modify her bow grip and play again.  I told her, "Your bow is staying just where it should be.  Do you feel the difference in your bow hand?"


From Allyson Lyne
Posted on September 7, 2011 at 9:14 PM

Very timely as the studio is roaring back to life with new and returning students.  It's easy to forget to require as much discipline and technique from ourselves as teachers as we do from our students.  Excellent comments from everyone, too.  I would add that I like to focus on the process rather than the result: if someone is mastering the co-ordination of changing strings and placing fingers, that gets me excited because actual clean, clear, rhythmic notes won't be far behind, for example.

I always try to listen to the student play their piece all the way through - and boy is it tough, sometimes - but I will continue to make that a priority, particularly as a couple of your comments gave me new ideas.  Maybe that's part of putting the student at ease - letting them play the whole thing, and actually  hear their own performance with "outside ears" for the first time in the week.  Probably gives them as much feedback on the success (or not) of the week as do many of my comments!

Hope everyone has a great teaching year!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 8, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Laurie - I thought these were good, but I had a thought on #3.  While you are right to some extent, from my experience with the best teacher I ever had, Rene Benedetti, it is terribly important for the teacher to be able demonstrate to the student how the student is doing something wrong and then how to do it correctly.  M. Benedetti was terrific at that.  He could always imitate perfectly my mistakes and then show me how to correct them.  I made enormous progress the year I studied with him in Paris, in part, I am convinced, because of his ability to do that so effectively.  When I came back and played for my previous teacher, he could not believe the progress and kept asking me what Benedetti did that he did not do with me.  I think it was the ability to imitate my mistakes.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 8, 2011 at 5:23 PM

 Tom, that's a good point, and I agree that it's important to be able to show a student what is happening, particularly when they don't seem aware of it. For example, a student may be making unintentional accents and may be completely unaware. Once made aware, then they can fix it right away.  But illuminating the mistake needs to go hand-in-hand with offering the solution, and then it's empowering instead of just embarrassing for the student.

From Hannah Williams
Posted on September 9, 2011 at 1:23 AM

Great advice! I'll have to put it to memory for (hopefully) future teaching.

Thanks for the excellent article!!! A+++

From Peter Charles
Posted on September 12, 2011 at 10:34 AM

Hi Laurie

So you have been teaching for well over 20 years!! You must have started young!! (About 5?)

Oh boy, I know how to flatter ladies, but it never gets me anywhere and occasionally the odd black eye ...

Good points. I don't teach these days but I always wanted to learn something from my students, or the more advanced ones.

In retrospect I think I was too hard on them, and I should have praised them more. It was a conditioning I had from my own teacher, well my one and only proper teacher, although I'm still a student so I'm learning from all those great players our there.

Now I think I have a little to offer I no longer teach! (I'm way past my sell by date anyway).

From Royce Faina
Posted on September 12, 2011 at 3:12 PM

I like that Listen was listed first. During a Bible study and discussion with one of my elders and his wife I learned an excellent point, "Jehovah reminds us to reflect on a figurative reason why he gave us two ears and one mouth." This was when I was contemplating the scripture, "Be swift to listen, slow to speak." A council point I really needed to learn!!! :^) Listening is so, so important and commonly neglected.

From Vartkes Ehramdjian
Posted on September 12, 2011 at 6:14 PM

I also have a system which I have used my entire time as a teacher.............and I think it works.

When a student steps in for his or her lesson , I give them some space and some time alone at least for a few minutes to make them feel calm, comfortable and put them  in a good mood and shape of performing......say at least for  the scales.
And I complement for the nice tone and work that has been done during the week.

I usually play with them, specially the first time of a new etudes or piece, and then let them play alone if possible.

I am a pro "duet" teacher, I love ending my lessons with a beautiful duet by Pleyel, Sphor, Viotti, Mazas,j.s. Bach, Dancla, Beriot  etc......... all beautiful and artistic  violinistic duets which remains in the student's heart and  mind during the period of being away from me.

Vartkes Ehramdjian
Montreal, Canada

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