A real dead-end

June 14, 2007 at 04:09 PM · I have a student who has been with me for several years. She always showed great self-motivation, was well-prepared for lessons, seemed to really enjoy playing (and even considered herself to be quite a star). Now, she is 10 years old, and things have gone quite downhill. She has developed a bad left-hand position that is preventing us from moving forward: she is collapsing her wrist and claims it is suddenly the only way she can play in tune. She also refuses to learn to slur note, explaining to me that slurs sound bad and are pointless. She has suddenly forgotten how to read music. She argues with my every suggestion. I can tell she cries before every lesson, and sometiems breaks down over the smallest things, like an out-of-tune note. This has been going on for over 6 months now. I have tried to keep things light and fun, let her choose what she would like to learn, encouragement. I have tried to talk with her mom, who just says she hopes htis is a phase. I have even tried some tough love. I am at my limit. I can start to feel my own blood-pressure rise 15 minutes beofer the lesson. I can't stand the whining, crying, and excuses anymore. Here is my question: am I giving up too easily if I drop the student? it is obvious to me that she is NOT enjoying herself. I get the impression that mom won't let her quit. We are literally going nowhere but backwards.

Replies (27)

June 14, 2007 at 04:27 PM · This sounds like a complicated thing. Since you can tell she's been crying before lessons, then it sounds more like something real. But it could be some interaction with mom before the lesson. I'd just let her do whatever she wants in lessons for awhile. She can't get P.O'ed over that :)

June 14, 2007 at 04:25 PM · You sound like you've given it a good shot, and that you care about the student. I doubt what she is going through has anything to do with you. Still, maybe a break or a change of teachers would help her attitude. In your situation, I would want to drop her for my own sake. I don't think you should feel guilty if you have a serious talk with the mother and tell her that this isn't working out anymore. Maybe try to come to an understanding (with both mother and daughter) that you will give it another month (or mutually-agreed-upon time) and at the end of that time if there is not improvement in areas X,Y, and Z, you think it's time for a break for the two of you. Then it's up to them if they want to try finding another teacher.

June 14, 2007 at 05:17 PM · Yeah, I agree. If the girl is not enjoying herself then you should not to teach her. I assume you started teaching because you wanted to teach people who wanted to learn. Obviously this girl does not want to learn.

But do it in a careful way, because I have heard horror stories of parents taking it out on the kids for a teacher dropping a student for those reasons. One child was beaten severely by her mother after the teacher told her she did not think the child wanted to learn because of attitude during lessons...

June 14, 2007 at 05:10 PM · A tough situation. My daughter had a similar experience although not as extreme. Around about that age, she didn't cooperate with her teacher and practiced minimally. She had been playing a few years making rapid progress and always preapred for lessons. We did everything we could; sent her to a music camp, joined her in an orchestra, let her play what pleases her, changed teachers, etc. I don't know if any of that helped. Now a couple of years later, she's back on track. Her poor teacher had to forget about getting any satisfaction from teaching her during that time. Good luck!


June 14, 2007 at 07:11 PM · To me this raises questions in my head of things that may be going on in the home. In any event I would extricate myself from it. It sounds like a no win situation for you.

June 15, 2007 at 01:13 AM · I can relate to this because a few years back I had a clarinet student just like this, but she was older and in junior high school.

I am guessing, from what is told in the thread, that the girl seems like a perfectionist... at least my student was. I can remember lightining up the lesson and feeling my blood pressure go up too.. I even ignored it, but no good. I talked to the mom about the situation... I found out that she did the same thing to another teacher.

I finally ended up passing her on to another teacher. From what I could gather her family was very pushy good grades, perfectist people.

Simularly, I found out through another teacher that her sister did the same thing... humm

Good luck and I feel your pain.

June 15, 2007 at 10:37 AM · Is there any possibility that her mum could sit in on some lessons? She might behave herself if her mum is in the room.

Also, does she play in any orchestras or chamber groups? Does she get a chance to perform the pieces? If she does this might help with her motivation.

I can symphasise with your dilemma though. I used to teach the violin one afternoon in a secondary girls school, and one of my pupils was talented, but an absolute nightmare to teach.

June 15, 2007 at 11:40 AM · sounds like neither party is enjoying the process,,,

above all, i think a teacher has to be able to "handle" a student and not get herself killed in the process (as a parent one often does not have a choice:).

even though a teacher has to "learn" to teach each student accordingly, not everyone can be stretched like a rubberband cognitively and emotionally. dealing with a "difficult" student is challenging. however, it may also be a rewarding learning experience.

to some, it may be agony, an accelerated course to ER for chest pain; to others, to channel a seemingly difficult student from recklessness back onto the road is what teaching or learning to teach is all about.

whether this student is a nice fit for the teacher going forward is one thing to speculate. imo, this student, if successfully rerouted, may be capable of expanding her potentials much more than many "well behaved" 10 yos.

i treasure a 10 yo daring to be confrontational, daring to make up her mind with poor judgement, daring to think her wrong way is the right way, daring to show emotion if she does not get her way, daring to be upset when played out of tune. her thought process may be pitifully ignorant and taking a detour, but it did not happen all of a sudden one day 6 months ago. the student had undergone a process under the watchful eye of the teacher or the parents...eyes are open but did not see ...

what is precious, however, is her attitude. she has her own standard, however low or wrong, and she wants and dares to do it her way. imagine one day when she is shown the right way and she comes to believe the right way is the only way! that is a trait common among many successful artists, if not in other disciplines.

i think the student just announced: check. it is not a dead-end like checkmate.

June 15, 2007 at 03:23 PM · Aha, sounds like you've got a stage of development issue here. If I read your description correctly, you're dealing with pre-adolescent latency, the period of life in which the future suddenly looms large and frightening. What children who get wrapped up in this issue typically do at this age is to develop excuses, attitudes, and behaviors that result in underachievement, with a sense of willful oppositionality behind it. The way you describe it, it probably has little to do with your teaching, but just with the fact that if she keeps on being a "star," the demands for competence and responsibility are going to pile up on her and be overwhelming. That's why so many kids this age "forget" to take out the garbage or do their homework. They seem to backslide in all kinds of areas of achievement and responsibility.

You might try asking her what HER goals are. How much does SHE want to accomplish? What will be the consequences of her practicing well (or poorly)? Either way, is that what SHE wants?

See if you can put yourself in the role of helping her to identify what her goals are, and that your role is to help her achieve HER goals, not to impose goals on her that she rebels against.

I've co-authored 2 books on this topic (if you're interested). The more recent one is "Could Do Better - Why Children Underachieve, and what to do about it," by Drs. Harvey Mandel and Sander Marcus.

In the meantime, several of the practical suggestions and insights offered thus far may also make a difference.

And, yes indeed, no matter what the issues are, if the experience for her, her family, and you is so overwhelmingly negative, and there is no reasonable resolution in sight, terminating the relationship is not unreasonable.

Good luck.

Cordially, Sandy

June 15, 2007 at 03:35 PM · That’s right, al! A child has the right to grow up in an atmosphere of happiness, says UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child!

June 15, 2007 at 03:52 PM · I'd be wondering what was going on at home to make the child cry before lessons. Perhaps it's not the lesson itself that the child hates but other things. Nevertheless, if this was my student, I would be very honest and tell her I'm not going to teach her anymore unless she can get her act together. She's 10, not 4.

June 15, 2007 at 04:01 PM · but yixi,the UN convention:) on child happiness has one exemption clause for kid violin players, though. it reads: although violin playing is about being happy, if you are not, you are not alone. bear with it and you shall find delayed happiness if it ever shows up:):):)

sandy, thanks for the words of wisdom. assume you have a kid (client) who crosses busy streets without looking left and right. at what point do you stop asking,,,is this really what you want to do and start mandating the kid to do it right?

June 15, 2007 at 04:43 PM · Hi, Al: Yes, there is that balance with children, of course, between imposing parental and adult authority and empowering them to go after their own goals. The line that separates those two things isn't always as clear as the kid who walks out into the street. And I hope to God most parents would go out and grab the kid.


PS. They say that insanity is hereditary; you get it from your children.

June 15, 2007 at 06:43 PM · I know there are some members who conclude I am some evil ogre who does not support teachers. But, if I may add some comments….

A significant and difficult challenge. Sander is learned and makes some key points. Your own observations (eg crying before lessons) are key also. Taken as a whole, I suspect, as others do, there are more factors, underlying and hidden from your view. To uncover the factors, likely you will need to intrude into the privacy of the family and the girl, and perhaps educate yourself further in how to observe, recognize, and deal with the relevant factors. I surmise this is not what you prefer, nor the family.

But, I ask a point of you: are you teaching the girl because you recognize talent and wish to take part in its development; or are you thinking the money you receive is not worth the hassle? If the latter, I think you should likely politely decline further involvement. If the former, the next question is whether the parents are willing to continue to finance the lessons, even if progress is curtailed for the next year or so. If yes, the next question is whether you wish to continue, not as a violin teacher, but as a mentor to what is obviously a troubled little girl - and the parents too. If yes, then you must assess yourself for capability and patience. You would seem to have the background and capability for it!

If you quit on her, you remove a helping hand. If you continue, albeit with violin as the focus, you continue to have the opportunity to be a positive influence in the girl’s life. I am not an advocate of solving other people’s problems for them, but I am an advocate of not turning away from someone when I see them in need. The girl may be going through a phase, and so grow out of it. Or she may actually have some trouble, in which case she needs mentoring. What may seem now as no-win to you, may perhaps seem winnable to you later, as over time you observe and support the girl in her needs. If you think positively that you can help, no doubt you will, even if only in some small way. The proverbial light-bulb may switch on in your head! Helping does not need to be a complete solution: it can be simply helping the girl incrementally.

But, of course, ultimately you must decide if you have the capabilities and patience within you to help the girl. There is no shame in recognising one’s own limitations, and politely advising the girl and parents that now is a good time for a hiatus or for a different teacher.

all the best!

June 15, 2007 at 07:00 PM · Just to turn this around, away from violin lessons. These could all be signs of childhood depression- and unless there is hostility- to me, being unable to read music, all of a sudden, is a serious sign. Talk to the mother and try to find out if there has been a problem with grades falling in school, too. Even physical problems( abuse?, thyroid...etc) can change the behaviour of a child, make her combative, moody,unable and unwilling to learn new things. Good luck. michelle

June 15, 2007 at 08:01 PM · Thanks for all the thoughtful advice. I definitely see that she is very frustrated, which is coming from inside. There is not a lot I can do to change that. I have tried to give her a lot of positive feedback, but it is not working. Last lesson she dropped her violin on the hard floor and knocked the bridge out. I really don't think this child wants to play anymore. I feel like I am doing her a disservice every lesson, because I feel how much she dreads it. WE have had a few lessons that have been somewhat positive, but those consist generally of me just sitting there listening to her play book one songs that she knew long ago--but now she plays them with wrong notes and flagrantly ba technique. If I suggest correcting a note or playing with proper techniques, the tears start rolling. Then I start to hear "you told me C# was the low 2nd finger" or "you told me to play with a crooked bow." The mom sits in on every lesson, sort of halfway paying attention. She sometimes makes comments about how she never practices and how the child argues with her as well.

June 15, 2007 at 09:33 PM · Have you thought of trying a different repetoire.Instead of leafing throught he same old books make a fresh start.Find two new pieces one that will be easy to play and one on the level and at the same time select one scale.Work through the scale using different bowing techniques each week start each new bowing technique on the open strings working on sound.Its very important to create a no fail enviroment so go slowly.Make her excited about producing a good sound so choose interesting pieces.The piece under level should be learnt fairly quickly thus giving the push to learn the slightly harder piece and to make it sound as good as the first.I've used this method on a few students over the years and they're all still playing.

June 15, 2007 at 10:57 PM · Keri

Yes yes yes your last post... I have been through that.. suggesting something and the tears roll.

I did let mom sit in on a few lessons and a couple were tear free, but the majority of them she cried in front of mom. I would let the mom sit in to see how that relationship is and see if it comes from the family.

Then if it isn't going anywhere, I would let her go onto another teacher and I wouldn't consider it failure either. It would be interesting to me what she does with the other teacher.

It really does sound like someone from the family expects perfection.

June 16, 2007 at 03:41 AM · I would suspend playing at the next lesson and have a heart to heart with the mother and then the daughter. Of course I would let the mother know when the lesson started that I see no further point in pretending to play, while she flagrantly plays the wrong notes and drops her violin on the floor.

It really sounds like she doesn't want to play the violin anyway. Suggest a break, maybe for the summer, and if she wants to come back in the fall, then let them know she has a spot. Sometimes parents are afraid to let the kid take a break because they feel they won't get their spot back, so they'd rather struggle on hoping that the kid will be more motivated.

June 16, 2007 at 04:15 AM · Jodi, what a relief to hear that you have been through it, too. The reason this is a little difficult for me is that I have a degree in education and I am a general ed. classroom teacher in my "real" life. In that classroom world, there is no option of letting a child quit, or handing her off to another teacher. In the private teaching realm, it is totally different but I find that my philosophies are at war with one another. I have known the family for a long time now, and I don't get a perfectionist vibe from any of them. I think I will suggest a break--I need it just as badly as the child does.

I have tried working on other repertiore with her--I asked her what she would like to play, and I got a blank stare. I gave her a variety of things to try out, and she never gave it a second glance.

My biggest success has been playing pieces for her that I am working on, to demonstrate why certain technique is necessary. She is a big fan of flashy "tricks" and sound effects. I tried that angle, but it fizzled as well.

Clare, I get the distinct impression that the child does not want to have a talk with me about any of this. Hence, the crying and the violin dropping. We have even had lessons where I had to leave early because the child was crying hysterically when I arrived (because she did not want to have a lesson.) The mother and I have been talking a bit, since things have reached such a critical point.

June 16, 2007 at 04:52 AM · Gosh Keri, this must have been a horrible few months for you. I'd be dreading it the whole day before, and spending the rest of the week getting over it. And that just doesn't sound fair for a voluntary lesson arrangement.

You know, when you find yourself spending more time trying to devise the behaviour management program than you do teaching the violin, its time to stop.

Let this lass know that you have tried to show her that you can be understanding, compassionate, caring, but it is no longer good for you, to keep being the teacher for her while she persists with this behaviour. Really spell it out for her - the crying, dropping instrument, not reading, the lot. Just make it clear that her mum is paying you as a violin teacher, and you can't do that, and as she doesn't seem to need any extra instruction in being a violin non-learner, and there really isn't much of a role for you right now.

Tell her clearly what you expect of her as a learner - you know, just like you would do for the naughty boys in the classroom. Can she do that? Yes? Great, lets see how you go for this next 15 minutes, here's what I've planned for your lesson this week, and this is what I expect you to do while you're here. Fantastic lesson lass, lets do it again just the same next week.

Alternative scenario - not agreeing to behaviour, stop the lesson straight away, and she can go early. "I'll talk to your mum then, and you two can decide if you want to come back for anymore lessons. If you come back for lessons, this is the behaviour I expect of you, and I will stop the lesson immediately if you don't do it".

Whatever else is going on in this girl's life, the family, who has known you for some time and allowed you to keep on dealing with their daughter, haven't seen it as worthy to investigate this further or ask for your help. Yeah, sure you might find out that there are big issues going on at home, or she has some mental health issue, and if you need to you can let mum know that you are concerned at a deeper level about her daughter, but you are the violin teacher, not the therapist. Personally, I'd be buggered if I was going to spend ages trying to modify and downgrade the lesson and still find she doesn't even do what a 3 year old beginner would attempt. Kids don't lose thier abilites suddenly, but their behaviour can regress. If depressed and therefore regressed, your violin lesson is not going to be an adequate treatment.

If you feel that you'd be letting her down to drop out of contact wit her, could you make a temporary arrangement to have non violin lesson time with her, maybe she could come in and do some non music related stuff in your studio - polish the piano, sort the music. And charge the family however you see fit.

If she does decide to try lessons, I'd suggest - write down everything you want her to practise, make sure there is no room for confusion or manipulation.

June 16, 2007 at 08:14 AM · I wouldn't be able to tolerate such behavior. That's just me. I hate feeling like I'm clinging to someone who doesn't want me. At some point, it becomes a game of trying to please someone who refuses to be pleased, and for some reason, that feels abusive.

June 16, 2007 at 03:04 PM · Emily, you just hit the nail on the head. You are absolutely right. I think I know what I have to do now. This has gone on for quite a long time now, and I do feel like I am just trying to please her and walk on eggshells. Thanks!

June 16, 2007 at 07:46 PM · Let’s call a spade a spade. Judging from your description, Keri, this is a spoiled kid. I’m completely agreeing with Emily. Let go of it.

Al, I was of course being facetious to mention UN children’s rights in reacting to your earlier eloquent post. You exemption clause is very clever but won’t work because happiness is delayed happiness is denied! ;-)

Sandy, I get the insanity from watching spoiled children in North America.

June 16, 2007 at 07:48 PM · Yixi - I am afraid I can't agree that the kid is spoiled. This has been a long term relationship where it was going well until about 6 months ago. The kid wasn't spoiled until then.

I don't know if it helps to see it this way. When my daughter was in the 3rd grade (age 9), there were 6 kids playing violin. When they got to the 4th grade, all of them resisted taking lessons. Finally in the 5th, only two were still playing violin. Those two are still playing two years later. In many cases, playing violin is nerdy, and being labeled nerdy for some kids is as good as dead at this age. I am not, however, saying this applies to Keri's student. Her case sounds very extreme.


June 16, 2007 at 09:46 PM · Ihnsouk, when I say a child is spoiled, I am suggesting that there’s not enough guidance from the parents. Kids are kids and they’ll do whatever they can to express their emotions and frustrations that they can’t put their fingers on. Like you said, a lot of kids that age don’t want to play the violin so this is nothing new. My concern is the way the kid expresses herself and what I’m saying is that it’s wrong to allow such a free display of her emotions. Another way to put it is that the guardian of a child is responsible to cultivate the child’s ability to exercise the freedom of expressions appropriately but not to abuse freedom. I hope al ku will agree with me here. When a parent allows a child to behave in the way Keri has described (on-going whining, crying, arguing, making excuses and even dropping the violin in front of her teacher and her mother), I call this kind of indulgence spoiling. A child is spoiled is a child is improperly loved. I’m not suggesting tough love either, but it’s my firm belief that structure and guidance (including how to behave properly in front of a teacher) is the kind of the love every child needs but I don’t see it here.

June 17, 2007 at 12:55 AM · I had been playing piano since I was four, and when I was 9-10 years old, my parents had difficulties and split up for a while. I don't think that it was a coincidence that I quit taking lessons at that point. I began again a year later in 5th grade with a new teacher and put my foot to the pedal from then on through high school. My former teacher had little influence on my actions and decisions.

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