Motivating a student who is DRIPPING with talent, yet underperforms

November 6, 2011 at 06:14 AM · I'm guessing this topic ha been addressed before, as I'm sure it's a problem other teachers have run into, but I can't find anything about it, so here goes. I'm SO frustrated! I have a student who is just LADEN with talent. She has amazing musical instincts, GORGEOUS vibrato, a sweetness of sound and way with the instrument that is SO pleasing and truly, thrilling to listen to. BUT. she is a terrible practicer, in that she seems to do nothing with method or true intentionality. She's so instinctive that it's a liability--she's able to make things sound "good" without doing them correctly. So she ends up with fingerings and bowings that are NOT what I've given her, and will NOT get her to where she needs to be with a piece. And once learned they are impossible to undo without the kind of time and attention that she needs to give but isn't. I've tried everything I know to help her see what she HAS (a tremendous gift) and what it takes to transform her raw ability into something truly amazing (careful, thoughtful, consistent work) but to no avail. I've come to the point where I'm trying to let go and let it be what it is right now. She's 13, and maybe just not mature enough (some 13-year-olds might be, but she's not, I'm guessing) to change her approach right now. But then I hear her play again, and I can't believe how incredible the music inside of her is, and I think, "Some day this gift is going to come to claim her, and she won't be able to make good on it because she let the window of opportunity pass her by. Help! I don't know if I need help for me, or for her. :) I'm open to any and all thoughts. And you may need more info. Ask away!

Replies (34)

November 6, 2011 at 08:25 AM · You can take the arabian purebred son of Secretariat to the racecourse - but you can't make it run!

I deal with this too - in science. I get super-talented students and I try my hardest to get them enthused with the magic of discovery but I'm afraid I always fail. The fact is that between two students - one primarily 'hungry to achieve' and the other 'reeking with talent' the former wins almost every time.

How many of's 'returning violinists' can see themselves at her age - talented but with interests that went elsewhere? To some extent it fits me too (except I probably did not have quite the potential you describe of this student).

Its noble of you to try but I hate to say trying to make her interested may be a lost cause. Maybe someone has an idea? On the other hand, maybe she is destined to be a famous scientist, architect, artist... ;)

November 6, 2011 at 02:19 PM · Your credentials suggest that you will have an excellent understanding of how far your student can go, but you're bumping hard against a basic trait of human personality; people simply don't appreciate things that come too easily. Add to that the young and particular age of your student, and . . .well, I don't envy your position. You can only be her teacher, not a Tiger Mother. And as long as we're in the zoo, let's add that you can drag a horse to water, but you can't make it drink (although you might drown it trying :)). Might it be possible to take her for a day to visit one of the schools you attended and talk to/play for one of the teachers? Hear a concert or a rehearsal? Talk with several of the students (the younger the better)? Perhaps it will get her beyond a 13-year-old's view of the world.

If all fails, you should drop the student with the invitation to return any time she's willing to apply herself. Replace her with someone who comes to you ready to learn and delights you with his/her determination. Your talented student might come to regret her decision, but there's no reason you should have to.

November 6, 2011 at 03:07 PM · Hi, Amy: Very good, detailed, and caring explanation, as well as the comments thus far. This is a topic I actually know something about.

I've co-authored two books on the subject. Barring learning disabilities, medical problems, severe emotional disturbance, or situational difficulties, underachievers are underachievers because of personality factors, which in fact are manageable if you know what to look for.

This is a pervasive problem that exists from urban schools to the most prestigious, and from about 3rd grade through graduate school. It is truly an equal opportunity problem. If you're a teacher, you see it all the time.

See if you can get a copy from a library (one book is out of print) or an inexpensive copy on the internet:

- "The Psychology of Underachievement: Differential Diagnosis and Differential Treatment," by Drs. Harvey P. Mandel and Sander I. Marcus (1988, John Wiley & Sons).

- "Could Do Better: Why Children Underachieve And What To Do About It," by Drs. Harvey P. Mandel and Sander I. Marcus, with Loral Dean (1995, John Wiley & Sons in USA; Harper Collins in Canada).

I trust you'll find some significant answers there. The key is that most of us tend to fall into one of 5 distinct personality styles (not abnormal ones, either), and that each style produces its own unique reasons for underachievement (as well as achievement).

In particular, look for the "Academic Problem Underachiever" (or "Coaster"). That is the most typical personality of underachievers, and the one that is the most puzzling. These are people defined as "lazy and unmotivated," but perfectly fine in every other way. My colleagues and I viewed them as actually very, very highly motivated in spite of how they appear. The core motivation is to avoid the downsides of growing up (responsibility, rising expectations, independence, having to make choices, etc.). To this person, achievement and success is not an opportunity, but a threat. It's not that they enjoy failure, but the downsides of achievement are simply more frightening than consistent mediocre performance.

They avoid all this by systematically underachieving, and making it appear that the underachievement is not a calculated choice, but something that "just happens." And there is a particular way to work with them.

Hope that helps.



November 6, 2011 at 05:39 PM · If you dont try you can't fail.Sometimes talented children become overwehlmed by the expectations of those around them .Surprisingly I find that precise practice shedules seem to work.Setting the timer on 10 mins of excercises and 10 mins of scales etc.Probably there are clear confines and responsability of sucess or failure is removed to a more abstracrt level.Also playing in orchestras etc helps motivate

November 6, 2011 at 05:47 PM · Why is she playing the violin? Is it something she' expected to do because she's done it so long or is it something she wants to do?

November 6, 2011 at 06:13 PM · Picking up from Tony's point, which asks substantially the question I was about to ask -- namely, What is this kid's objective in playing? -- I'd like to raise here the question I asked yesterday in the Teaching relaxed playing thread -- before the discussion gets much more involved:

Was it the kid's own decision to have lessons in the first place? Or did someone else make the decision for her?

November 6, 2011 at 06:39 PM · There's only so much you can do. I am also wondering why she is playing the violin. Is she simply continuing this from early childhood? What are her own reasons for playing? She may be dripping talent everywhere, but that doesn't mean you should loose any more sleep over her poor practicing habits then you would with a less naturally talented student.

You know, when I first started out I garnered attention simply due to my ability to draw a big, clean tone from the instrument as a beginner. But, I was horribly unmotivated, distracted, and rarely practiced. I was harped upon by numerous people to practice more, sometimes quite harshly -- but despite my aspirations of being a professional, I just would not "walk the walk". I'm sure there are countless stories out there like mine, regardless of whether or not the kid in question is thinking about doing this professionally. Not just in music, either. Further proof that it is perspiration that wins the day...

A few years later, I've realised my mistake and am working hard to make up for lost time, even though I am now further behind my peers than I ever was before...and I have had to deal with a lot of painful regret and depression over it. Ha, what was I thinking? Ironically, one of my recurring issues now is consistent tone production. ;)

I guess it's just a lesson I am having to learn in this life.

13 is a tumultuous age, but then again you are not her parent...and as I said, there is only so much a music teacher can do, outside of haranguing her endlessly which is unproductive. I actually wish one of my teachers had threatened to throw me out of the studio unless I practiced more...that might have been incentive enough for me to get to work.

I say this from experience, not from a teacher's standpoint but from the student's. I know what it is like to be obstinate and naive. As with me, the responsibility and dedication may just have to be one of those things she learns on her own, if she wants to ever make something out of this. Best of wishes to you and your student.

November 6, 2011 at 07:16 PM · I hope you stick with this student, maybe it will work itself out, maybe she will get to point where she wants to move forward and realizes what it will take. Maybe it's just little rebellion on her part, but whatever the cause, I commend your passion for teaching to be so concerned with this student and knowing the best way to motivate her.

November 6, 2011 at 08:41 PM · I would probably have fallen into a similar category as a student, only I had no teacher when I was that age. I did have a piano teacher, though. I began with her in 5th grade after a year off from lessons. My previous teacher was excellent at developing the creative end, but let me get away with murder as far as fingerings and technique go. I was well-advanced for my age, but incredibly sloppy. My new piano teacher put me back a level and made me do everything correctly, and I heeded her for the most part because I wanted to impress her, and she wouldn't let me pass a song unless I did what she asked.

But personality wise, I always got away with stuff because I had the talent to make it sound pretty good anyway, and it didn't catch up with me until college. I had to develop a taste for the discipline, which requires maturity.

I came across a similar student, and we got along very well because he had the same connection with music, but unfortunately the same sloppy practice habits. The discipline side of music just didn't take. It caught up with him when he went to study at Interlochen in high school. Sometimes, they need to hear the advice from someone else...

My only advice is to try and convince your student of the joy and merit to be found in taking something from good to excellent. If you can convince her that her current approach is ugly sounding and use the lesson time to drill effective practice habits in a way that she can hear the results, maybe she will be more likely to give it a try at home. Otherwise, maybe find a way for her to hear your advice coming from someone else.

Good luck!

PS Inventive fingerings and bowings are not necessarily bad because they show ingenuity. Some students cannot think apart from what you instruct them, and this is perhaps a worse weakness. I let my students alter a fingering or bowing only deliberately, if they can convince me of the logic behind doing so.

November 6, 2011 at 10:17 PM · I deal with this in my studio, as well, as all teachers do... I do try, every day, to make kids realize their potential and follow that realization with action, but I am reminded that "you can teach ignorance out of a person, but you can't teach lazy out – lazy is to the bone." I REALLY wish it weren't true... And I mean lazy both mentally and physically...

In terms of extrinsic motivation, I don't believe in it any more (gasp!). As a teacher, I do believe in giving opportunities, enabling the process of learning, providing tools and resources, and highlighting the rewards of achievement. But I've come to realize that absolutely none of that matters when there's no inner fire. That's why people from enviable backgrounds, with plenty of opportunities and resources can fail miserably when they have every reason to succeed, while people all over the world that have every excuse to fail (abuse, neglect, hunger, poor education, bad health, lack of information, etc.) actually manage to succeed, thrive, and become role models, transcending their circumstances, despite it all...

One doesn't discover oneself, one creates oneself, and the unmotivated won't be equipped to face many of life's challenges, let alone experience the thrill of building one's character and future, every day, with every choice facing them...

November 7, 2011 at 05:01 AM · Sander, I have read your book, "Could Do Better...". I found the information very useful with my own underachiever and also applying the principles with my other children. Thank you!

November 7, 2011 at 12:32 PM · i tend to side with the basic question from tony and jim,,,for her, what is the motivation for playing the violin and is there any motivation to get better?

often, we tend to avoid confrontation so we usually leave the "why" question unexplored for fear of being intrusive or offensive or nagging or behaving like the older generation. because of this mismatch: teacher's expectation of the student vs student's own expectation of herself, teacher may feel the student is not trying hard enough while the student feels i am doing ok and ok is fine.

then we move onto what elise said about horses, whether it is to make them run a race or make them drink the water...i think it is very hard for a teacher to choose to make a student into something or let a student into something, because you want to help so much, but not unlike scaling a flat wall.

i think the teacher's job is not to convert every seemingly talented kid into something that the teacher can dream of. it is tempting, but it is not realistic. i think violin teaching and learning is not just about making music, making kids into musicians, but helping them to discover themselves and the level of their interests. incredibly, many people out there do not want to push to the limit and enjoy being where they are. may be they know better? :)

not sure if she is up for it,,,perhaps entering into a local competition/higher level camp may allow her to experience things that she and you both have not anticipated. i wonder what an extrinsic stimulus will do to her inner drive... is she a pony that enjoys running on her own?

let's ask a more fundamental question,,,forget for a moment about a seemingly talented kid who does not enjoy taking things seriously.

is this world short of yet another talented musician?

(not sure if you are familiar with the tiger mom book and her approach. although i can identify with some of her thought processes, her approach of turning an apple into a peach clearly does not work)

November 7, 2011 at 12:43 PM · I like the term "dripping with talent." Perhaps we need to rethink the very definition of talent. IMO, talent is not so much the kid that picks things up quickly. 9 times out of 10, the kid that works hard will do better than the kid that learns fast, but is lazy. Like Elise, I have seen this in the workplace too. I will take a hard worker with mediocre ability any day over the a brilliant guy that has a bad attitude.

So, there really are kids out there that are dripping with talent. But, they are the ones that have the ability to focus and work hard, not necessarily the ones that learn quickly. Of course, someone that is gifted in both ways will be hard to beat. Those are the ones that become famous.

November 7, 2011 at 03:49 PM · You may want to consider Attention Deficit Disorder.

This is what turned out to be the reason I always had such a hard time practicing, especially the boring stuff, as well as under-performance in school. I wish I had read Sander's books; I suspect that he covers this common problem.

November 7, 2011 at 04:39 PM · This sounds very familiar. For so long, I was a student that had, as many people said, "talent out the wazoo", but I didn't do anything with it until recently. I loathed practicing. I relied on my musical instincts to get me where I wanted to go. I thought that I didn't HAVE to practice, because I was good at faking it, but eventually realized that "faking it" is exactly what it sounded like, and finally got my act together. I'm sure this will also happen with your student, she just needs to fail a few times before she realizes that relying on raw talent doesn't work.

November 7, 2011 at 04:54 PM · Violin lessons usually do not take precedence over schoolwork. That's often all there is to it.

Many talented young musicians do not envision themselves as becoming professional musicians. This also has something to do with it. You find the same thing in athletics.

Indeed, there are some fantastic artists who merely do it for fun on the side. Get out of the classical world and into the folk world and you run across a lot of people like this.

Kids need motivation, just as do adults. What your student sees for her future may not be what you see. Guess whose vision wins?

But you can influence young people to see the value of what they do. In the end though, they need to see their paths as being their own decisions.

November 7, 2011 at 05:27 PM · I don't know if my 11 year-old daughter is "dripping with talent", but I do know that she has far more musical talent than her Mom. It can be frustrating to know that with dedicated practice she could be miles ahead of where she actually is.

However, I have to accept her for who she is, even as I try to guide her towards more productivity in what she does. I do know that she loves to play the violin and does not want to quit - but nor does she want to apply herself more than she does.

I don't think external motivations work all that well, but I've yet to find how to reach her internal motivations, for violin or other things.

I don't know if the parent perspective helps, but this is my experience.

Sander,I will look into your books - thanks for posting.

November 7, 2011 at 05:53 PM · in this era, the youth can see through adults' mumbo jumbo in no time. imagine you go up to a kid and ask the kid to consider to apply him/herself will get empty stares back if you are lucky because chances are their attention is to their texting, computing or ipoding. that is why the prevailing psychology does not seem to work very well because it fails to address the kids as individual case studies and the attempt is to consider the subjects as if they share common interests and faults, and they simply don't.

many--i'd rather say a few-- kids simply cannot identify with their parents and grandparents...they are not supposed to,,,,they are not themselves psychologists or career planners. they do what they like and for the most part, they seek the path of least resistance and most fun. can you really blame them for that? really, look back at our own youth,,,how did we really apply ourselves?

the reason we see a predominant representation of emerging musicians from asian cultures/countries is because the old school hard core family influence in the good ole european countries is shared by the asian counterparts and it continues to flourish in asia where respect for elders, for teachers, for hard work, for whatever the family decides to do, still matters. in general, in america, parents will face ridicule if they are considered grinds. it is very difficult to encourage the kids to try harder if the kids protest that doing so will be no fun. in this culture, bringing up kids and asking them to pursue excellence is an uphill battle that most families and violin teachers have to deal with.

of course there are exceptions in america but they are rare considering the abundant opportunities and resources. a few true talents rise to the top regardless; some families continue to succeed in instilling the work ethics in their kids, asians or not. but for the most part,,,it is too hard therefore no fun.

on some level, the teaching profession itself needs to put things into perspective as well in terms of why we end up here. in the very beginning, when students are introduced to music, it is under the impression that music is fun. the problem with that approach is that it does not prepare the kids for the moment when music learning offers some obstacles such as more intense practice and making sacrifices for more practice.

November 7, 2011 at 07:36 PM · Sander wrote: "...The core motivation is to avoid the downsides of growing up (responsibility, rising expectations, independence, having to make choices, etc.). To this person, achievement and success is not an opportunity, but a threat. It's not that they enjoy failure, but the downsides of achievement are simply more frightening than consistent mediocre performance.

They avoid all this by systematically underachieving, and making it appear that the underachievement is not a calculated choice, but something that "just happens."..."

Holy cow, this describes me to a "T"! It's as if you had been observing me during my youth. I completely understand the mindset (the lie?) that "There's no failure if you don't try." I lived this for so many years, and to some extent I still do. This was the core reason why I quit the violin, and music in general, in high school. This is a pattern that must somehow be broken or it could consume the student for the rest of their life. Ask me how I know...

November 7, 2011 at 07:44 PM · Hey, David: Don't get too worried about it. Our work going back over 40 years indicates that this kind of pattern is actually related to normal development, and most of us are touched by it (primarily in late childhood and early adolescence, the so-called "Pre-Adolescent Latency" stage).

I was like that, too; that's one of the things that made me interested in becoming a psychologist in the first place.

So, don't take it as some sort of weird pathology. The fact that we live in a last-minute world and that most people procrastinate is one of the carry-overs from those years. We've all been there (the majority of us, anyway).

Hope that helps.



November 7, 2011 at 07:45 PM · "asian counterparts and it continues to flourish in asia where respect for elders, for teachers, for hard work, for whatever the family decides to do, still matters"

Where did I go wrong? Maybe I should get a copy of the book written by the Tiger Mom.

November 7, 2011 at 07:54 PM · Smart "white" people aren't any different than "asian" people in their upbringing strategy, except perhaps a greater stress on sports (based on an awareness of market forces!).

"quotes" because "white" might be a black latina american indian...and not actually "white"...

November 7, 2011 at 08:14 PM · Yeah, my mom definitely taught me respect and discipline. I think what I was lacking was a good reality check, and either no one gave it to me, or I just didn't hear it/get it.

November 7, 2011 at 09:47 PM · i remember we bashed the tiger mom around a bit last year, mostly for good reasons.

later my kid needed to study that book for her english class so i read it for the first time:)

overall, nothing too surprising since i knew from other sources how she was like. there were moments when i thought she was definitely nut and there were moments when i thought she was brutally honest as well. perhaps every lazy kid with dripping talent needs to be fostered with a chinese tiger mom, haha:)

smiley, you've got to see how she took notes in each violin class. typed for sure, and filled with music notations i have never seen before, omg. our kids are missing out so much, hehe! if i were to have a mom like that, control freak, i would definitely thought of any excuse to quit the violin.


earlier i thought people may take that i am bashing the american culture. in a way yes, but another message is that i think in america material things come to the kids easily, so it is easy to lose focus in studies, music or otherwise. without a more strict family member to push the kid, it is very very very difficult to produce a serious musician IF the kid is not that crazy about music training anyway. the current lifestyle enjoyed by the kids and the lifestyle needed in the making of a serious musician is truly night and day.

November 7, 2011 at 10:24 PM · "smiley, you've got to see how she took notes in each violin class. typed for sure, and filled with music notations i have never seen before, omg. our kids are missing out so much, hehe! "

What's the problem? That's how I do it. No wonder your kid is progressing so slowly; she doesn't have a diligent tiger parent behind the scenes :-)

November 7, 2011 at 10:47 PM · you cannot fault me for being not diligent, but you can fault me for being not intelligent. i am serious,,,that was some note taking. go get that book and check it out for yourself, you slouch:)

November 7, 2011 at 11:32 PM · Amy, I see you live in Columbia, Missouri, a mid-sized midwestern city. Does this girl have any real context for what she is doing? Any exposure to kids who are Juilliard-bound? Has she had a chance to see Caroline Goulding or Hilary Hahn in concert? Does she play in a school orchestra or youth symphony?

I'm curious as to whether or not she sees her ability as something that could open doors for her.

November 8, 2011 at 02:59 AM · Ah, you are asking for ways to motivate and it seems you have shared your enthusiasm for this student's potential with her and it has not had much effect.

Reverse psychology maybe? Give her easy things, tell her you know she is talented, but understand this is not something she cares much about, so you don't want to load her up with the "harder" things that you would give a more serious student. Maybe tell her her playing is "nice", and show no real enthusiasm. Maybe ask her at the start of every lesson, with no judgement, just sweetness "did you feel like practicing at all this week?". If she starts working harder, resist the urge to make notice of it for a short while. She might start working her butt off to prove you wrong, to get the kind of attention she will think you are giving others.

November 8, 2011 at 06:07 AM · At the age your student is at, peer motivation can really work wonders. Is she involved in youth orchestra, or is there a chamber music program for people her age? Being not just exposed to, but actually playing with other kids who are talented and motivated can go a long way. Something about connecting music with a social environment gives them a reason to want to perform well.

It might be worth stepping outside the boundaries of tradition, too. What music does she most enjoy listening to? Would she enjoy trying to learn to play along with some of it? Taking a "back door" route can be an effective approach as well - passion for classical music may come after discovering that music she is passionate about and violin are not mutually exclusive.

November 8, 2011 at 06:57 PM · --Perhaps a summer at a prestigious practice gulag if the family has the means. Hearing the concerts and being around others who are not only talented but work hard may show her what it takes to achieve excellence. Sometimes 'big fish in small ponds' need a swim in the ocean ;-)

November 9, 2011 at 02:05 AM · let me quantify this by firstly saying I am an adult beginner of modest at best ability.

What's the goal here? is it simply to move up the hallowed grade system, 'cos if it is your student might be chasing an altogether different ghost.

I'd suggest finding a method of playing your student enjoys, whether it be improvisation, playing by ear, whatever works, encourage it, refine it as best you can and hope for the best.

Perfect practice may make perfect, but there's room for good enough provided it's embellished with enough creativity and originality (at least in my music library).

Obviously that'd need to be discussed first with all relevant parties but what if instead of a Jascha Heifetz you have a Warren Ellis? would that be SO terrible?

The world aint gonna run out of perfectly trained, highly refined violinists anytime soon.

I realise I'm going to get up a lot of noses here but I'd prefer to hear something truly new, truly innovative and creatively original than yet another perfect rendition of a sonata from a long dead composer.

Not all horses are thoroughbreds, there's room in equitana for quarterhorses, clydesdales, ponies, mules and even old nags like me.

November 10, 2011 at 12:49 AM · I think your approach may be wrong. Students like this one are composers , improvisers, leaders etc.. you can't expect her to be a follower or a impersonator.

November 10, 2011 at 03:27 AM · Yes Charles, I had the same thought.


"and she won't be able to make good on it because she let the window of opportunity pass her by. "

Please elaborate what you mean by "window of opportunity"?

Also, please tell us more about what your student likes to play, or what she says motivates her.

November 10, 2011 at 04:33 AM · Jenny, I'm sad you deleted your post!

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