The Morality of Rejecting Students

February 24, 2017 at 12:20 AM · The question of this thread is: "Is it morally superior to use my limited time/energy as a teacher to only teach students who are healthy, functioning human beings, or to let those students find other teachers who you suspect to be less experienced and skilled, while keeping the students that everyone else would refuse to teach?"

As a disclaimer, I want to start this discussion off by stating that I'm one of the most forgiving teachers ever, and even with my most poorly misbehaved students, I keep giving them extra chances because I think there is value in everyone and that almost any problem - technical or behavioral - can be solved through a combination of cleverness, willpower, and time on the part of the teacher.

Perhaps it is because of this that I've come to wonder if I'm doing the "right thing" by continuing to try with certain students.

You see, I'm basically full of students. My schedule can't easily handle more, and so I'm often forced to tell new prospects that they'll either need to wait until a slot opens up, or that they must try a different teacher. Meanwhile, I know that in my area, I'm one of the more experienced and capable instructors, and that most of the other good teachers are also full. So I might be sending a potentially great little musician to someone won't do the best by them.

So, here's the issue: part of the reason that I have so many students is because I keep ones that others would refuse to teach.

I have a few very poorly behaved kids that I continue to teach, and I tell myself that it's important for me to fix their issues so that they can go on to become more effective human beings and not stay devil-people forever. And, in a pragmatic sense, I know that a poorly-behaved child cannot learn the violin effectively. So I have undertaken the task of doing what their parents won't (or can't) and teaching them simple-but-vital concepts like compassion, empathy, and patience. It helps them, but of course my level of control is limited by only seeing them once a week for 30 minutes. My efforts are only a drop in their bucket, but I know it's a good drop. So I tell myself that I'm planting a seed which will grow into something more as they get older.

I know that the typical advice in these sorts of situations is going to be along the lines of "discuss this with their parents" and "you're a violin teacher, not a therapist, so send them to a shrink instead."

But of course, anyone who has dealt with devil children knows that they're a result of devil parents; thus, neither of those options will actually do anything. All it would accomplish is alienate the parents if I'm too honest, and pass through one ear and out the other if I'm too tactful.

Then, there is the more tolerable grade of "bad students": the ones who are just very, very unmotivated and won't do what I tell them even though they always say they will. The ones that I've spent years trying to find the SPARK in. Doing ANYTHING to get them to try, but at the end of the day I am constantly reminded that no matter how creative I get with them, they're just going to keep passively resisting. They're usually nice, and they honestly think they'll try THIS week, but it never ever happens.

And the final grade of "bad students," the ones that honestly just crawl in their progress, no matter how much they try or how much you try. I tell them that everyone learns at their own pace (and I'm not lying), but in my heart it just gets so exhausting to see them be disappointed and to feel myself be disappointed because after years of going home and practicing, even doing PRECISELY what I say, they still don't sound remotely musical. And I don't mean they're not getting the nuance of a piece; I mean that they can't sing, their motor skills are poor, and there are a million other problems that I have to PUUSSHHH to fix. I can get very creative, try to hit them from a different angle, maybe more ear-training, maybe improvisation is their forte, maybe they need to sing the notes out, etc etc etc.... But everything I've done is about .0001% effective, even after years.

These, of course, are almost always adult learners. It's pretty uncommon for me to acquire students who have such a multitude of pre-existing issues, but they do come along and I have accumulated a few over time. I tell myself that it's like drilling for water. You might drill for 1000 feet and get nothing and finally hit that water, and if I'd stopped drilling at 900 feet, I would have forever believed that they were hopeless.

Sorry if this post came across a rant - as it wasn't intended to be - and truthfully I don't have much of a issue teaching any of these "problem types." My question is simply: would it be morally better to use my experience and skill in teaching to "water the healthy seeds" (you know, the ones who WANT to play, have some talent, and aren't poorly behaved) instead of taking my limited time and energy to make the most of the bad seeds?

Replies (35)

February 24, 2017 at 01:04 AM · The obvious first is try to give priority to those you think you are helping or could help on SOME level, whether musical, social, psychological, or (if this comes within your sphere of interest) spiritual. Beyond that, I can only suggest, if you are a believer, pray about each individual student - God may have purposes that you couldn't even guess at. Otherwise, if you don't see the point of praying first, just take your pick.

February 24, 2017 at 01:19 AM · I haven't been a violin teacher, but I have been in teaching/tutoring for a few years now.

Something I learned is that we cannot be moral mentors and handle their problems. We are not their parents. The sooner that these students hear "No, I will not comply, and I will not accept that behaviour", the sooner they will learn that the world doesn't revolve around them. Which I find is more of what current generation has been bred to be, which is why rejection is apparently such terrible thing everyone avoids.

We as adults, often feel obligated to guide misguided younger generations, but we need to remember that these kids will more likely to grow up misbehaved unless they themselves feel the need to change their ways. People remember rejections more often than acceptance.

Teach students who wish to learn, not students who were pushed by their parents.

At a teaching meeting, we had a guest speaker sent in by department of education who said "bad teachers only teach good(keen) students, but good teachers get everyone involved"[These "experts" are apparently the ones who thought it's great to never allow students to fail courses in highschool]. Absolutely not, learning is a choice, and if the students didn't choose to be taught, don't. That will be their lesson.

February 24, 2017 at 01:49 AM · I would reject students who think that they are intelligent enough to judge the teacher and have strong doubts on the things that the teacher taught.

Otherwise, I'll try my best.

February 24, 2017 at 02:36 AM · Another way to look at it is that if a student is truly motivated to learn from you they will wait and take whatever opportunity you afford them. There is a brilliant teacher in my area that I have had the fortune of taking lessons from a few times when he has an extra spot open. We have spoken and he has told me that he might have a regular spot next fall. I am happy to wait for that spot and in the meantime soak up anything he is willing to give.

Jessy

February 24, 2017 at 03:09 AM ·

We learn more from the ones who struggle, but rejecting students to prevent teacher burnout is more important than the student.

February 24, 2017 at 03:34 AM · I think most good teachers are selective, both in terms of what students they take, and the expectations to remain in their studio. Ultimately teaching is still a business relationship, too. Poor students also hurt their teacher's reputation, potentially, making them a bad business decision.

February 24, 2017 at 03:37 AM · Erik--sustaining a chosen work over the long term is easier the more that work ties in with what one wants from life.

So the question is, what do you value about teaching? Is it the problem solving or the success of the students? Is it the challenge or the outcome or some other aspect of the process?

Someone can tell you about a moral standard to follow (although you'll still have to decide to follow it). Someone can suggest a way to more closely follow your chosen moral standards (but you've not really told us in detail what they are). But can someone tell you what your values are? I don't think so, and that's the real answer to your question.

February 24, 2017 at 03:52 AM · While it's admirable to want to meet a student's perceived needs, you also should keep in mind the limits of your own expertise. Unless you have had training in therapy, you aren't a therapist. It's best to recognize what you can do and what you aren't qualified to do.

Poorly behaved students get a warning followed by a quick exit if they can't control themselves. Allowing students to behave badly or act out does them no favors. You can't teach someone if they don't respect you.

Regarding the unmotivated student, is it fair to other potential students for you to be spending your time with someone who would rather be doing something else? In those cases, I would explain to the student and the parent(s) that there is a waiting list to get into your studio and that out of fairness to all, you need to apportion your time to those students who would benefit most. And then I would give the unmotivated student a limit with a consequence: Come unprepared for X more lessons (X = 2, 3 if you're feeling generous) and I can no longer teach you but I will be happy to refer you to another teacher. Alternatively, the student keeps a practice journal and if the student fails to practice X hours a week for Y number of weeks (X and Y dependent on the student's age, maturity, or mitigating factors), again, bye bye student.

Mitigating factors can include a divorce situation where it's hard to practice at one parent's house, illness, family emergency, etc.

If the student really is making a best effort, I wouldn't cut that student loose. Lack of ability is tolerable. It's the lazy or disrespectful student who needs to shape up or ship out.

February 24, 2017 at 03:59 AM · You would have to concede that not only could you not teach compassion, empathy and patience, but that you couldn't practice that either in rejecting some of your students, regardless of the grounds for taking on new prospects -- there are two independent actions to consider, and your obligation to non-students is nothing compared to your obligation to students you've already accepted. I think however that undertaking music lessons with a mind to conversion of that to moral lessons is not something that your students or their parents explicitly signed up for, so the difficulty you face in this case is your own acceptance of that limitation.

Regarding musical instruction, you should also consider that though you may be the best teacher you can think of (with whatever qualifications), you are not a perfect teacher, and the financial transaction has an assumption of give to take, and if you find that your give isn't taking, you have valid grounds and arguably even an obligation to stop taking from your student, notwithstanding your student's capacity for change given a clearer understanding of means and expectations.

Violin is an awkward and difficult instrument, and some may be able to make more progress and be happier with another activity or instrument, such as a piano, without necessarily conceding that it's a simple matter of being less difficult as each has additional challenges.

But for all this negativity, I can't help thinking that sometimes problems are solvable even though the teacher-student relationship hasn't been entirely effective. Maybe lessons in how to practice, followed by enough of a break to allow the student enough time to practice, or not, can be means to decide whether or not to continue -- for now at least. And are there teacher teachers? Summer camps for frustrated teachers? Sign me up for a practice subject if one comes up.

February 24, 2017 at 06:03 AM · Do you know how these students practice?

I don't think it's necessarily morally praiseworthy to keep the students that you have failed to help improve regardless the amount of effort you've put in. It's wise to know when and where to end anything.

My question to you is, what is your greatest strength in your craft? Is your strength benefiting your a particular student? If not, then you are morally required to help the student finding a better fit or just set him/her free.

It is, within your sphere of expertise, always thinking in the best interests of your student will make you the most ethical and professional teacher.

February 24, 2017 at 08:14 AM ·

February 24, 2017 at 09:37 AM · You've got to decide what battle is worth fighting.

As I see it, there are plenty of other teachers out there who will happily take their money and put up with their issues. I'm not interested in being a mental health professional either, for those who have problems beyond the my realm of expertise. I'm happy to refer them to a colleague who IS able to help them though!

February 24, 2017 at 10:27 AM · John: My thinking so far has paralleled yours: do the best that I can for those who I can help, whether it's violin related or otherwise.

As teachers, I'm sure we've all had students who we've affected on a deeper basis than just how they play the violin. I have many students who greatly appreciate what I do for them, even when it involves something other than how to play (their spiritual awareness and such). They make me feel important constantly, and that really keeps me going. I usually feel like I learn more from them than they learn from me.

Steven: When I had less experience teaching and was simply mirroring the teaching principles of those around me, I absolutely would have agreed with you.

But what I've come to realize over time - and from many students - is that most situations in life are not perfect. Kind of like how "typical" information might tell you to wait for law enforcement to arrive before doing anything, but that doesn't really apply when the burglar is right in front of you. You just have to make the best decision that you can in the moment, and there is no handbook that can give you advice that truly applies to your situation.

There are kids who come to me and I'm their best shot at getting therapy. Yeah, I'm not a therapist, but there's no chance in hell of their parents taking them to therapy. So I do what I can to show them how to learn; how to be healthy humans. At the very least I can show them what patience looks like.

The thing is, when I've stuck with some of these kids over the years, it really helps them. Like, given 2 years, they might still suck at violin, but their behavior has changed in a profound way. Sometimes, it's so profound that we can even start talking about learning the violin! And maybe given enough time, they'll eventually be great violinists.... it's hard to say.

Lydia: I agree in many ways, and my girlfriend would especially agree :D But if I was in this just for money, let's be honest, there are a million better ways to make money than music; whether it's teaching or performing. Anyone who has the dedication to be a competent string player also has the ability to become many other things.

Plus, given a variety of circumstances and the fact that I'm considered a good string teacher and BY far dominate the reviews in my area on a multitude of platforms, my business is doing pretty well despite the bad seeds.

Andres: you pose a good question, and one that I've asked myself numerous times. The truth is, I don't know what I am. I'm not just a string teacher. I'm a problem solver, a therapist, a fairly competent player, an artist, and about a million different things. I'm basically whatever the student needs me to be. It's not so much of me having a concrete goal as me filling whatever role needs to be filled.

Mary: My answer will be similar to the one I gave to Steven. Trust me, if I could tell some of these parents that their children need therapy, I absolutely would. Of course I would rather someone more qualified take on the task. But they won't. The kids are in my studio, and that's the fact of the matter. So I do the best I can, and honestly it works out pretty well if they stick around long enough. It just tends to take a toll on me, and sometimes I wonder if it's really the right thing. Perhaps the "right thing" would be to move on to a different, more hopeful student. To water the healthy seed.

Regarding the unmotivated student, I've definitely tried that tactic. There have definitely been times I've given deadlines and acted on them. But it's rare. I guess I can't help but always wonder if there's a hidden key to a particular student's motivation. Maybe I just haven't found it yet? I mean, they really do want to play - in theory. Maybe I just need to find that damn key! It's hard for me, because I always see the possibilities. I can't just shut those potential realities out.

The thing is, even laziness can be a sort of disease. I mean, no one WANTS to be lazy. I, myself, know this better than most. There are days where, in my head, I want to be productive, but I just can't get myself to do anything. I guess this is why I can't simply make it so black and white, although life would be much easier if I could. I really wish I could.

And I can't deny that I've had a few young students who were both lazy AND disrespectful (truly the worst of the worst) but, after a couple years of working on them, showing them unending patience, compassion, and talking about WHY we play, they ended out being much better people. And now they take the violin seriously, because it's associated with a crucial part of their emotional development.

Because I've had this success, I always wonder if that same success could apply to the next lazy student, given enough time and effort.

J Ray: I definitely agree with the fact that violin is NOT for everyone. But I'm generally able to identify early on if it's not the right instrument for a young child. The bigger issue comes with adults who, truthfully, would have difficulties on any instrument - or they're just attached to the idea of playing violin and refuse to play another instrument.

Regarding your last paragraph, I have definitely thought there should be string-teacher support groups! LOL

There is ALWAYS a way to a student. But how much of ourselves are we willing to give away?

Yixi: Any student of mine who consistently claims to practice and yet doesn't make practice, I make them them videotape their practice sessions.

It's hard for me to define my greatest strength in my craft. Because of my immense OCD, I find that I'm able to do most things very well. But this is more of a curse than a gift.

Mohammed: I think the point you're trying to make is that rejecting a student is sometimes the KEY to unlocking their potential. I am somewhat aware of this, but your post is helpful and informative, so thank you!

Gene: Maybe I AM the colleague you'd refer them to, haha. My theory is that the most troubled people are THEORETICALLY the most brilliant potential musicians, but they need a lot of work. Like a fixer-upper mansion.

February 24, 2017 at 10:38 AM · If you have too many students you can either jettison the ones who are ill-behaved or unpromising, or if demand for instruction continues to exceed supply, you can just increase your fees. I don't see why this situation calls for a lot of hand-wringing or psychology.

February 24, 2017 at 11:14 AM · I think you've the information / advice you need. Read Mary's post and then re-read it and also Steven J.'s redponse. Right now, as a Violin teacher teaching somebody whom after a couple of years still showing no progress and inability to practice is more or less just taking their money thinking you're doing some service or therapy for them. You're not helping them or yourself. You need to learn that you're not a therapist. You are not, and this is always a difficult lesson for a lot of private teachers, there to be their BFF. You are first and foremost a teacher getting paid.

Yes, you develop a close relationship during the one hour sessions over time but, it is on you to separate that from outside that studio. Boundaries should always be set on yourself as well as expectations on the student, which right now you do not seem to have much of. If in a studio at a school, then obviously you should've made a syllabus outlining what is expected from the student including amount of practicing required as well as what will happen if none of the above expectations you've outlined are met.

The behaviour outside the studio is solely the responsibility of the parents and the students. Not you. If, after x months a student doesn't practice or is not able play still, then you should be referring them to somebody who may be able to help them more OR telling them the Violin is not for them. Sounds harsh but will save everybody headaches all around. They can try other instruments that gets their attention. Sad, but that's life. As I stated earlier, right now all you're doing is taking money and not teaching what you're being paid to do. It could be your teaching 'style'.

It could be something at home. Or it could be they're not meant to play the Violin. You said you can tell whether somebody is adept for the instrument, yet then you say you've got students not practicing or not making any progress. That tells me those students do not actually have an affinity towards the Violin. Even after 30 years, I still cannot tell right off the bat whether a student is able to play or not. I usually can tell after a few weeks, however whether there is potential but that is on the student. I only helped guide them. Of course, I rarely will teach young kids or beginners anymore.

Also, your view about the most troubled people being potentially the most brilliant musician is extremely naive and flawed. We are the products of our upbringing is what I believe. Not everybody can or should be a musician and certainly not everybody can hold a violin nor should they either.

February 24, 2017 at 12:28 PM · What the heck, casey?? These are the students you should KEEP.

I am an educator myself (although i teach sciences), and in all honesty, in my oppinion, the OP raised non- existant issue.

If your student is an adult and is not progressing, just tell this to him as clearly as possible. You are all grown ups and he deserves to know what is going on, and might want to stop wasting money.

As for the devil kids, simply talk to their parents that their behavior is unnaceptable (with the kids present). You are there to train them, not to play the role of their mom.

That is how i behave with my students.

Unless you are in a position that you absolutely need their business, there is no need to waste energy in teaching who doesnt want to be taught. As for the ones without talent, just be honest with them. - they might find another less frustating activity for them.

February 24, 2017 at 06:03 PM · I was reflecting back on my childhood, during which I was mostly a terrible student to have in a studio.

I really did not want to play the piano. I didn't practice. I didn't listen to piano music. I didn't love the sound of the instrument. I wasn't engaged in lessons. I was somehow managing to improve on minimal practice, but I wasn't taking any satisfaction in it, and every practice session involved a meltdown, pretty much. I would have benefited from a teacher having the encourage to say to my parents, years before my parents finally allowed me to quit, "You know, your kid just isn't interested in playing the piano. Why don't you let her quit, or find another teacher that might be more inspiring?"

I had one really excellent violin teacher that I just didn't click with. I found it hard to understand her instructions, which were very physically based -- mental imagery works far better for me. After a year, she kindly told my parents that she thought I would do better with another teacher. She was right.

My teacher throughout most of my late childhood was extremely good -- but I was utterly uninspired to practice. I hated practicing. I practiced as little as possible (including a full year of high school where on many weeks I wouldn't practice at all), and I did so badly. The fact that I managed to progress steadily (and win competitions and a steady succession of principal chairs in youth orchestras), despite that lack of practice, is a huge credit to his skill as a teacher, as well as his patience in retaining me as a student despite his frustration with my lack of lesson preparation.

But a switch in teacher in my mid-teens pretty much instantly massively boosted my interest in practicing, because he really taught me precisely how to practice, with practice becoming a challenging and interesting exercise in problem-solving rather than dull rote repetition. (Even though my previous teacher had taught me an array of techniques to assault problems, he didn't teach me how to become actively engaged in the process -- how to see and hear what he heard and saw when he looked at a student, and how to figure out the root cause of a problem and then devise ways to fix it.) It's entirely possible that I might have found that much earlier had my teacher suggested that I go to someone else.

Also, every switch in teacher that I ever had has generally majorly improved at least one thing in my playing, relatively rapidly. Moving on isn't a bad thing.

February 25, 2017 at 02:50 AM · I'll respond based on content, rather than user-by-user, since many users have repeated content.

Firstly, I realize that as a violin teacher, my job is simply to teach violin. I think I may have given off the impression in this thread that there are some students who don't touch their violins in my studio for months or years at a time -- this isn't accurate. Of course, my goal is always to get the student back on the violin as soon as possible, but in the instance of kids with extremely bad ADD or ADHD (which seem to be VERY common nowadays), sometimes I've found it helpful to speak to them about how to focus properly and avoid distractions, and this often takes up most of the lesson times for a month or so. But after this initial groundwork, we often have many consecutive sessions of distraction free lessons!

And if I hadn't done this groundwork and simply said to the parents "sorry, this kid is broken, violin isn't for them -- in fact, maybe nothing is for them because they can't seem to focus on anything," then I would have guaranteed their failure. I couldn't think of myself as an adequate teacher if I simply passed off difficult students.

So in this case, the client is indeed getting what they are paying for, which is someone who will lead their child in the direction of effective violin playing. It's just that some kids seem to need more initial groundwork before they can truly "begin" learning. And with some kids, it's years of groundwork. But I always let the parents know specifically what I'm trying to overcome with their child so there are no secrets about what we're trying to achieve. Sending them to a different teacher would just waste time because that groundwork would still need to be done, and it might take the new teacher a couple of months to figure that out.

Regarding poorly-behaved (troubled) kids, - and this is where the discussion of morality begins - I think almost everyone just passes them on to the next person. Everyone says "I'm not qualified for this" and then hopes they'll magically find a different instrument, activity, or whatever and everything will just work out OK. But that's NOT how the world works. Their school teachers do the same thing. Their parents do the same thing.

If you're familiar with the "bystander effect" in psychology, you will find that this applies to troubled kids just as much as it applies to the classic example of the effect: hundreds of people watching a murder occur for 30 minutes and no one calling the police because everyone assumed someone else already must have done so. Such an unbelievably absurd situation, but it really happened, and it happens in almost all other facets of society as well.

With these kids, violin is NOT the problem. They have issues everywhere, and the learning of music is simply a medium for me to get through to them. This takes time because misbehaved kids are usually very untrusting. Am I honestly just going to throw them to the side because they don't suit my "ideal student" preferences?

In response to John A's "Also, your view about the most troubled people being potentially the most brilliant musician is extremely naive and flawed."

The key word here is "potentially," John. And since you didn't elaborate on your rather bold statement there, I can't exactly address the point. I do agree that not everyone is meant to play the violin. In fact, most people (in the general populous) aren't. However, you aren't taking into consideration that when the violin is the only source of stability in someone's life, they're going to be a much better player than someone who only thinks of the instrument as a thing that they do in their spare time. Of course, there are extremely talented casual players who will still outplay the extremely un-talented dedicated players, but the point still stands.

When you say "We are the products of our upbringing" perhaps you are neglecting to consider that a violin teacher is DEFINITELY part of a child's upbringing. Even with only 30 minutes a week, we can make significant changes to their perspective and attitude while also teaching them an instrument.

Lydia: I feel that your post deserves a longer response on my part, but after all this typing I'm pretty tired.

Basically, I absolutely agree that oftentimes, switching teachers is the best option. I switched teachers quite often when I grew up, too. One thing I wished my teachers had been able to do was be more adaptive to me as a I grew musically and emotionally. "Many teachers in one" sort of thing. I try to be this way as an instructor. When something isn't clicking with a student, or they've hit a wall, I try to get REALLY creative and think outside the box. I try to fault myself as a teacher instead of them as a student. Of course, there are students who will just never succeed because their attitudes are inherently broken, but those are usually older, maybe teens or adults. But I still keep trying with them, because it generally makes me more versatile as a teacher. I'm not only pushing the boundaries of their capabilities, but also of my own. To me, it's all a matter of diagnosing the weakest link in a student. As you noted, the "late childhood" teacher was very good, but did fail to address your need for more creative/dynamic engagement in your practice structure. Ideally, I think a teacher should be a capable player and have a good understanding of all technical aspects of playing and the reasoning behind them, but also have an excellent awareness of how to "translate" these concepts into simple cues and functions that will trigger the student to do them properly -- all without the student becoming bored! I also think a teacher should be able to switch personalities to adjust to each individual. For example, some respond better to humor while others need very straight-forward and formal discussion.

I will admit that trying to fit all of these roles simultaneously does make me completely exhausted at the end of each day though.

Last thing I should mention about sending students to other teachers: most of my students usually will only keep playing if I'm their teacher. They refuse to take any other teacher. And the times I have tried to "reject" students by telling them I've taught them all have resulted fairly bad reactions. This makes me super guilty. So I usually give in, and instead promise to increase my skills as a teacher instead of sending them off. This is followed by hours of OCD thinking and research. But I'm not bitter about it because in doing all of this work, I make myself more malleable to similar "walls" I might hit in the future with students.

February 25, 2017 at 03:51 AM · Erik, I think you raise some wonderful points. A teacher should be versatile. With some teachers, especially name brand ones at top institutions who aren't really performers, I wonder whether their fame and accolades can mostly be attributed to their skill in selecting students. Perhaps they pick students who are either already mostly developed as players, and/or students who are simply amazing autodidacts. I have also wondered if top players would end up at a similar level with so called "second tier" teachers, if all all else were to be equal. Also, have you ever breached the subject of psychological help with a family? I know it is touchy, but sometimes there is just no way around things with a student who has an unknown disability, and is not getting the proper help. I once taught a fourth grade student who didn't know the first seven letters of the alphabet, and had no clue how to tell time. I was also pretty sure that he had amusia, but I wasn't completely sure. The parents were completely inaccessible, and uninvolved. Clearly, as others have been saying, something on the outside, beyond my control needed to happen, in order for him to really accomplish anything, but I tried. He never did learn how to read music, or tell the top of the piano from the bottom, but he seemed happy to be playing nonetheless.

February 25, 2017 at 05:57 AM · Lieschen, I have thought about that point a LOT. Much of the time I feel like I'm making excuses by saying this, but I tend to get a lot of less-serious students, most likely because of my business model - or my lack of connections in the local music world.

More serious parents/students tend to hear that a teacher should "be a performer in the professional world" in order to be effective, as a general rule of thumb. So they find orchestral musicians first, and never end up at my door. When I do get serious students though, they make great progress and their technique ends up squeaky clean. I guess I just wish I drew them in more. Time to change my marketing.

No doubt about it -- name-brand teachers get better students. They're good teachers but their results are exponentiated by the talent pool they have access to. Like being a football coach at an all-star school. The school draws the best players in and the coach gets all the credit (SOME of which he probably deserves, but perhaps not all).

But regardless of all other factors, I think we can all agree on one point: for a player to become great, they need to be superbly talented AND have great teachers. There is no other way. Even the modern talents like Hillary Hahn and Joshua Bell had AWESOME teachers growing up.

Who knows how many very talented students end up at the wrong teacher's doorstep and never get to see their skills flourish? We wouldn't know; we only know of the ones that were able to succeed through a fortunate path. This is the reason I get so heated when I see teachers in my area who can't even play at a Suzuki book 4 level. This is just totally unacceptable to me. Some might argue that it doesn't matter because those teachers are only taking on beginners, but I think the newer the student is, the MORE important the quality of the teacher is. Since they're just seedlings, they can get crushed easily. Or at least their technique can be trained so irreparably badly that the students quit once they realize they have to relearn everything they know about holding and playing the violin.

Regardless of all other factors in a teacher, they NEED to have gotten far enough in the difficulty of the repertoire to know where they're leading the student. A beginner teacher CAN teach a beginner student, but they're often teaching them inefficient motor patterns that won't hold up to the strain of even moderately challenging music. A foundation built on sand!

Regarding psychological help, I haven't really breached it. I can just tell how it will go. The problem is that kids with psychological issues have irrational parents most of the time. A mentally healthy parent would already see that their kid isn't behaving in a healthy way. The kids are that way because their parents are not healthy human beings with good coping mechanisms. So if I brought up the issue, it would end in them leaving, and then my level of control to help their child would be 0. At least if they keep coming for lessons I can help teach them a couple of useful things, and maybe even work on their parents a bit.

Interesting to hear about the child with amusia. I have at least 2-3 students who seem to experience massive time dilation when focusing on any task. So their sense of rhythm completely disappears given any challenge in the music. Of course metronomes help in this instance, but it's sort of an uphill battle.

Amusia is another thing a surprising number of my students have (or at least start with). I've been very surprised at how many people can't sing at all. I have to teach them how to raise or lower the pitch or their voice. A lot of the time their voice will just get louder when I say to go lower or higher, but the pitch will remain the same. Weird to me because pretty much everyone on both sides of my family could sing in tune to some extent, and most of my friends growing up could also sing or play an instrument. Maybe it's the lack of funding in school music programs catching up with us?

I've noticed there's very little chance of a student understanding intonation unless they can sing a little first. So sometimes my violin lessons become singing lessons. Or piano lessons.

If he was happy playing, then music still helped him out! Good job!

February 25, 2017 at 06:23 AM · Name-brand teachers do indeed draw a better talent pool, and the best of them turn out a highly consistent product in terms of student ability (which is in some cases is achieved by winnowing out students who aren't doing well).

Not every teacher is good with every type of student's learning style or is a good fit in personality, musical temperament, or physical approach to the instrument. Finding the right match is important for the student, and students that aren't a good match should be encouraged to find someone who's a better match. The teacher might be able to adapt, but in the end might be a less successful match than someone who is playing to their strengths rather than compensating for a non-ideal match. Similarly, moving students along when they need someone more skilled is important. I have also had past teachers send me to colleagues for supplementary lessons, or for a summer, in order to learn something that someone else was specifically good at teaching. Very helpful.

Some people see their profession as a higher calling. Anyone who does is likely to make decisions that other people would not.

February 25, 2017 at 07:02 AM · Bruno,

"What the heck, casey?? These are the students you should KEEP."

Intelligent students, yes. But not smartasses.

February 25, 2017 at 07:10 AM · I love smartasses. I've always found them easy to guide because they respond so well to being challenged. Usually their pride is an easy target and they like being prodded a bit. But they have to see you as an equal until they're able to see on their own terms how superior you are. If you START their lessons with an attitude of superiority, they just fight back harder.

February 25, 2017 at 08:14 AM · Erik,

The students in questions are not kids. They're grown ups and never learn how to appreciate. Those are the students who always wanted to try another teacher. They will never be convinced.

I do, have a few little smartasses. They'll eventually get along fine and steady progresses were always expected.

February 25, 2017 at 08:38 AM · Oh yes, those ones. Not those ones.

February 25, 2017 at 05:00 PM · Erik, perhaps you could complete the necessary training to become a music therapist, and have a flexible type of studio where some students receive music therapy, some don't, and some have something in between.

February 25, 2017 at 05:06 PM · "I really did not want to play the piano. I didn't practice. I didn't listen to piano music. I didn't love the sound of the instrument."

I didn't really like the piano, didn't listen to piano music, listened to a lot of violin music, but had my son take piano lessons before violin lessons because I thought (wrongly as it turned out) that his mother's piano experience would be beneficial. (She was too busy for that and I took on that role instead.) I still think that the piano often doesn't sound as good as it might -- especially in the performance of some Bach for example, but I attribute that now in part to the tuning. Bach's tuning was different, and if you have an instrument tuned to a temperament closer to one he might have used, it sometimes has less discord and simply sounds better to my ear. That aside, people often ask my son which instrument he likes better, and he doesn't have a simple answer -- he likes them both in different ways. Me too, and when I hear him playing Debussy or Chopin on the piano at home, I feel privileged.

This is to say that an apparent distaste for piano can be misplaced and self-corrected over time. It is more versatile, and at least with respect to intonation and some physical aspects, much easier than violin. It is more than a reasonable instrument to consider when violin isn't working for a student.

February 25, 2017 at 06:13 PM · I would consIder piano only if it is clear that it is an instrument a student enjoys much more than violin. A student switching instruments because it seems easier is never going to get anywhere when things get harder on their chosen instrument. A beginning pianist may not sound squeaky ,but in the end, the instrument proves just as difficult to truly play well.

February 25, 2017 at 06:15 PM · I don't dislike the sound of the piano, but it's just not a preferred sonority of mine, at least not when it's just piano (rather than piano with other instruments). Parents would probably do well to expose their kids to the sounds of lots of instruments and see if any have particular appeal.

I'd never seen or heard a violin before I began violin lessons, and then I spent a year with a cardboard box, failing to learn to hold the box properly. By the time I'd actually "graduated" from the box, the Crackerjack in it had gone stale and couldn't be eaten. :-)

February 26, 2017 at 01:41 AM · " A student switching instruments because it seems easier is never going to get anywhere when things get harder on their chosen instrument. A beginning pianist may not sound squeaky ,but in the end, the instrument proves just as difficult to truly play well."

Really? I think "truly play well" if we're discussing professional standards for example, are out of the question for all but a very small number of students. Granted, that there are some problem students who willfully accomplish nothing and will not change with a change in instrument (Lydia seems to be an interesting counter-example of one who both accomplished despite not trying to and improved with a change of instruments), but there are also students for whom specific technical problems with the violin are never resolved, and perhaps not even correctly diagnosed and addressed by their teachers, who would continue to struggle because of the specific technical issues which will simply not appear in some other instruments. The goal in the end is music, not just a specific instrument, and a lot can change with a change of teachers, and therefore even more with a change of instruments.

To be clear however, I agree with Lieschen's point about difficulty being difficulty which some may not face and overcome, and moreover that piano presents another difficulty quite early - the challenge of playing two lines at the same time which the student might never get over, but my point was not that an instrument change is an easy solution, but one option which may be more appropriate or successful than might have been imagined.

February 26, 2017 at 03:59 AM · Yes, I think that an instrument change could help in some situations, say if there are physical problems. I was referring to professionals, or those close to it. I would never say that a Berlin Phil tubist is an inferior musician to the concertmaster, based on instrument alone. One's hands may end up much too small for classical piano, one may be missing a leg, and thus have issues with cello, or one could have a vocal anomaly preventing singing. Then there are personality conflicts. One who is drawn to melodic material will not enjoy timpani, or one who is painfully introverted may enjoy the isolation of piano. But a switch should never be driven by the misconception that mastery on the whole is easier on any one instrument, and that teachers should generally think very carefully before they lower their expectations for achievement.

February 26, 2017 at 05:02 AM · Actually, J Ray, I started piano about two years after I started violin. I never got the hang of coordinating two hands on the piano, not even when I was a college student taking piano lessons in order to pass the obligatory piano-proficiency exam for my music minor. Two hands doing totally different things, like with violin, turns out to be far easier for me than two hands doing similar-yet-not-identical things. Just the way my brain works.

By the way, having a kid continue to plod along on something they have no affinity for also prevents the kid from using that time to discover something that he might have a genuine passion for. You're not necessarily doing a kid any favors when you don't tell his parents that he'd be better off spending his time elsewhere.

For myself, even though I hated to practice as a kid, I enjoyed playing the violin with other people, and I especially loved orchestral playing. So I never wanted to quit lessons even when my parents were frustrated enough that they wanted me to do so. (I never really understood why they seemed more insistent that I play the piano despite the fact that I sucked at it, and I was doing well with the violin. Perhaps they offered to let me quit violin because they knew I wouldn't take them up on the offer, but suspected I'd jump at the chance to quit piano the moment it was offered -- which I did.)

February 26, 2017 at 05:22 AM · They're two different musical lines, not just similar tasks. Two hands on the violin are playing a single line (notwithstanding Bach). Learn one hand on piano - no problem. Learn the other hand, no problem. Play them together -- problem. Learn them again, together... Solo Bach would be a lot easier if it only had one line, but then it wouldn't really be Bach. His music is mandatory in piano for the same reason.

It's interesting that you mention enjoying playing with other people. That was the main reason I had for having my son play violin after piano. Kids taking private lessons only won't necessarily have the chance to play in groups unless their studios make additional arrangements and could miss out on that social, motivational and musical element.

February 26, 2017 at 05:45 AM · For what it's worth, I started all three of my children quite young on the violin, and one by one they got to 5th grade and let me know how much they hated it. None of them were on a track to become anything more than competent at best on the violin, but when they switched to the instruments of their choice, they became, at the statewide high school level anyway, stars.

I never used to believe that musical ability was instrument-specific until I watched it happen with my own kids.

I had years of violin and piano as a child (started violin at five and piano at six), and honestly I preferred piano right up until the time my parents made the decision for me to focus on violin. I figured out later that what I preferred about the piano was what I loved about playing in an orchestra--all the sonorities, harmonies--just the feeling of being part of a big sound.

February 26, 2017 at 06:07 AM · Playing with other people is one of the advantages of large, high-quality Suzuki programs, or community music schools with similar support. In my initial Suzuki program, I had a once-a-week group lesson, and once-a-week string orchestra as soon as I could read music competently enough to join -- a major goal of mine from the very first day that I heard them. By the time I was ten, I was playing in a Suzuki-based community music school's two string orchestras, both of which were conducted by the Chicago Symphony's assistant conductor to Solti, Henry Mazer -- both doing real repertoire (more Mozart Divertimento-type literature in one, and full-fledged string serenades in the other, i.e. Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, etc.). I can't even describe how much I loved that experience. (The big sound is a big part of it. No better place for hearing it than the principal stand of the 2nd violins, dead center in front of the conductor!)

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