Student stops after 2 notes... a lot!

October 1, 2012 at 02:50 PM · I have a student, age 12, who stops suddenly and gives sort of a startled reaction, after playing even only 2 notes... and does that many times during one lesson, every week. She admits she thinks she made a mistake (though many times what she played was exactly right) but I don't understand her reaction, and it really holds her back. I've been focused on teaching her how to think through what she sees on the page, figuring out the rhythms, singing it; then playing. I thought this would show her whether or not she's actually playing what is written, and help her to continue; but it does not seem to work. we've been doing this for a year now and she still stops suddenly, with a startled reaction, over and over. Any advice out there?

We do finally, after several months of work, get to where she can play something simple, say Minuet 1 in Suzuki book 1, but then again, memorizing becomes a huge hurdle all over again.


Replies (34)

October 1, 2012 at 03:08 PM · Oh my Annette, I have taught this student! Although mine was not quite as extreme--maybe every couple measures. I think the first priority at this point IS to get her to Keep Playing!! (Even if there are actual things wrong, though I know that goes against the grain--try to have her store them, not ignore them--but keep going!!). Do you know if this also happens in her practice, or if it's mostly an at-lesson problem? I would take several weeks just focusing on playing through, no stopping; if she does don't give any immediate feedback except the reminder to keep going!!! Then once that's established you can go back and start adding assessments and asking her how she felt the song or section went, what needs work, any necessary corrections or practice strategies, *after* she has made it through the section :). If you tend to stop students mid-piece to make corrections--you may have to skip that strategy for this particular student.

Hope you and she have good success! On the bright side, I bet she is hardworking and conscientious :). Get through this hurdle and you may have a fine player on your hands :)

Oh, another thing--sometimes you might focus on playing phrase by phrase without losing the rhythm. If she's focusing on keeping the rhythm going she can't stop, right?

October 1, 2012 at 03:17 PM · My daughter was doing this and so I started insisting that she must at least play a couple measures through even if she makes a mistake.

I assure her that we will work on the mistake but point out that with her band, they're not going to stop because she made an error so she has to learn to play in an environment that keeps going when she makes a mistake.

And over a few lessons we got past it.

Of course in my case I had the privilege of 1) being her Dad and 2) catching it early.

But I think the same might work for teachers too. In some ways, she trusts her teacher more than she trusts me.

October 1, 2012 at 04:54 PM · I have had students like this, maybe not quite as severe. It is as though hearing and processing get behind their fingers, or their minds drift off to some other topic. Actually, any of things may really BE happening :) I have had some success asking the student to visual herself playing a full phrase with all the details, and then doing it w/o stopping, no matter what. The visualizing part can take some a fair amount of time.

October 2, 2012 at 02:06 AM · It could be a form of dyslexia or some other learning disability.

It could also be a psychological (cognitive and/or emotional) issue.

I would inquire with her parents how is she doing in her elementary school. If there are challenges in other learning areas, I would follow the guidelines from this site:

Once the learning disability is ruled out, other factors, such as the motivation for learning the violin, family dynamics, experiences with previous violin teachers, etc. need to be examined in detail.

Violin teachers are not psychologists, but need to educate themselves in this area and wear psychologist's hat . After all, we are teaching human beings that are ofter at tender age when there is so much development going on.

Lastly, no jokes about this subjects are ever appropriate.

October 2, 2012 at 02:43 AM · That was funny Bruce! Obviously after a year of this there is a problem. Can she play through with you? Ive never run accross a similar problem so no Monday morning quarterbacking from me. Will be curious to read this thread to see if a solution appears.

October 2, 2012 at 04:46 AM · Out of interest, will she continue to play for example 4 detache notes on each string, then 8, then 12 (no fingers involved) - so that proves if she can keep the bow moving (in a psychological sense, I would be surprised if she had a movement disorder that limited her movement flow). So if she were to do that, could she then do say a 4 note d scale on the d string, a scale on a string etc. can she then play that scale backwards. All without stopping the movement of the bow. Then start to mix it up a bit on each string, and how many bows etc. Try to break it down for yourself to see where the problem occurs. It sounds fascinating. ? could it be a form of OCD where she feels compelled to stop to check an error.

October 2, 2012 at 05:42 AM · @Bruce

Some of us find the overuse of the word 'retarded' offensive. Having spent my youth babysitting my older brother makes me feel the need to come to his defense, and the defense of others that are unable to defend themselves.

October 2, 2012 at 07:56 AM · hi Annette! I'm this student! I do this all the time. y teacher asked me to me go home and play through all the pieces we were working on that week five times in a row. If I stopped I had to start again from number one. Even if I'd done the first four without stopping and I'd stopped on the fifth, I had to start all over again.

When I tried to do this at home it was very difficult for meto break the habit. but I got it eventually. Now I try to play through everything as part of the routine. I was stopping when I made a mistake, but I would also stop because I would lose my focus and lose my place in the music. Maybe your student is having trouble concentrating?

October 2, 2012 at 10:55 AM · You place too much emphasis on playing it correctly and properly, no wonder the poor child becomes self conscious.

How about playing music for FUN and having fun playing music with your students?

October 2, 2012 at 02:09 PM · When I was about 8 or 9, taking both piano and violin lessons, I went through a stage with my piano music where I thought I needed to be able to get through a whole piece without any mistakes (these were short beginner tunes). Of course I would inevitably make a mistake, stop and start over - and over, and over. I don't know why I did this - some sort of obsessive-compulsive issue, perhaps. I don't remember doing this on the violin.

I'm not sure how I stopped doing this - I think I just grew out of that stage. Or maybe I started working on longer pieces and gave up... anyway, this was not a long-term issue for me. So maybe it is a temporary thing and your student will also grow out of it?

October 3, 2012 at 01:59 AM · I had a student like that once. (I also on 2 occasions had chamber music readings with amateurs who did that. They would just stop w.o. warning and repeat a passage while the rest of us kept playing, as though they were home alone and we weren't even there. Can you imagine?)

My student was an adult and he had this habit. Whenever he felt things weren't going well or he was having trouble coping with whatever was going on internally or externally, he would just stop. I told him many times that unless I would stop him, he shouldn't stop himself at the lesson. It was such an ingrained habit that I cautioned him that should he ever perform a solo, the same thing would happen, where the show MUST go on. At one point I held a little master class in my house, hired a pianist and everything. Came his turn, and indeed he stopped in the middle while the pianist was playing with him.

It took a lot of work, but I finally improved - not eradicated - this habit. I told him that in a performance you never stop - short of a total and absolute train wreck. He was learning to drive at the time. I asked him "if you're not completely satisfied with how things are going on the road, do you just slam on the brakes in the middle of traffic?" I told him that he needed to self-correct as well as he could WHILE he was playing. I also advised him as follows - and sometimes I've even taken my own advice: play a whole scale or fairly lenghly passage in pairs of 2 turns. The first (or the 2nd) time stop as much as you like, make corrections, think about it, etc. The other turn don't stop no matter what, and as best you can, make whatever course corrections you feel you need to AS you are playing. I came to recognize the frustrated look on his face that often just preceeded his stopping. When I would see that I would exhort "keep going, keep going!"

Eventually all this helped. Well, to some extent.

October 3, 2012 at 02:17 AM · Anette

I have had students like this before. It is a challenge to think of different ways to try and help them improve their notereading skills. One way I used that seemed to help is to compare the notes to words. Sometimes the student only sees individual letters and not the entire "word." I introduce this in a way that is conducive to the piece they are learning. For example of it is a string of eight eighth notes, I ask the student to see it four notes at a time like a word and have them play that word. Then do the same for the next four and then put the two words together. Hope this helps. Be sure to to check out my website for more blogs and vidoeos on notereading.

October 3, 2012 at 12:30 PM · Heather - I like your idea! And from musical "words" we can eventually go to musical "sentences". I think this can be especially helpful for sight-reading, where a complete breakdown and stoppage is more understandable.

But if student has really been working dilligently on something for a while and then just stops, I think that something more emotional than cognitive is going on - maybe a misplaced sense of perfectionism, frustration or discomfort that feels that it is preferable to stop than to continue with a less than perfect rendtion.

October 4, 2012 at 02:10 AM · Mr. Klayman - Thank you so much for your comments. I do think this may be something emotional I have to figure out, and your story of the player who stopped even in chamber music is a good one I can share!! One person mentioned possible OCD - also a possibility. A local friend also thinks this may be an emotional issue, and not in the student's control at this point. So ideas submitted for how to play sequences without stopping, or reading music the way we read words, are all helpful.

Henry: I was trying to show the student how to play correctly because I thought she stopped when she thinks she made a mistake. My idea was to show her how to know she's right; but it didn't work. Hence the question posting here.

I need to find out if she does this in school orchestra, or in any other area of her life. And this is a student with a troubled family.... so I'd like to help her if I can.

More on this soon.... and if anyone else has another thought, please DO post it!! Oh yes - one person even wondered about autism.... I've had autistic students before, and usually they show obvious signs before this point, but I will investigate this further.

October 4, 2012 at 03:59 AM · I am certainly not a teacher but a few questions come to mind :

Does she only do this when reading a piece of music ? Can she play scales from memory without stopping ?

Is she dyslexic ? Dyslexia may or may not affect a person's ability to read music. Can she read out loud without problems ?

October 4, 2012 at 04:53 AM · This has most certainly happened to me with a few students. It gets maddening after a while. There are so many reasons why your student may have this problem that it's difficult to recommend a course of action. The ways I'd begin are as such: 1. if it's an issue such as dyslexia or a visual problem I've found two things that can help: Coloring the first and last measure of each line with a colored pencil (make sure your student isn't colorblind and can actually see the color) and printing out music on pastel or paper other than white. 2. If it's an attention or knowledge issue (as in they don't really know how it goes) make them sing , hum, or whistle the piece, whatever they're comfortable doing in front of you. In terms of memorizing, I find that identifying patterns and pointing them out, and then memorizing the piece *with* the student to be effective. 3. Psychological. This is the most difficult, in my experience, to work with. The way I've helped my students is to insist on a play through, mistakes and all, no going back to pick up missed notes. Afterwards we address the train wrecks, AND THEN I try to make the point to them that music pretty much never *ever* goes 100% the way we want or expect it to. Making a mistake and recovering with grace and poise is a talent onto itself in music. I try to emphasize that with my students when it comes to performance time. Perfection is what we strive for, but in a dynamic art like music, it's exceedingly rare.

October 4, 2012 at 02:38 PM · I am puzzled by the startled expression your student has when she stops. I haven't experienced that with my students (yet). I will say, though, that some of my students stop excessively when they play for me, and what I try to do with them is to emphasize always looking ahead in the music and keeping their eyes moving forward, even if they make a mistake. We play a piece together, and no matter what happens on their end, they have to try to jump back into the song. If they 'fall off' and make it back on again and we get to the end together, then that's cause for celebration! So I try to teach them to be able to keep going no matter what. With your student, since she stops after only 2 notes sometimes, you might just try to do this with one phrase and then add more. I find that my students who play in an ensemble rarely have this issue, since they are forced to just keep up with the rest of the group on a regular basis (and too much of this creates another set of problems!!).

And I always tell my students what I heard that Heifetz once said (and maybe this is mis-attributed, but the sentiment is there): It's not the mistake that counts, it's the recovery!

Another idea-- can they play pizzicato without stopping (or at least can they play larger sections without stopping)? Can they 'air bow' the rhythm without stopping (or a larger section without stopping)?

October 4, 2012 at 06:45 PM · I have had students like this before. For them, the problem was that they were insecure with their note reading, and rather than playing a wrong note, they would stop playing to process the next couple notes and then keep going. I fixed this by having them say the note names out loud several times in a row during the lesson for about 3 weeks, and then it cleared up. They now read notes quickly and efficiently, and they don't stop and start anymore. Hope this helps :)

October 4, 2012 at 07:43 PM · @Roland: I apologize for the offense. I was using the offensive terms on purpose, however ("crazy" is at least as offensive among the mental-health community), to make my point, which was to highlight the idea of trying not to say anything that would make the student more insecure.

The "concussion" part came from a student, who did something boneheaded in a lesson (C major scale with a B-flat, or something) and said, before I could say anything: "I do not have a concussion! All my teachers have been asking me if I have a concussion!"

October 5, 2012 at 06:22 AM · @Bruce,

Apology accepted.

October 5, 2012 at 02:14 PM · @ Bruce - that was still some funny stuff. I have often thought things like that but have never said it outloud. I guess in a perfect world we would all be politicaly correct in everything but thats not real life.

October 5, 2012 at 08:27 PM · We interrupt the previous apology on account of current sun spot activities. Please stand by...

October 7, 2012 at 07:31 PM · Well, it turns out the student is in therapy; is having trouble with all sorts of things.... I'm not the only teacher asking what's going on with her. I will try to continue to be understanding and help her learn whatever I can, and see if she gets to a point where she can make progress. She does do better with others playing also, and I can play along more than I usually do.

As for the last questioner: what is most common mistake? Rhythm!! Students just trying to get the notes, while playing with wrong bowings and wrong rhythms. It's tough to convince them to slow down enough to get the rhythm and notes at the same time.

October 9, 2012 at 02:10 AM · OK, back to being serious: Annette, that is very interesting. Did you ever ask her what she seemed to be startled about? Maybe she wouldn't be able to articulate a response, but I'm curious. Let us know if you find out more, or if there are any further developments.

October 9, 2012 at 10:55 AM · why not start with a couple of bars...tell her to play them without stopping and in a loop. then add one or two more bars. ditto. another lesson: add a whole musical phrase...loop...another lesson: a section looped...etc. i'm thinking the music would not to be techncially suitable for her level or even just below...since this is a basic and paralyzing weakness she has, should it not be addressed within a significant portion of the weekly lesson?

October 10, 2012 at 12:26 AM · I was going to say that this sounds very much like an OCD component. To hear that she is seeing a psychologist about the difficulty she is having in other areas of her life would support this. The good news is that you might be helpful to her overall being if you suggest that every time she overcomes the feeling that she needs to stop and check something, she grows more free from her compulsion to stop. Eventually, she might defeat this negative impulse and transfer the victory to other areas of her life where it shows up. Wishing her well... and you the patience of a saint.

October 12, 2012 at 10:25 AM · It's a common problem, albeit in a less paralysing form. Causes?

- Erratic eye movements? (Observe the child's eyes as thet scan the page, or squint at the fingers).

- Obsessive perfectionism (intonation and/or tone quality)?

- Over-dependence on the written page, or on verbalisation? (Try imitation of short fragments by ear).

- Over-sensitive hearing? (try a cotton plug in the left ear..)

- Well-meaning but over-ambitious parents?

Good luck, he is worth the trouble!

October 16, 2012 at 08:01 PM · It would be most helpful to determine why this is happening.

Is it a habit? Or does she not know the piece well enough? Ask her to play something simple that you know she can play perfectly (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, for instance). Does it still happen?

Is she a perfectionist? Is she frustrated when she stops?

Is she uneasy playing in front of you? Believe it or not, some students are "scared" of even the nicest teachers. (I know - I was one of those students.) Try leaving the room during a lesson (think up some reason beforehand - surely you can think of an exercise that you should run a copy of for her!). :) Before you go, tell her, "While I'm gone, why don't you warm up on ____" (Chose a piece that she stops often on). Don't give her any indication that you'll be listening from the other room. Chances are she may be uneasy or intimidated by your presence.

October 17, 2012 at 02:38 AM · I have some what of a similar process when I am learning something new. I try and figure it out and think I have the idea, but when it comes into practice and I am wrong, it stumps me and I mentally stagger back. I have to reset and try again.

Setting up a soothing pattern in the lesson and keep it relaxed. If this is what she is doing then when she gets the concept she will OWN it.

I have beaten my head on some problems for years before figuing out that one tiny bit that kept surprising me.

October 17, 2012 at 02:53 PM · Stuart -

Thank you. Your answer is the one that seems to ring true for what this student is doing. And it reinforces what several other posters have suggested as well. I'm trying to understand how this girl thinks, and what the stumbling blocks are, which is what we do for all students, right? And what you say seems to be the clue I needed.

I will try to check back in a couple of months and let you know how this goes....

October 17, 2012 at 05:13 PM · Perhaps the student is overwhelmed by the continuity. Maybe you could try saying, "Let's just play two notes and stop. Now let's play three notes and stop. Now four etc", until she has built confidence about linking them together. That makes for a easily graspable goal and may take some of the stress out.

November 1, 2012 at 02:45 AM · I have one student with this "problem" It sound at least the same.

We are in the process of fixing it:

Take one line, play it super slow together. Or even slow with a tiny stop after each note so the brain can catch up with the fingers.

When the student can play it without "hiccups" she plays it by herself, with verbal support from me, calling out notes, fingers, or bow direction. Still slowly. Then she needs to play it without verbal cues, and if that goes ok, she can speed up.

It works for her.

She is making good progress, but we are still working on it.

November 1, 2012 at 04:21 AM · I'm just going to throw this out there only because its something I've had to deal with my whole life. Maybe it's OCD. If so there's no way to reason it out. Hopefully it's not that.

November 1, 2012 at 12:58 PM · I have a student who was stopping a lot and I've worked on this with her by doing two things. I noticed that she was looking from the music to her fingers, so I had her look more at the music and try to see her fingers with her periferal vision. That solved the problem to a degree. The second thing we did, was sing a phrase, using the note names, then I'd have her play the phrase. This has helped as well, and I've seen an overall huge improvement.

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