Why do some teachers insist on giving students too hard pieces?
Today I was sitting in the hallway while my daughter had orchestra and I had the misfortune of listening to an entire lesson for an adult student echoing through the door of one of the rental studios. The lesson consisted of about 15 minutes of three-octave scales, with the student demonstrating struggles in intonation, especially in the upper register. After that, the teacher had the student playing the Fugue from Bach sonata #1. Now, this student could not even play scales in tune, or even the Fugue subject in tune, so you can imagine how the triple stop chord parts went. The rest of the lesson consisted of absolutely painstaking practice on literally every single chord. The kind of practice that makes everyone want to quit the violin.
Why on earth would any teacher give a student a piece that they will never be able to play well, that is so far beyond their level? This isn't the first time I've seen this. There is one teacher (of kids) I know who does this all the time (though not quite as egregiously) and then keeps her student on that one movement for a year or more.
I understand that the student may be the one insisting on playing this repertoire, but isn't it the teacher's duty to talk them down? How does this benefit anybody? Is this really common? Is this why a lot of people end up quitting? If that had been my lesson, I would have wanted to throw my instrument out the window.
Sometimes a student or the student's parent will be pushing to the harder literature. But I agree with you Susan that this is quite a common problem with teachers. Based on what I have seen, I would guess that the majority of teachers do this.
If it was an adult student I assume that's the piece they're insisting on.
Well, they are two different skill-sets here -- the high-positions skillset of the scale, and the low-position double-stops (and a pile of other technical difficulties that don't require shifting up) of the Fugue.
One of my older teachers did this (sort of). Not pieces which were necessarily beyond my skill level, but which definitely required a higher level of focus and work that he was not putting in, nor encouraging me to put in. My lessons went a bit like this:
People take lessons for different reasons.
Whenever I read these horror stories I start to feel better about my own teaching. I also have that problem of assigning things too advanced. It's partly based on the parents' report on how far along they are in the Suzuki series, and my assumption that the student actually wants to learn the violin and put in some practice time. After a few half-wasted months I find that I often need to back up on the technical level. I am trying to train myself to follow the advice of one my somewhat famous teachers; That technique should Not be learned on the repertoire. Technique should be learned with the scales, exercises, and the etude series. Pieces and concertos intended for public performance or auditions should be at one grade/ one year lower than their current skills.
I have to come back to this. I gave a flippant answer before, but It's been been bugging me.
I think Susan's question is legitimate, whether we're talking about kids or adults. This has been a good discussion thus far.
Why would a person's thoughts be so depressingly negative based on what they heard standing outside a studio? Especially from an adult student.
I think there are many reasons both understandable and not that this sometimes happens. I think I generally do a good job of assigning pieces at a good level for the student to master, but I know I occasionally misjudge a student.
I was just about one year into my cello studies when my teacher performed the Haydn D major cello concerto (No. 2) with our community orchestra (this was 68 years ago, before Haydn's C major cello concerto - No. 1 (which would have been a better and easier concerto for my level at the time) had been rediscovered). Right afterwards I expressed a desire to study it and so we worked on it for many months and made it through all three movements. There were many technical things I had to learn and I learned them "in situ" - but it worked pretty well. I've never performed it, but to this day I can still warm up on the first page from memory (that is, on days when my memory is still working!).
I think it's common to assign pieces that are too hard.
@Ryan Smith, I want to make clear that I am NOT judging the student -- my criticism is of the teacher. I should also make clear that I've sat in this hallway off and on for years and this is definitely not the first time I've heard questionable things coming through that particular doorway. I think, if anything, I felt incredible sympathy for the student because I started with numerous poor teachers, and I don't wish that on anybody.
"One could argue that the teacher should let them leave, but teachers need to eat too..."
I think you framed your question in the wrong way–unless you know more than what you overheard. My bet is that it is not the teacher insisting, but rather the student.
@Ingrid, last year I had a teacher whose claim to fame was how quickly she could get kids into conservatory: 18 months vs 4 years.
Susan - clean up your own house before criticizing someone trying to learn a Bach fugue.
"I think they're badly misguided, and part of the responsibility of music education is to guide them better. And this misguidance stems in part from greater music being equated with greater difficulty combined with egoism which ignores the actual results for the supposed accomplishment."
I agree with Ingrid’s post.
We teachers must be careful not to create confusion about what "progress" actually is:
I had many teachers give me repertoire that was too difficult when my primary challenge was physical discomfort on the instrument. One of my teachers, very famous, gave me the 2nd Vieuxtemps Concerto while I was struggling with tension. I learned a lot from this teacher. But first I had to stop playing for 5 years and re-build my technique from scratch. I figured out my physical issues and am very careful about my students' physical relationship with the instrument. Lots of time wasted, however.
Ryan wrote, "When you're perfect you can judge anyone." Well I suppose that's a fair comment, but my guess is that Susan, who has been around the block when it comes to violin instruction, has seen plenty more evidence than just the one individual teaching far-too-hard material to an adult, and that is why she asked her actual question in general terms, "Why on earth would any teacher give a student a piece that they will never be able to play well, that is so far beyond their level?" You can call that class-action judgmentalism if you wish, but after reading the entire thread, one can clearly see that it actually is a problem -- or at least something that others are concerned about too. Ergo, it's suitable fodder for discussion in this forum.
I don't know. I think it can be hard to tell. I'm not always at my best at my lesson - Maybe I didn't practice that much, or the music is really tough, or I'm just not quite locked in. I think it can be hard to know whether a teacher's method is correct for a student based on even a lot of snapshots, but on the other hand, I've thought many a time about how completely off a teacher must be after hearing their student perform.
I think a trained listener can easily discern the difference between a student who is a bit underprepared for a particular lesson and a student who is trying to play a piece that is beyond them. It's like judging an audition. We can tell the difference between nerves and lack of ability. Both might sound bad, but they sound bad in very different ways.
Sometimes I think the issue is a mismatch of student and teacher (I've transitioned from teachers when I realized their teaching style did not suit me in the long run), and other times I think the issue is with the student insisting upon learning pieces that the teacher has already deemed too hard. (I won't even noodle with pieces that my teacher has deemed too hard for me to be learning/playing at this time.)
Imagine you're and adult starter and NOT a one-out-of-millions genius, and you're just starting with the violin. You're not able to tear a good tone after three month, and your intonation in 1st position definitely sucks. But your teacher thinks it's time for 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th position now - all at once. How's that... - Happened to me with my first teacher, no joking.
I didn't read Susan's comments as judgmental, either of the teacher or the student, and I don't think there's any harm in questioning the behavior, especially in this highly anonymized context.
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