VENTING! A frustrating student....

February 3, 2012 at 12:24 AM · I have a student, a 10-year old boy, who is very..spacey. He's a beginner, started taking lessons with me about 9 months ago (with a break over the summer of 2 -3 months). It's one of those typical cases, I suppose, where the amount of reminding i have to do is kind of overwhelming. If I get him to check his left hand position before he starts, the notes are pretty well in tune, and if I get him to check his bow position and remind him to open his forearm fully before following with the upper arm, etc, the tone is decent. But I don't get the sense that he can tell the difference, nor do I get any sense that he understands the difference when I have him hum a melody (he hums the rhythm correctly but won't sing the notes because he's embarrassed), and when he plays it (all the notes are quarter notes). We've done a lot of work on feeling rhythms with the body but it just doesn't seem to stick. Every bit of theory work we've done seems to evaporate from his mind when he leaves my studio, even if I write it down. We covered the concept of scales just a few months ago, and I had him working on a D major scale in conjunction with the tune he was playing. Now we've added a new scale for a new tune, and he came this week having practiced playing 01230 the g-string several times. I had drawn him a staircase of whole and half steps going up the scale with note names and finger numbers, as well as writing the scale on the staff, in hopes that he'd get the concept, but clearly he didn't.

He claims to have a passion for violin, but he obviously barely touches it in the week between our lessons, and spends half the lesson trying to sit down or looking at the clock or for his mom. His brothers are both pretty passionate young musicians, and his mother says she makes him practice but I don't know..

We are working a song he's very enthusiastic about learning, and he's learned the notes (but not the rhythm) of it pretty well. He splits hairs with me over the simplicity of the version I've given him versus the way he's used to hearing it, but somehow doesn't hear that he's playing all quarter notes.

I'm obviously venting, but does anyone have any suggestions for a hard nut such as this one? We are going to try a different lesson time to see if he focuses better then...

I'm not good at being harsh, but is this what it will take?


February 3, 2012 at 12:35 AM · Explain to him AND his mom what your problem is with his attitude and [lack of] preparation; explain what should be happening each week (assignments learned, not just sight-read marginally better than last week) and explain that this is a waste of your time and their money. Then have them leave, with an invitation to return when they are ready for actual lessons.

(That's what my teacher did to me, and it WORKED. She was super nice about it, but there was no mistaking the fact that I was being thrown out of a lesson for not practicing.)

My $.02 (actually more like $.017 after taxes)

February 3, 2012 at 01:46 AM · sounds like me in a typical week and I've been playing for years. But once I get it, I get it, even if it takes awhile to get there.

The trick IMHO is to discover "how" he thinks, learns and relates to the violin and music in general. Everyone processes new information differently. Add body mechanics and things get more difficult and complex. You mind may understand what it needs to do, but the body does not necessarily follow the mental instructions, esp. in a growing body.

February 3, 2012 at 02:09 AM · Has he been evaluated for hearing issues? If you try a session with some recorded music, what is his capacity to distinguish differences? It may be mental, or physical.

Another thought; is the playing based on reading music? Vision problems may be a factor, or dyslexia.

February 3, 2012 at 01:23 PM · ...or he might not be remotely interested. He's only there because his brothers like music and his mom makes him.

February 3, 2012 at 01:27 PM · You can help him organize his practicing:

Make a practice chart, with a space for each piece, exercise, etc., and a box to tick off each day he does each task. Specify number of repetitions for each task. Have the boy, and his mother, sign the practice chart after the week's work.

Make a note of The Big Goal(s) (bow arm function, left hand position, etc.) for each week. Instead of several Big Goals, maybe this boy needs to deal with one or two.

As for wanting to sit in the lesson, it is common for young people to tire during a 30 minute lesson. Let him sit in between each lesson activity. Sometimes 45-120 seconds of sitting can do a world of good.

Also, a three month "break" over the summer can be devastating to a beginner's progress. You can pretty much count on a huge chunk of knowledge and ability will have to be re-introduced in the fall. This is known as the Summer Drop Off.

Venting can be good. Be patient. Be persistent. Good luck!

February 3, 2012 at 01:33 PM · Over the years I've seen more and more teachers coming into forums talking about this, "student unable to learn." Teaching this student would be like teaching someone who has a hangover after a night of drinking; tired, depressed, yet may be hyperactive, unable to focus, unable to perform simple task, inability to remember anything, poor short term memory, poor processing skills etc... We will be seeing this on a growing scale over the years until the problem addressed. Peanut and other food allergies have risen dramatically over last 20 years, which are easy to notice ,but hidden food intolerances are probably there also, yet people are ignoring the signs and symptoms. My uneducated guess is that it's related to poor nutrition and lack of exercise ,plus a food or chemical intolerance. Have the parents talk their family doctor about getting blood and allergy tests. Talk to the parents about elimination diets e.g., no sugar, milk, eggs ,gluten etc... for a month.

some extra reading

sugar is toxic

food intolerances

Excessive repetition may be the only way to teach these students , but it doesn't address the real problem.

February 3, 2012 at 06:02 PM · This sounds a lot like me as a beginner. In my case, I was just overwhelmed. I had a teacher who saw a spark of potential in me and tried to go a little quicker than I could handle. I had a hard time practicing efficiently because I felt like I was doing everything wrong and I had no aspect of the technique that I could rely on. Furthermore, I felt ashamed of myself because I was told to practice but I didn't really understand how to get the work done productively. I did a lot better once I was shown some practice procedures and techniques for working at home, as well as focusing on specific, isolated techniques. The violin involves so many details which we do automatically and take for granted, but for a beginner all of these things seem foreign and challenging. I don't mean to doubt you as a teacher and if you've already tried what I'm suggesting then I apologize for the redundancy. If I were in your position I might try to scale back and isolate some specific, basic things for him to master. Then maybe he can build a more secure foundation.

February 3, 2012 at 06:29 PM · I have a few eager but apparently unmusical students; it is difficult to diagnose the reasons:

Can they hear if I deliberetely play

- wrong notes,

- wrong rythms,

- a few notes out of tune?

Can they sing in tune and/or in time, but not notice while they are busy playing?

Are their eyes always glued to the page, even when asked to observe my hands closely? This is the most common reason in my experience.Let's remember that reading music requires far more complex eye-movements than reading text.

Are their parents undoing my good work with well-meaning but incompatible advice on practicing?!

To break these vicious circles, I spend a few minutes in the middle of each lesson on tone and resonance rather than the music itself: different left-hand finger pressures, sympathetic string vibration, detuning and retuning, quick imitation of short rythmic motifs, different kinds of attack with the bow etc. No appraisals, just keeping at it until percerption improves of its own accord.

Then, back to the music with a refreshed state of mind, and few comments from me!

This kind of nurturing without apparently judging can take weeks, and is utterly exhausting! We have to guess the family atmosphere and sometimes do some patient explaining about these strange tonal exercises.

Also not every student has that special combination of energy and patience, and trying for perfection while accepting that it is an impossible quest! (Maybe not every teacher either!)

February 3, 2012 at 06:57 PM · All great suggestions - we have done practice charts, but not required to have them signed..I guess I will have to take that step. This student does dance and hockey and some other sports - I suspect there is a bit of that over-scheduling syndrome...Adrian, I like your ideas about simplifying things. We do begin every lesson with him tuning his violin by listening VERY carefully (takes 10 minutes, about), and then doing open string warmups with different articulations before going onto scales and songs, but perhaps it would be beneficial to spend a few lessons on these things alone. The thing is that learning a song he's been waiting to learn for a while was briefly inspiring, but now he seems satisfied with playing it incorrectly and wants to move on to the next part of the song...

Another thing we have dealt with (and this is a problem with other students who have divorced parents) is that he is not allowed to take his violin to his dad's house or on other trips. I always ask his mom (and the other moms who make this strange rule) to allow this but they never do, and I don't really want to get that involved in family politics...

February 3, 2012 at 08:11 PM · how about satisfying the WIIFM (whats in it for me)? perhaps a reward (candy, etc) for getting a few measures perfect, etc. it works for dogs, and of course its a fundamental driver for all of us.

February 3, 2012 at 08:18 PM · I don't have hints, but perspective.

My teacher has had students coming to her for years, who are still like that. but they keep on turning up every week, every year.

My daughter let me know after 6 months that she wanted to play, but she didn't want to learn. My son told me after a year that he wanted to learn, but only in his own way and without anyone talking to him about practising. I stopped both my kids, but in retrospect I wish I hadn't been so hard line, as they would still ahve learnt something.

The kids that my teacher talks about have learnt something, they can all play better at the end of each year than they could at the beginning. they only play for half an hour a week during lessons, but it adds up. She vents to me each week about their continued inability to detect high or low 2nd finger, notice key sig, keep even tempo. After 4 and 5 years. she just keeps modifying her outcomes. Some people would say it is wasting time & money, but if the kid likes the lesson, and they are (however slowly and inaccurately) absorbing something of music and how to play the violin, then it isn't a waste at all. the benefit even from having an adult working with them, interested in what they are doing, exclusively to them for that time, is important.

February 3, 2012 at 10:01 PM · I suggest you tune his violin and spend the ten minutes on open string rhythm exercises.

February 4, 2012 at 06:35 AM · Some of the other points:

Sitting. Small boys can jump annd climb all day, but standing still is torture! Apparently, their leg muscles are in a state of permanent spasm when standing. I like to alternate playing standing up and while sitting, but with clear directives on how to sit: front edge of the chair, right knee lowered to allow good bowing without bringing the violin round in front etc. Then a compliment on how much richer the tone is when he is standing!

Split families: such chidren seem to play every note under a shadow: they are pleasing one parent and irritating the other, whom they love as much.

And the parents can be using the music to gain his /her affection.. How to convey the idea that the musical activity belongs above all to the child?

Awareness: I try to get the pupil to try, and then "choose" from, different speeds and articulations, e.g. dreamy, marchlike, to awaken an interest in the song itself rather than just the act of playing it. Even parents sometimes treat music as a sport!

Flattery: it's an old trick, but a compliment on some aspect of the playing ( however bad..) opens up channels of communication. The comment must be absolutley justified. Example:"I like the energy you just showed - I wonder if we could get even more like this.."

In a word, I offer apparent choices in such a way that he (hopefully) prefers the right one! This way he has the impression of a real dialogue.

I have often had rather inert children turn into very responsive adolescents, (even if the opposite is often true!) And chidren love to be treated as more grown up than they realy are..

February 4, 2012 at 01:48 PM · Hi, all: A wealth of ideas and suggestions. This particular discussion and the responses are fantastic. It is like a encyclopedia of teaching techniques, approaches, and philosophies.

My only addition (since I'm certainly not a violin teacher) is in the arena of individual motivation for achievement. I happen to have co-authored (ahem) 2 books on the topic, and the description of this 10-year-old reads quite familiar.

This is much too brief a forum to get into this in detail, but in a nutshell, problems like this are quite typical of pre-adolescents and early adolescents. At this age, achievement is both desired but also feared. The desire to achieve is obvious - to the student and to everyone else - but the fear and uncertainty are not so obvious (sometimes to the student and usually not at all obvious to everyone else).

In the child's mind, actual achievement means ever increasing expectations (by the student and everyone around him or her) and demands for even more achievement, responsibility, obligations, and independence. The child sees a never-ending escalation of obligations and demands for getting results and having more responsibilities and a higher and higher bar set for performance (musical and otherwise).

To children of this age, those aspects of the future are frightening and not something they look forward to. Children at this age often do what they can (in normal development) to forestall it or lower the expectations - both what they expect of themselves and what others expect of them. It comes out in behaviors and excuses that actually prevent follow through of everyday responsibilities and expectations.

There's a whole way of dealing with this (by teachers, parents, counselors, and even friends), but not much room here to expound on it. But one thing you can do - ASK the child if he or she WANTS to learn the scale, or play a certain note in tune, or bow the passage cleanly, or whatever specific detail is at hand. It may seem such a self-evident and simplistic question that it would appear at first ridiculous to ask it. But it is very important and can lead to some real changes. If the child says "yes," then ASK why they aren't doing it. Then you've got some specifics to work with (even if they seem so self-evident that you would ordinarily expect the child to know it), and then it isn't just your and everyone else's expectations. If they say "no," you can ask why or why not, and then the decision to continue or discontinue lessons has a firmer basis.

Hope that helps.



The books are:

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

February 5, 2012 at 03:32 AM · Although I am not a teacher, I think I might be able to help, some.

When I played piano, I was this kid. I hated the ameture pieces my teacher had me play. I wanted to be like those concert pianists who played Rochminonov, Chopin, Debussy, Schubert etc., immediately. My piano teacher gave me a CD to listen to one week which was full of Chopin's music. I remember that the first piece that was on there was his Revolutionary Etude in C Minor; I instantly fell in love with it.

I went off and found the sheet music and I learned to play some of the first part.

I went to my lesson that week, and I showed to my teacher that little bit which I learned. She was shocked. I was a 2nd year student who could barely play out of his painfully simple exercise books, who went off and started learning Chopin.

Maybe what he needs is so motivation to get past the annoyance of having to start with those exercises and then moving into the virtuous pieces later. Perhaps if you were able to get him to br patient, he would work hard...

I wish you the best of luck with this student. Buried deep under him, I'm sure there is a Jascha Heifetz waiting to bloom.

February 5, 2012 at 05:13 AM · Thanks all for the great suggestions. Sometimes it goes along well for a few months and then we hit a wall for a while. I look forward to working with some new ideas next week (as well as a new, weekend morning lesson time, NOT immediately following hip-hop dance, which should help).

February 5, 2012 at 07:25 AM · I like Landon's post.

Children are VERY aware of Quality (with a capital Q!). We so-called adults often fob them off with second-rate music, (not to mention tenth-rate violins, junk food etc.) - "he's only four," or "only ten"! Life is too short to play weak or poor music.

Violin methods are crammed full of well-meaning rubbish, and I spend hours adapting attractive but challenging music from the piano, 'cello, flute, etc. Look at the Suzuki books: there is hardly a boring piece anywhere, but many transcriptions.

I have arranged much of this method for two violins.

I remember in my piano lessons when I was finally able to try a Haydn or Mozart sonata: a revelation! This is not snobbery, just a response to Quality (with that capital Q!!)

February 6, 2012 at 05:38 PM · My daughter sounds a lot like this child. She has trouble paying attention, and she will not practice with a parent around.

On the other hand, she loves music, and loves to play well. Our teacher is incredibly patient about reminding her of the things she has been told about repeatedly.

The neat thing is, she is improving. Slowly, at her pace, but she is improving. At her last recital her tone was really great.

My daughter is 11. I don't think she will learn good practice habits for a while, but I know that she has been gaining a tremendous amount from her lessons. I also know that she loves and trusts her teacher - that all of the effort he has put in has made a difference in her music and her life.

I don't know if my (daughter's) experience helps you or not, but I am glad she is still taking lessons, even if she is far from the ideal student.

February 6, 2012 at 06:31 PM · Beginning with Sander's third paragraph, his post described me to a "T." I had the exact motivational problems and behaviors described in his post. Where were you Sander, when I was in middle school?

My darling 9-year-old son is now starting lessons. I don't think he's afraid of success as much as the hard work required to achieve it. The problem is he gets overwhelmed by the big picture or end goal, and rather than letting that motivate him to try hard to achieve that goal, he sees the process as daunting and impossible, psyches himself out, shuts down and won't even try. It can take considerable energy to get him into the proper frame of mind to even begin practicing, but once he does, I make sure to praise him for effort, for any improvement, and for keeping a positive attitude. I'm especially proud when he can sight-read his way through a new exercise. There are many themes and melodies that he wants to learn, so as his reward for practicing well, I'll sometimes agree to teach him a few bars of one of his favorites. He learns them by ear and that motivates him even more for the next time. So even though he's very, very hard on himself and gets discouraged easily, he responds very well to positive feedback.

I sometimes worry that I'm too hard on him. There are things for which I have very little wiggle room. I try to be careful not to squash his enthusiasm for music, and if he's in a really bad way one evening, I don't push the practice issue. I prefer it to be a positive experience that he feels he has some small amount of control over, rather than a chore that he's unpleasantly forced to do.

I do worry that when he reaches the pre-teen age he'll become a carbon copy of what I was. I might need to read Sander's book so I'm better equipped to deal with it!

February 6, 2012 at 07:31 PM · Enion, does the kid have recordings of the music he is learning? (I would venture that the emphasis on listening is the single biggest contribution of Suzuki pedagogy to music teaching in general.) Does the kid know what a major scale should sound like? The piece he is working on? If he has them in his head it will be easier for him to get them in his fingers, especially if this fits into his learning style.

Those of us who have done this for most of our lives tend to overestimate how much of music is common knowledge. Half steps, whole steps, octaves, major and minor, aren't necessarily familiar to kids. School music programs are far less common. Maybe it was just Julie Andrews teaching my generation solfege in The Sound of Music, I don't know, but I'm continually shocked at how little basic theory most people know.

February 6, 2012 at 09:20 PM · David, I think our sons are hitherto unidentified identical twins :).

I had to learn (took me many years) how to push and encourage and pull back, and just let some things wash over without a reaction. although he gave up violin and competitive swimming, he stayed with equestrian for a number of years, and that's where I really had to learn some hard lessons.

As an almost adult, he's a great kid.

What I have realised is true is something he told me when he was six - At that age, he had been in soccer, and was about to do nippers, and he told me he'd need to drop the soccer because he could only do one thing at a time. and he's been right. He wants to learn guitar and banjo now. Egads.

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