what if it's not going so well?

February 3, 2010 at 08:38 PM ·

 You feel you aren't communicating effectively. A student isn't getting your carefully-considered choices of technique, sequence or materials. He or she doesn't seem to be following your instructions, or isn't practicing adequately. I've thought for a long time that whatever I'm feeling, the student is in the same place. But is this true? What do you do when it's not going well, and especially, what do you say?  Does the student's age, advancement or your perceptions of  ability make a difference?

Replies (24)

February 3, 2010 at 09:15 PM ·

My teacher tells, the more the student is stubburn and has a great will to try to play well, the more she'll be "mean"...  because she wants their success even more than when the kid isn't interested.  If a student wants to play well, then be honest even if honnesty is sometimes hard to hear and is a "party breaker" or "fun breaker".  Especially if the student is mature, old ennough to understand the teacher isn't mad after "you" but just as enthousiastic as you to succed... 

But for some students, my teacher and accompagnist who teaches piano (since I don,t teach myself I'll say what they say), tell that for many students who don't really care about violin that much or who are not used to work hard, thwy would just find it "too hard", "too demanding" and quit if they would "push" too hard.

Also one has to determine (well I think) if it's because the student is lazy, if it's because the student is in demanding school years but still loves the instrument as much (though just a tough period to go through with better perspectives after) etc Communication is really important + knowing each student's personnality. 

Since students are all different, I guess the art of teaching is to determine how far you can go with each student (some can take more critism than other) and how you'll say it to each student.  As there is many way to express the same idea.  And let's be honnest not everyone matches with everybody.  Often teachers reject those with who the "communication" and "connection" doesn't work. (from what I saw again since I really don,t want to tell I'm a teacher when I'm not)

Good luck! 


February 3, 2010 at 10:02 PM ·

Sue, I would agree with Anne-Marie on many levels.  The best teachers I've seen, in any discipline, are the ones with an innate ability to know what each student is ready to hear- who needs lots of encouragement and praise vs. who is ready for an honest critique.  Your concern over this issue marks you as one who does this.  Most likely, if you are unhappy with what's happening in the lessons the student is also, whether or not he or she is really cognizant of it.

Bringing your concerns up at a time when there is time to discuss them, perhaps at the beginning of a lesson, is in everyone's best interests.  Maybe the student would be a better fit with another teacher, maybe they are continuing for all the wrong reasons, maybe someone's life is overwhelming at the moment and they treasure lessons and the connection to music but don't have the ability to practice adequately right now.  Each of these problems has a different solution: switch teachers with no hard feelings, quit or re-evaluate, and continue as is with a better understanding of the background. 

Make it clear you don't dislike the student, but are concerned by their lack of progress.  Lessons are a large investment of time and money on the part of the student.  Sometimes the teacher is in a better position to bring up the cost/value ratio.  You have had many, many students.  Your students probably haven't had very many teachers.

February 4, 2010 at 12:03 AM ·

Sue, if a kid isn't practicing well enough or often enough, I bring the parent into the conversation.  It can help to have very specific instructions, a practice chart, and a practice schedule. Whatever works...

Adults are a little different.  Jobs, kids, life can get in the way.  These issues should be taken into the big picture.   Most of my adult students that temporarily slide on practicing for these reasons totally guilt themselves out anyway.  They don't need any help from me.  (Smile)

Whatever my feelings, I try not to express personal disappointment.  I believe that short and long term progress on violin is motivated by student achievement.  We all have our ups and downs.  I know that during the various rough patches of my student days I would have been  devastated if my teacher had expressed disappointment or frustration.  I'm very grateful they didn't.  

We've all been there, done that.  Hang in there!

February 4, 2010 at 01:12 AM ·


The best thing any of my teachers have done to help me in the past to make strides in my music was to help me refine my practice routine.  If things don't go well during lessons for one reason or another, they have focused on ONE technique to work on in a few ways. 

The other week I had a horrible time during lessons and was becoming frustrated myself.  My teacher stopped all efforts in working through the piece and simply worked on producing a straight bow and controlling the sound point.  This one simple "homework assignment" allowed me to focus on something I could take home and improve upon and re-center myself.


February 4, 2010 at 01:23 AM ·


there are two vital points here and I think they are deeply connected.

First of all the majority of time on the instrument is spent away from the teacher therefore teaching should refelct using that time eff3ectively more than a tour de force of minutiea that the student is barely able to absorb and certainly won`t prioritize in practice time.

The second is that one really does work better on -one point at a time- irrespective of age. This is not a children`s need thingy by any means.



February 4, 2010 at 06:05 AM ·

After I left my first teacher because I felt she didn't enjoy teaching me, I brought my same bad practice habits to my new teacher. She said: "Catherine, I don't know how to put this; but you need to know your instrument more... become familiar with it, otherwise there's no point in rying to learn.."

She was telling me I need to practice more because I was wasting her time and mine. That really got my attention and I practice nearly everyday now.

February 4, 2010 at 07:20 AM ·

In the Suzuki method, one thing that is really emphasized is pointed praise.  Always find something you liked about the lesson, however small a detail. It helps keep frustration down and encourage the student.  

One of my Suzuki teacher trainers told me a story about a lesson she observed when she was working with Dr. Suzuki himself.

Apparently Dr. Suzuki asked the student to play the piece that should have been a review piece for him.  The kid played it through totally butchering the song.  Wrong notes, not even in the right key, questionable posture... the works.  The student finally got to the end and Dr. Suzuki just sort of leaned back in his chair with his cigarette.  After a brief pause he exclaims "Good!  You played!"

February 4, 2010 at 03:02 PM ·

I heard that Suzuki story this way. He responded sincerely to the youngster, "Thank you for playing." When asked about it later, he replied, the child surely knew he wasn't going to do well, so it was probably difficult and very braveto try. Acknowledging that in simple terms opened a door to help him improve. But your telling is fine, too!  // Everyone's responses are so helpful. I feel a bit relieved, so maybe on to sorting out what next. I often feel responsible for students' successes or failures, and that is true and NOT true. Once I give an instruction, I can only make an educated guess if it's "got it and can't do it yet", or didn't get it. They need to ask, go home and TRY, or both. I especially appreciate comments reminding about the effects of expressing my disappointment (or frustration.) Better I should say, "I would like to help you get more out of your lessons", or "I've been thinking more focus on (fill-in) would benefit you." Maybe leave it alone until I can set aside the feeling of time & effort wasted. If I learn something, it hasn't been.  Sue 

February 4, 2010 at 04:19 PM ·

February 4, 2010 at 06:20 PM ·

One of the posters above says: "Always find something you liked about the lesson, however small a detail. It helps keep frustration down and encourage the student" and I think this might be really important.

Coming from an adult perspective, I don't know how much of this will carry over to younger students, but I'll share in hopes that it is somewhat relevant. A few years ago, my long-time teacher sent me on to someone who she considered to be more "advanced" and thus (I guess) appropriate to my level of playing. I was excited to move on, but this new teacher nearly made me put down my violin forever. I continued lessons with her for a year because she was supposed to be "the best" and yet I learned nothing from her at all. She would overload me with negative criticism, and never, ever balance it out with any encouragement whatsoever. Whether it was true or not, I don't know, but I ended up leaving her for another teacher because I was quite convinced she either didn't like me, or simply didn't like teaching and have since had to re-learn (and now HAVE learned!) many of the elements she was trying to teach me. My current teacher now certainly deals me my share of criticism, but when I play well, he is sure to tell me I played well, rather than responding with a simple "hmm," or "ok."

Another thing that I think could be important is to ask your students directly once in awhile if they are understanding what you are telling them. Of course this doesn't apply to me *now* but I remember that while taking lessons as a kid, I was often confused by something the teacher said, but I always kept my mouth shut, simply because I felt like I shouldn't interrupt, or I felt "dumb" for not understanding :)

February 4, 2010 at 07:23 PM ·

 And an opposite question:


What if you are doing well, actually even exceptionally well for a particular environment, but a teacher/conductor/supervisor treats you worse the better you do? What can this inconsistent behavior arise from?

February 4, 2010 at 10:31 PM ·

What does it arise from?  Nothing good, that's for sure.  There are a few rotten teachers out there who try to teach through intimidation and belittlement, and consider it a success if a certain percentage of students leave the studio in tears each day.  Don't put up with it; run away as fast as you can.  Honest, constructive criticism is a wonderful thing, but this is something else- it's just plain bullying.

February 5, 2010 at 12:54 AM ·

Hi,Lena, Would you consider posting your question as a separate thread? Your question is valid, and replies might be helpful to you. I was confused by the post following yours, thinking it tied to mine, till I understood it as a reply to you. Sue

February 5, 2010 at 03:37 AM ·

Sue, my teacher could have written your original post after my lesson last week.  It was a disaster (well, I played, indeed).   I have too many irons in the fire right now and practicing 'well' has been replaced by sawing out notes and calling it practice.  My teacher knows I am dedicated to learning the instrument and without calling me out on the carpet and reprimanding me for sloppy practice she has suggested I take my piece one line at a time and work on it and if that is all I can do in a week and do it *well* then we will both be happier. 

I was relieved.  I can concentrate on one small section and I don't feel so over-whelmed.  I don't dread practice anymore...I look forward to it again.  Re-evaluate what your students needs are at this point.  He/she may have lost interest or maybe they need less to work on right now so they can see progress again.


February 5, 2010 at 09:22 AM ·

 I find it can be a  power struggle between you and some  student.Its all about power and control.It starts innocently  enough, "i don't want to play that piece " ,"I don't like repeats " etc... After a  while you find that you can't get them to do the simplest things,their controlling the lesson.Their taking advantage of your easy going demeanor.I only have 3 students like this -thank god- 8&9 year old girls. I find the best thing to do is bring the parents in on a lesson and then half way through the lesson talk about the problems.I am strict  with these students now, and I have them on practice schedules  that I set up with their parents. The lessons go better now, but it was quite the learning experience.

February 5, 2010 at 12:13 PM ·

 I really like what Tess wrote.  I had a similar experience a couple of months ago in which my teacher gave me permission to stop practicing a passage that was frustrating me during the week.   What she meant was, if I'm feeling at sea and confused during the week by myself, instead of playing something over and over and not getting any better and getting frustrated, I could stop doing that and wait for my lesson and come in and get help.  We talked about it and fixed the fingering and listened to some intervals that had been giving me trouble and I felt, at the end of the lesson, ready to take it on again the following week.  

That sounds perfectly reasonable when I just write it here, but I think the problem for me had been that I felt like I "should" have been able to figure out that passage by myself--the technical issues were really not that daunting.  But I was busy, had limited practice time, etc., and so I'd just open the music to the "hard part" and saw away for a while.  And then I'd get to my lesson and the part would still sound bad.  And I had wasted a bunch of my limited practice time.  Her giving me permission to not do that, and to come in and say, "I couldn't get this on my own, so I didn't practice it much" and then work on it with her, helped.

February 5, 2010 at 02:16 PM ·

Hi,Charles, I understand your point. I teach a number of pre-adolescent & adolescent boys & girls, and prefer to see their attempts to take charge as normal and healthy. Some do want to make only choices that mean less is considered acceptable effort & progress. But I'm willing to look at it as trying to balance their lives independently. These days, 45 minutes goes quickly for me to warming up, doodling around and maybe playing a couple fiddle tunes before I "get down to business." But I remember clearly my college days of being an hour into the four my professor expected, and not knowing what to do next, or how to improve. I suspect kids the age you mention can feel that way in 15 or 20 minutes.  Sue

February 5, 2010 at 05:35 PM ·

Sue- my post was absolutely a response to Lena's right above and not to your original question.  I should have made that clear.  Sorry for the spike in your blood pressure.

February 5, 2010 at 11:50 PM ·

Sue, this is to return for a moment to your (very valid) point about differentiating "Got it but can't do it" from "Didn't get it."  I heard in one of my pedagogy classes during university years, not to send a child/student home having assigned anything you hadn't heard them successfully play during lesson - i.e., to only assign them for practice things you have seen them "do right" at lesson - do right even once!  My first reaction at that time was to think it was a waste of time, as wouldn't they then spend all week practising only to the level they had achieved at the last lesson, not progressing further?  But the longer I teach, the more I am convinced that was very helpful advice, because this way (esp. if lessons are recorded) they know they could do it once, even just for a fleeting "moment of glory" under their teacher's inspiration, and the week spent "settling" the new attainment to where they can consistently do it at home, usually leads to progressing to further levels, anyway, than only what was achieved last lesson.  Perhaps most importantly, the student doesn't go home confused, but with a memory of success and the clear and simple task of "owning" that success and making it solid.

February 6, 2010 at 08:24 PM ·

Hi,Lena, No blood-pressure spike, just temp.confusion, and an honest opinion that the other question deserves more input. Sue

February 6, 2010 at 08:57 PM ·

My teacher tells me whenever I am behind. He does so bluntly but also tells me that he´s doing it for my own sake so that I can improve. His way is always to add a positive comment with the negative. Tell the student what´s wrong but at the same time compliment what is right. I find myself now listening seriously to my teacher and taking to heart what he tells me.

The teacher-student relationsship is very important. I have a good relationsship with my teacher and therefore it´s far easier to be critisized and taking it right.

February 8, 2010 at 07:04 PM ·

 Hi Sue!

Sure, I'll post the question. It was not any important question for me, just something I wondered :-) Thanks for the idea! I wish you good luck with the students, and I am sure you will solve it in some way!

February 8, 2010 at 07:16 PM ·

Anna...I think it is necessary for any student to be able to take honest criticism of their playing/technique.  As students we have to have thick skins or we'd go home crying all too often after a mediocre lesson performance.

I think this is what separates a serious student from one who *wishes* to play but doesn't want to put in the work effort.  You have to be able to not only listen to criticism but absorb it with an open mind and then put it into practice.


February 8, 2010 at 07:16 PM ·

my message posted twice for some reason

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