Kidnapped by the Smartphone

March 18, 2019, 1:55 PM · It's all too easy to get out that smartphone and let it sweep you away from your goals on the violin, whether you are a professional, a student, or a parent of a student.

smartphone sad neglected violin

"Mom? Mom! Were you watching me?" said a five-year-old violin student to her mom, after accomplishing something new in the violin lesson. Her mom was sitting right there on the couch, but a million miles away on the phone.


"Oh I'm sorry, I wasn't," said Mom, realizing that both her child and the teacher were looking at her. She put down the phone and watched.

I could say, "Parents are different these days." But it wouldn't be fair. Most parents mean well, especially when they have taken the trouble to attend a young child's violin lesson. We're all still humans. But the smartphone poses a unique challenge to our relationships, our productivity, our wellness, our sanity, certainly our violin practice. It's something that clearly, we have not adequately addressed as a society.

Let's face it, watching a child's violin or other music lessons can be boring. I went to my son's piano lessons for 10 years, and those years occurred before the advent of the smartphone. The pages of the piano notebook that I kept for him are filled with notes, but they are also filled with elaborate doodles that have nothing to do with piano. Before smartphones, parents brought books and magazines to lessons. I have a very comfortable couch in my studio -- many parents fell asleep!

Practicing can also be boring. Did we humans manage to avoid practicing before cell phones? I'm here to say that yes, indeed we did.

Also, I hate to admit this, but people occasionally get bored and turn to their cell phones at symphony concerts and recitals. Also, sometimes people entertain their children with smartphones to keep them quiet and well-behaved. Is it worth it to cultivate a child's attention span by going phoneless, risking that the child might get bored and restless? What if you get bored during a concert, should you turn to your cell phone and check out?

Smartphones take us away from our surroundings like no other distraction that I know. When a person is fully immersed in his or her phone, it is possible to stand directly in front of that person, address him or her by name, and get no response whatsoever. It's also possible to waste copious amounts of time on the smartphone. Ever notice how, you can get on the phone to, say, check the temperature outside, then somehow 10 minutes evaporate into thin air -- and you still haven't checked the temperature!

It's plain to me that we all need to take control of our phones. Certainly goals such as keeping one's proficiency on the violin or other instrument, learning new techniques, helping a child learn violin -- or even exercising, making dinner -- these are more important than checking Facebook or getting sucked into the latest listical on Buzzfeed or checking every text as it comes. But the smartphone, as well as so many "clickbate" sites on the Internet, are designed to kidnap your attention and keep it hostage for as long as possible, and not always with edifying content.

It can help to make a conscious effort to curtail screen time: turn off useless notifications, turn off the phone altogether and stow it away for things like violin lessons, or for that particular time period that you have designated as practice time. Another trick: switch your screen to black and white -- it simply makes the phone less interesting. Allow yourself to be bored and phoneless on occasion; boredom can actually good for your brain and your creativity. While I don't want to be a nanny-teacher, I may try to institute some kind of cell phone policy for my studio. This is rather complicated, with students of many ages who need a varying degree of attention from parents. (When the student is in that pre-teen weaning-from-parents-at-lessons stage, it doesn't seem as necessary to ban the parent's phone use as when they are in preschool!)

What problems have you run into with smartphone use, for yourself or for your students? What have you done to curtail your own cell phone use or to make sure that it does not interfere with your practicing or other important aspects in life? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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March 18, 2019 at 07:22 PM · I, too, have thought about implementing a no cellphone policy. I don't think parents are aware of how it makes their kids feel when they're on their phone in he lesson instead of watching them.

However, I have found that if instead of specifically pointing out the phone issue, I can repeatedly address the parent in the lesson and it makes them much more aware of how much they were distracted.

Things like "(name), did you notice how I moved her bow arm?". And I'll ask questions like this every few minutes or so.

I do think part of the reason parents got on the phone is because they're not aware of how much they're supposed to be engaged, and perhaps they even feel like it's rude to watch the lesson too closely. Like they don't want to make the teacher feel micromanaged. So by constantly engaging them, it's my way of telling them that I'd like them to watch closely.

March 18, 2019 at 07:30 PM · I don't have one! I keep an old flip phone in my purse to use in an emergency. The battery lasts forever when it's never turned on.

I'm old enough to remember (and appreciate) when break time at orchestra rehearsals would involve folks chatting, catching up with one another, perhaps checking a bowing with the section leader or putting a fingering from a practice part into the shared copy.

Nowadays, I will think of a question or two for my stand partner - personal or related to the music at hand - and use one as soon as I see them going for their device. Sometimes I'll make a joke about how difficult it is to play with a unit surgically attached to one's arm...

March 18, 2019 at 08:52 PM · I'm probably one of the very few who does NOT own one of those devices....don't want one either. I have flip phone, that's all I need.

March 18, 2019 at 09:30 PM · What? You allow phones and laptops in your "classroom"? I don't! Sure, in a large classroom that's hard to enforce.

I play in a no-audition community orchestra. The break time is still chatting with folks. Folks much older than myself. The few young people are out in the hallway on their phones.

The slavery of the phone is twofold. First, you're addicted to it. Second, you're paying for it. And the more you use, the more you pay! Sound familiar? Tobacco all over again.

March 19, 2019 at 02:22 AM · I do think it's worth pointing out that the phone is also a fantastic tool for musicians.

1) Spotify gives you access to the world's biggest record collection, and the classical selection is amazing. You want to hear a recording of a piece you're learning, you usually have dozens, and sometimes scores, of recordings to choose from.

2) Not a day goes by that I'm not using my phone as a tuner and/or metronome.

3) Wikipedia has quality quick reference articles on composers and works, so in a moment you can refresh yourself on what Shostakovich was going through when he wrote the 5th Symphony.

4) There are great document scanning apps that can help you copy parts (within the boundaries of copyright law of course!). So you want to get your concertmaster's bowings and fingerings for the work you're playing, your phone is your friend.

March 19, 2019 at 03:49 AM · Good point, Thomas! Also, sometimes I ask parents and students to videotape demonstrations during their lessons that they can use later for practicing.

March 19, 2019 at 11:46 AM · I wholeheartedly agree. The phone can be an extremely useful tool (yes, Thomas!), but should not be a pacifier (for adults or children) or an electronic leash. I use it to record my instructor playing tunes I'm trying to learn so I can go back and listen to how a specific part should sound and to play along.

It is unfortunate how dominate these devices have become in our lives to the point of families going to a restaurant and everyone being on their phones/tablets (looking at trivial stuff) rather than engaging with each other. As for parents that are on their phone during a lesson, the children are quite aware that their activity is secondary to the phone mom/dad are holding.

March 19, 2019 at 12:55 PM · The smart phone, cell phone or simply "phone" aren't the best descriptions for that device. It's no longer a phone, it's really a handheld computer that has far more features than desktop computers had not so long ago. Add to this the social networking and it's a recipe for addiction. Yes, I said addiction. It really is an addiction. How many people can stay off one for any length of time? It has become the little everything box, especially for people on the move who don't work on computers during the day.

I see no reason why there shouldn't be a no smart phone policy during lesson times. Maybe a sign at the door politely stating it. When new students are signed on it could be a clause in the intro literature given to parents/students. There is at least one person in my life that is on the smart phone constantly. It can be very annoying to attempt to communicate with such individuals, I feel it stands between me and them. I'm sure that a student looking for a parents approval and seeing mom or dad buried in their device won't feel very important at that moment.

I would turn the ringer off put in in my pocket and forget it. These times go by fast. Before you know it they are grown.Do you as a parent want to miss that?

March 19, 2019 at 08:30 PM · I agree that cell phones are an addiction. Somehow, though, it doesn't have the stigma attached to so many other addictions. The reason, as ever, is that large corporations (and governments, of course) are making lots of money from it.

I feel sorry for people who can't function without a smartphone. They've lost the use of one hand and half of their minds, and are often incapable of working things out for themselves or finding their way from A to B without help. They are, to put it crudely, crippled.

I have a flip phone and I'm proud of it. It can place and receive phone calls and text messages - what more could I want? If I need a computer, I'll sit down at one, or if I'm on the road I'll bring my laptop. Sheet music (or this forum, for that matter) is much easier to read on a full-sized computer screen than on a tiny phone screen.

I heard of one teacher who had a smart idea - students are required to deposit their phones in a wall rack by the door. To lessen the sting, the rack includes a charger, so not only are the students free of a major distraction, they can get their batteries topped up during the lesson.

March 19, 2019 at 08:36 PM · The charger is a good idea, makes it seem more "positive" and less like phone jail!

March 19, 2019 at 08:49 PM · When does the tool become the master? To be sure, many adults and most children simply do not have a choice either from peer and/or work demands.

Like many here, I have a flip phone and have even had young people ask me: "what can you do with that?" When I reply, make and receive phone calls - the eyes roll.

Being a geezer and child-free I simply don't need one. My students and their parents (grudgingly) accept that if they want to communicate with me from a distance they will actually have to talk to me. What a concept!

I do wonder about the social implications and human development but then again humans have started with basic language, painting, writing, printing, and society survived (sort of considering the political stuff we don't want to discuss here).

The basic human hasn't changed all that much - gullible, quick to make wrong decisions, easily distracted, and easily obsessed - the smart phone will be relic one day - I just wonder what will replace it.

March 20, 2019 at 04:28 PM · "They will actually have to talk to me. What a concept!"

A pub I once visited had a sign on the wall that read: "We don't have wi-fi. Talk to each other!"

March 20, 2019 at 05:57 PM · Marcel Proust was challenged by the concept of the earliest telephones. When it was explained to him, his friend said: "... and when the bell rings, you answer it" "Aha" said the great man, "So you are its servant." I have a primitive flip phone which I use a few times a week, at my convenience. The rest of the time, I speak to friends and family.

March 20, 2019 at 06:09 PM · Such an important subject. It starts with boredom itself, not the phone. Boredom means you just aren't paying close enough attention. The antidote is to not escape from what threatens to be an unapproachable feeling and pay attention to it and to what's actually going on. Boredom is a wakeup call, better than the one on the phone.

March 20, 2019 at 09:01 PM · Such an important subject. It starts with boredom itself, not the phone. Boredom means you just aren't paying close enough attention. The antidote is to not escape from what threatens to be an unapproachable feeling and pay attention to it and to what's actually going on. Boredom is a wakeup call, better than the one on the phone.

March 21, 2019 at 12:22 AM · I sport a flip phone in my car.....but I think it's out of propane...

March 22, 2019 at 03:42 AM · I use my smartphone in lessons every day as a tuner, a metronome, and a video camera when I want a student to see/hear themselves the way I am seeing/hearing them. Incidentally, whenever I video a student, I have the student watch right away and then I make a point of deleting the video as the student watches. This way I avoid any question about what might happen to the video of a minor student, i.e. privacy concerns.

I don't mind parents on their phones when sitting in a lesson, but I'm teaching middle and high school students who should be much more independent in their practicing anyway.

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