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Pauline Lerner

The Devil or Me?

June 6, 2008 at 4:21 PM

When I’m feeling bad about a student and I’m in a melodramatic mood, I identify with the heroine of Henry James’s novella/ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw” (now available for free download on the Gutenberg Project). The story is about a young woman who has accepted a position as a governess for two small children, brother and sister, in a large, old English house on beautiful, large grounds. Since the children were orphans and their legal guardian wished to stay uninvolved, the governess took full responsibility for the children. At first the children seemed very well behaved, and life was good. Then the children started disappearing for a few hours at a time, and the governess shadowed them to see where they went. She was shocked to find that the children are being lured away by the ghosts of two former servants from the house, who had died recently under mysterious circumstances. The governess was convinced that the apparitions were agents of the Devil, who were determined to bring the children to the Devil for his nefarious purposes. The governess found herself in mortal combat with the Devil for the children’s souls. The little boy became very ill, and the governess sat up with him all night, trying to keep him alive and out of the Devil’s hands. By sunrise, sadly, the boy was dead and the Devil had taken his soul.

What can this possibly have in common with teaching kids to play the violin? Sometimes I get a student who is very talented, learns quickly to play well, and has a powerful musical intuition. However, these students consider themselves failures at the violin, and they have similar problems with their studies at school. They set unreasonably high goals for themselves and become depressed about their failures to meet them. They often play a line or two of a piece, make one small mistake, and give up. “I just can’t play this piece at all,” they say. From there, it is a relatively small step for them to decide, “I can’t play the violin at all.” One girl told her parents not to tell her that she was playing well because she “knew” she wasn’t. She did allow me to praise her. Another girl had a sort of mini-breakdown. She was worried that she wouldn’t make straight As and get into a good college. She was ten years old. I know the parents of all these kids, and they all go out of their way to avoid making their kids feel pressured. I do everything I can think of to make these kids realize that they are playing well and that they should not give up. I use the carrot, the stick, email consultations with their parents, and my own form of psychotherapy. I feel like I’m in my own personal fight against the Devil of self doubt and low self esteem. One of my students is poised on the edge right now. I feel like I’m sitting up all night with her to keep her from the Devil. Who will win, the Devil or me?

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