Cutting off lessons to unwilling pupils

February 24, 2012 at 08:38 PM · When you have a pupil who clearly shows little or no interest in playing -- won't pay attention during lessons, won't follow your instructions, won't practice at home -- what do you do? At what point do you cut them off? And how do you go about turning them loose?

I'm especially interested in how you deal with this when violin lessons weren't the pupil's own idea. Instead, a parent has forced this "devil of instruments" on the kid.

Part of me winces every time I hear of a case like this, because I know firsthand how challenging the instrument is -- what a long, steep learning curve it has -- even for those who choose to play it, as I did.

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Although I'm not involved in teaching, mainly because I never felt it was my calling, the subsection of Teaching and Pedagogy consistently attracts and holds my attention. I did enjoy a bit of ad hoc coaching of fellow-pupils in studio -- under the watchful guidance of our instructor -- but didn't go beyond this.

Replies (19)

February 24, 2012 at 08:39 PM · Do it well before you go over the edge, don't wait until after, and don't wait to manufacture a "better" excuse.

February 24, 2012 at 10:28 PM · I know that my own teacher would be fairly straightforward after a brief encounter with this type of attitude. Whilst she has quite a few pupils whose parent have foisted their foibles onto their child, I know she works hard with a willing child, but sees no sense in pushing it with one who isn't. They'd be cut loose gently but firmly and the parents would be honestly informed. She needs the teaching space for students who are interested.

I, for one, have never understood why a parent would just tell their child, 'You will learn the violin'. I have a cousin whose mother told him he couldn't learn the guitar (even though he badly wanted to) because there was already a guitar player in the family and it was she. So he was told he had to learn the piano, which he flatly refused. What a missed opportunity to involve a child in the world of music, so ridiculous,

February 24, 2012 at 11:44 PM · Millie, what a shame that your cousin's mother didn't realize that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" as the old adage goes. Most parents would be thrilled to have a kid interested in their hobby or profession.

For teachers, can you usually spot these students before they even start?

February 26, 2012 at 02:53 PM · I have occasionally worked with students whose parent was the driving factor in instrument choice & lessons. Some kids are more easily led than others, though not every high-powered parent understands this. Somewhere in the early to mid-teen years it seems more likely to break down. I figure it is up to the parent to figure out how to get the child to practice where this is the case. I wouldn't keep a kid long where the parent wants violin, but expects me to produce enthusiasm, liking & suitable home practice in the reluctant child. I don't have an objection to a parent who says, "In our house, every child will play a musical instrument until age ___. Choose yours, and no changing for at least two years". Sue

February 26, 2012 at 04:45 PM · I have "fired" students. If they are young, tell the parent(s) first.



February 26, 2012 at 05:20 PM · @Lisa and Millie, my daughter plays the violin and I know it's only a matter of a few years before her skill exceeds mine, even though I am studying hard and trying to improve. That will be a proud moment indeed.

Jim, I think you should tell the parent that taking their money makes you feel like a thief. That might wake them up.

@Sue, As far as some children being easier to coax into doing things, that is certainly true. I've had both a daughter who had no interest in the violin, and one who was willing to give it a try (same girl, different ages). Fortunately things have gone pretty well and she has an amazing teacher.

February 26, 2012 at 08:22 PM · Obviously, each situation is different, and it's not easy to have a "one size fits all" solution to something like this.

I should think that the problem may actually be made worse if the child has exceptional talent or is a true prodigy. We know that Michael Rabin had parents who were highly ambitious for his musical development (giving them the benefit of the doubt). And Jascha Heifetz rarely said much about his childhood, but what little he did say indicated that it may not have been a very happy one. And Paganini himself was presumably forced to practice for hours on end as a young child.

But I think that there are some things one might try to avoid. One is to read too much into the parents' motives or to demonize them based on the limited relationship a teacher has with them. So one might consider terminating the student's lessons in as diplomatic a way as possible.

After all (and who knows?), they might come back 3 months later and the child and/or the parent has a different attitude or perspective. In other words, I'm not sure I see the advantage of burning any of your bridges unnecessarily. But terminating the lessons (especially under the described circumstances)? - Yes.

Hope that helps.


February 26, 2012 at 11:48 PM · Yes Lisa, I totally agree. I believe that if a child shows any interest in a musical instrument, they should be given a go, even if it means renting an instrument for a while. I think it's great Paul that your daughter has talent and she is obviously willing to give it a good try.

My point though, is I think perhaps it's pointless to be insisting your child learns something as difficult as the violin if they show no interest in it at all. Potentially, as Sue said, you run the risk of losing whatever parental control over the situation that you had, as the child grows older and realises they are doing something they maybe couldn't care less about. I know during school years we all have to learn things we don't like, but chances are we don't continue into our adult years with any studies that have become a bugbear to us. Why not spend those few precious young years allowing our children to explore areas of interest to them. Surely a better investment in the long run because we all know that if your heart isn't in it, playing the violin well becomes very challenging indeed.

February 27, 2012 at 04:56 PM · Deciding which bit of the pupil to cut off is the difficult bit ...

February 29, 2012 at 09:25 PM · Thank you all for what you have brought to the discussion so far.

PAUL: "Jim, I think you should tell the parent that taking their money makes you feel like a thief. That might wake them up."

Good idea. If I were a teacher, I would no doubt tell the parent something like this if the kid didn't want to learn or showed no aptitude for the instrument.

FRIEDA: "I would be sure that the student really doesn't want to learn before dropping him."

Very good advice. I'm sure most teachers -- not just in violin -- get their fair share of unwilling pupils, kids whose parents signed them up for lessons. If I were a teacher and had to face this situation, I'd tell the parent at the outset that I'd agree to start; but if the kid still showed no interest after _____ weeks, then the lessons would end.

In such a case, if a parent were attending the lessons, I'd first be curious to see what would happen if the pupil instead started coming to the lessons without the parent. Once again, the old ad comes to mind: "Mother, please! I'd rather do it myself!" In previous threads, I've read about moms and dads who were indispensable, while there were others the teacher had to bar from the studio at the earliest opportunity.

Starting lessons, even when it's not the kid's idea, isn't in itself a bad thing. Didn't we all have to do things when we were growing up that were someone else's ideas? To me, what happens after lessons have gone on a while is the key. Once my parents had enrolled me in elementary piano instruction, the geeky side of me showed some curiosity. Then, as mentioned, the violin muse soon grabbed me. I wanted to make music -- but now I'd found the right instrument for me.

March 2, 2012 at 08:53 AM · I have a bit of a different daughter loves the violin but not the piano. She has been playing both for years. I don't know if stopping piano lessons is a good thing when she plans on pursuing music in college. She doesn't hate the piano...just doesn't like practicing. She'd rather spend that time on the violin. Her piano teacher is aware she plays other instruments and realizes her focus is not the piano so she doesn't push her. Daughter understands why she needs to continue with piano but I know she doesn't enjoy it like she does the violin.

What is the best thing to do? Keep her in piano lessons for four more years or let it go?

March 2, 2012 at 06:07 PM · When to cut them loose?

I cut 'em loose first (free trial) lesson. I usually tell the parent or student (if an adult) I'm too 'intense' or 'demanding' or 'mean' a teacher and I don't feel that I'll be a good match for them. That way it puts all the 'blame' on me and no one else, and since the trial lesson is on me, they don't feel as though they've been taken advantage of. Time lost is a cost of doing business.

I think it's entirely possible to size a person up in the half hour it takes to do an introductory lesson, just follow your gut. The only issues I've had are with little little kids (4-5 year olds) and extreme introverts, and then I voice my concerns to either the parent or student (depending on age) and go on from there.

The biggest obstacle I've had to overcome in terms of teaching is dealing with my own ego and naivete. When I started (almost 15 years ago) I thought that if I did everything I could to make playing approachable and fun I could make any student love it. Epic.Fail. followed by burnout.

I still give everything I've got to every student I have, but I've learned that even if a student may be in love with idea of playing, if they don't have the focus, drive, etc. to do the work it takes, they won't love it, regardless of what I do to help them. It was downright narcissistic of me to think I had that amount of control over what a student feels about playing. Live and learn.

March 2, 2012 at 06:37 PM · Tess, obviously the decision is very personal to you and your family but as someone who studied both the piano and the violin growing up, I know that there is a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none aspect to studying multiple instruments. The thing is, as an amateur, I'm kind of glad I can play both, but I'm not really sure if I'd be happier if I could play one of them twice as well. But for a professional musician I'm pretty sure what the answer would be.

March 2, 2012 at 08:03 PM · That's the thing, daughter does not have aspiration's of the violin being her profession, at least not at this point. She has a career in mind but also wants to study music in college, either a double major or a minor in music.

Either way, she'll have to have piano skills in college so that's why I keep her in lessons but maybe I'm wrong to do so?

March 2, 2012 at 09:16 PM · I know plenty of people with music degrees who are totally rotten pianists, and piano skills had nothing to do with getting them into their school of choice. If she has played for several years she has developed an understanding of theory and harmony (whether she realizes it or can verbalize it yet) that will serve her well. If I were in your shoes, I'd let her stop the piano lessons if she wished.

March 2, 2012 at 09:43 PM · "… daughter wants to study music in college, either a double major or a minor in music.

"Either way, she'll have to have piano skills in college …."

Tess, I, too, would let her stop piano. I majored in violin performance, and one of the degree requirements was 2 years of piano instruction during the program. As mentioned earlier, I started piano at 7, and I'd rough-guess that I had about 6 months of instruction before the violin bug got me. When I started as a violin major, I was 18, so a good number of years had passed since my last piano-playing; but the keyboard basics, like bike-riding skills, came back fast.

If your daughter has a serious interest in teaching violin at some point, then piano skills could be a plus, but they're not crucial. I had six violin teachers, and two of them could accompany me quite well on the piano. Both of them had also been involved with the public school system -- this could be one factor; but the four other teachers -- I don't recall any of them ever touching a keyboard.

As also previously told, my parents consented to my request to switch from piano to violin -- after a short interval, that is, to be sure this wasn’t just a passing fancy with me. It wasn’t. My piano teacher wished me well as I got ready to make the switch.

Hope this helps.

March 3, 2012 at 04:19 AM · I appreciate your advice, thanks.

March 5, 2012 at 10:34 PM · I fired lots of students. What a relief... And I try to see the money I lost as a good investment in my peace of mind and in their life improvement.

March 6, 2012 at 03:49 AM · I'm with Amber in trying to make the tough decision right after the free trial lesson/audition whenever possible. I let prospectives know the first time they inquire that I am "strict" and "fussy" and they may not like that, so they have a heads-up.

When problems develop later, once I'm satisfied I've given the student my level best for at least three months (usually long enough to find someone's "handle," and sometimes it takes that long), I'll warn them verbally and let them know what needs to change and ask for their input as well on how we could improve the situation. If problems persist, they get one (only one) written warning. If they still don't cooperate, I let them go. The least notice I would give someone would be four weeks. I've only had to do this a few times in 7-8 years of teaching, and I've witnessed more than a few very heartening and encouraging turn-abouts when students responded positively to warnings.

Why to let someone go? To me it's primarily a) if you have to chase your money all the time, or b) (most important) if they don't care enough to work hard and cooperate, so that it becomes awkward at lessons and a waste of time a better student would really value. Our life time is limited and I strongly want mine to count for the most good possible, so try to make decisions based on that.

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