Stop and Listen

September 30, 2015, 12:00 PM · Violin lessons are, by nature, routine. They occur at scheduled intervals, over years of time. Each lesson has its predictable rituals of scales, etudes, pieces. Each piece of music has its stages of progression, from figuring out music when it is new, to laboring over details and difficulties, to playing something well-learned.

It almost seems boring, doesn't it? And yet within this predictable and ever-repeating framework are moments that are almost sacred, times that transcend the ordinary. These aren't often recorded for posterity -- I don't even think they should be. They happen in real time, real life. They are simply moments of accomplishment or revelation that are worth one's presence and attention. They happen with every student, of every age, at every level.

I witnessed such a moment last night, from a student who was playing for me her final performance of a piece, before we officially moved to the next one. The piece was the Gavotte from Bach's solo cello Suite No. 6, transcribed for violin; or put more colloquially, the first piece in Suzuki Book 5.

I hadn't heard her play the piece in several weeks, as it was already pretty well in hand and we'd been working on other things. But I knew she'd been working on it and it needed that "polished performance" time in the lesson. She started a bit slower than is my personal preference (in the cello suites I tend to prefer the lightness of Casals [20:23] over the intensity of Rostropovich, and hers was probably somewhere between). I drew in a breath to say something -- then I didn't. I realized, this was her tempo, a choice she'd made. Furthermore, she was in the zone. Besides being in tune, in time, respectful of style and well balanced with dynamics, it was just beautiful. Time to just listen.

And as I was listening, I looked up and saw something that, if possible, made me even happier than this success and this music: her mother. Many of my students' parents attend their lessons, even well after their child no longer needs practice help at home. As they get older, a parent might be there only once in a while, sitting quietly on the couch, often reading or doing their own work. At a certain point, it's really the student's responsibility to understand and engage in their own learning. But a supportive parent who respects the student-teacher relationship is always welcome.

When my student was playing her beautiful Bach, I noticed that her mother had put down her book, and was simply listening: smiling, with her eyes half-closed, listening to her daughter play. It's no short piece, either. She listened the entire time.


I've never talked to parents about that. Very often, I look up and see parents who are in the same room, but they are far, far away on their smartphone. I can't judge this; I do the same thing. Sometimes it's perfectly fine; they don't need to participate in our painstaking efforts to speed up a scale or get the right wrist motion for sautillé, etc.

But on occasion, it's worth listening, and listening is an active endeavor. You can't truly listen when you are noodling on a phone. You can't listen to a concert; you can't listen to your best friend; you can't listen to your child. You can't listen to your teacher; you can't listen to your parent; you can't listen to the real world around you. The sound goes in your ears, and it might make some small blip on your brain. But it certainly doesn't reach your heart.


September 30, 2015 at 05:09 PM · Thank you for sharing this. I will make an effort to be a more active listener at my childrens' lessons.

October 1, 2015 at 10:21 AM · That was a lovely piece of writing! I really enjoyed it as I embark on the journey of teaching some new beginners this week. A lot of people have no idea what a commitment this is, and not just for the student. That was great to read about your moment of catching yourself and letting the student complete the piece, and with her mother's rapt attention. How beautiful. Thank you very much for sharing it.

October 1, 2015 at 12:30 PM · The other night my daughter, who has switched to viola this year, was practicing the first movement of the Telemann concerto. (It was my music--I'd played some of that piece when I learned viola myself, but not that movement.) Our new house is organized in a way that you can hear some of the sounds coming from the upstairs bedroom in the living room where I was working on the computer. It was hauntingly beautiful to listen to. It was like I was hearing the piece for the first time.

October 2, 2015 at 07:53 PM · Thank you, Laurie. This is a beautiful story and great advice. I shall endeavor to put it into practice. I'm glad you and your student's parent were able to share this gorgeous moment.

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