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Emily Grossman

Horse to Water

November 11, 2011 at 8:51 AM

Student X (name withheld to protect the guilty) sat waiting in the living room as I ushered the previous student to the door. I didn't have to ask as he headed back to the studio; his countenance said it all.

"How'd your week of practice go?"
"Not good at all."
"I know. I could tell. Did you even practice a little?"
"Not even one time? " He shook his head.

He got out his violin as I grabbed his assignment book. Last week's entry read, "Same as last week." This made it two weeks in a row, and has tended to be the norm for this incredibly gifted, yet incredibly lazy high school student. (I paused before choosing that adjective because it sounds so harsh, but there's no other word that fits the bill.) He didn't even try to make an excuse this time. If it was some other kid whose relationship with the violin held contempt and disdain, I would have told him to drop it and called the next student on the waiting list. But here stood someone who wanted a path to gain him access to the musical expression that needed outlet.

I could see he was preparing for the speech. So, with a shrug, I began.

"I feel bad because your wasting your money when you do this. But you're wasting something else that makes me even sadder. What do you think that is?"

"Your time?"
"...Um, my violin?"
"Your lesson slot?"

I felt the intensity of my frustration gain momentum. It balled into my fist, which held my bow. The bow became a finger, and as I swung my arm out, the finger pointed at him.

"YOU. You are wasting YOU."

From Ray Randall
Posted on November 11, 2011 at 10:49 PM
Good way to put it.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 11, 2011 at 11:03 PM
A lot of times kids who are labeled "lazy" have learning disabilities, ADHD, or something like it. What do his teachers say about him?
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 5:00 AM
Please don't assume I'm blindly judging. I know this kid very well. I've worked with him in the summer camp kitchen for two summers (would have been fired if he'd been anywhere else but here, and he knows this). He and George take jiu jitsu classes together. I teach his mother and brother lessons, and used to teach his sister. I would decribe our relationship as close friends, and a little like an adopted son. We have a close group of people who keep tabs on him. When he puts his mind to it, he has wonderful creative genius. But when he slacks off, it's pretty much across the board. And no, there are no excuses for his behavior. He may be predisposed, but he has the power to overcome. And that's what we are all here to help each other do.

His assignment appeared to him as a huge pile of laundry, so I spent the rest of the lesson helping his sort and fold it, and showed him how to tackle the next pile on his own. All he has to do is practice. It's a cool Bach ditty, so I'm hoping that'll be something to look forward to.

From Courtland Bates
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 6:15 AM
Perhaps the student doesn't feel the piece? It sounds like you're excited for him to play it, but he may not share your enthusiasm. As a student myself, I sometimes encounter this. Fortunately I'm honest with my instructor and she suggests alternate pieces that are just as challenging. Meeting half-way really makes the difference sometimes.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 6:38 AM
Thanks for the suggestion. We try a jig, we try some bluegrass. We go through Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and the etudes and scales and technical stuff are all delivered in little painless snippets. If he tells me he doesn't like something, we give it a shot and move on. I'm not pushy. I hate poor composition and hoaky arrangements just like he does. So, we have a jam session with the upstairs neighbor for some proper ear training. I tell him to find recordings he likes and share them. He forgets. I give him a cd of various fiddle tunes and ask him to tell me which ones he likes. He doesn't listen to them. I transcribe a tune, and he loves the sound of it, but after I break down the rhythms and bowing patterns, he comes back the next week and hasn't worked on it. He says he wants to play like Mark O'Conner, and I tell him he can, and I'll get him on his way, if only he'll try.

I'm stupid for keeping him. I'm stupid for helping him track down another violin after he broke the one I scored for him last year. Should have let him run away to Seattle and become a bum like he wanted to instead of talking him into graduating high school, saving some money, and getting his driver's license first.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 9:28 AM
Sometimes all you can do is watch. Be there. It may make a big difference. Bon courage.


From ruth shellard
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 9:55 AM
You can only do your best and it sounds like you are doing this.

I think it is hard in a world where everything is instantaneous and people don't want to put the work in.

I have three girls. They've all been given music opportunities. Only one has taken the passion on board and self motivates, as well as lessons, to play the piano and harp.

The other two are happy to text, facebook etc and moan when they are bored. They are not spoilt kids like some in this area, but obviously have more than I did as a child, hence no real hunger. Life is too easy. My mother used to encourage me to get an education because my father died and therefore, as she put it, couldn't give me handouts.

It's sad, but what can you do? The fire has to come from within and many go through life and never find their passion.

That's why I've come to the conclusion that whilst we are here for our kids/students, it is essential we, as adults fulfil, our dreams. That is one of the reasons why I have taken up several instruments in the last few years, with special emphasis on the violin.

So don't worry about your students. Just do your job with heaps of encouragement. I have a passion for languages as well, but try as I might I cannot instil this in my kids even though they do well at school. They're just going through the motions. Having said that my daughter who is keen on music started to teach herself Russian! Her character is different. She's quieter and calmer and doesn't need to constantly socialise. So guess it's down to character.

From al ku
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 12:30 PM
applaud emily's directness. don't care if the kid loves the piece or not, not touching it at all for the entire week is not cool and he knows it.

because of emily, this kid is getting some early, needed wake up calls.

From Courtland Bates
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 12:51 PM
As an aside, Emily sounds like a remarkable teacher!
From Jerry Koziorynsky
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 3:00 PM
Hi Emily,
Kind of ironic that I read your posts all the time. I live in Youngstown, Ohio and I play with the Youngstown Symphony. The ironic part being Youngstown's music director, Randy Fleischer, is your music director at The Anchorage Symphony.

Anyways, I have a similar situation on my hand at the moment. The student in question is a 7th grader that truly has unlimited potential. Whether she chooses to access is or not is the problem.
I began to notice this after her first few lesson. Her previous teacher had passed away and she was referred to me. In the first few lessons, I gathered that she had a great set up (minus a questionable bow hold), strong rhythmical sense and fantastic intonation.
However last week I was informed by another teacher that a student of hers informed her that my student flat out told her she does not practice. I began to put two and two together and finally figure out why she has been less and less prepared for her lesson.

I'm not completely sure what to do. I do not by any means want to see her waste her talent by not practicing. Nor do I want to waste my time and their money.

Well I just thought I would share my story with you so you know you're not alone.


From marjory lange
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 4:10 PM
Is it possible he suffers from depression? (I mean, more than the average teen).
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 12, 2011 at 6:27 PM
Dude, I think all Alaskans are depressed...

Maybe he should get a dog.

Thanks everyone for the encouragement! Jerry, I loved playing under Fleischer! Hope you can work things out with your student, and thanks for letting me know I'm not alone.

From Peter Kent
Posted on November 13, 2011 at 10:20 PM
Sometimes the ominous heap of necessary ingredients to becoming a better violinist is overwhelming and rather than begin to improve, the student procrastinates....similar to placing too much food on a baby's plate...they see the pile, figure they'll never be able to eat that much and quit....they can be tricked with little portions....As a teacher I've encountered students that sound like yours. While you've probably tried too many "tricks", one I used to use was to offer the Paganini Moto thru it, and see if there's a spark of inspiration....if not, play the Ricci recording of blinding speed....and explain that the only difference between the student's playing and Ricci's is: SPEED...that is we're going to work on playing faster...not tone, not vibrato, not shifting, not expression, not any of the other things that we harp on each week...Start slowly, with accuracy, generally observing the dynamics but not necessarily, and see what happens....take a page-per-week.

I've been successful with this ploy a few times...and it might be worth it with this fun piece...I always used the Kreisler-International edition....good luck.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 14, 2011 at 2:06 AM
You have a good point there, Kent. Thanks for sharing it!
From Alice Johnson
Posted on November 14, 2011 at 2:48 AM
I had a student who was not practicing. His parents and I came up with a plan where he had to work to pay for his lessons. He washes my car every week. It does take some work from his parents since he is a young teen and doesn't have a drivers license yet. We have had this arrangement going on 2 years now and he practices faithfully
From Kim Vawter
Posted on November 15, 2011 at 1:48 AM
As a (retired) high school teacher I would like to sympathize with your frustrations. As teachers we tap dance, sing and perform to stir up the interests in our students all the time. We are sad that some of them never respond, show any interest, do homework or indicate that they are even on the same planet. I have two things to say to you as a teacher. Something is better than nothing. The lesson is worth something. He may be coasting but he is still on board. Keep your enthusiasm and continue to "stay the course." If he is truly finished with violin, he will drop out but you will have done your best. The second thing is that there may indeed be some external problem that has nothing to do with the lessons or the violin and you need to know that you may have nothing to do with this. So much is happening to a young person at this time of his life at a dizzying rate of speed. If the violin is a priority in his life he will return. Hopefully music will win!

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