Adjusting Expectations to Different Students?

June 21, 2019, 3:34 AM · Fellow teachers, a fairly general question: how do you manage to adjust expectations for various levels of students?

By this, I don't necessarily mean how much you expect them to practice, but more so the level of intonation, quality of tone, confidence of strokes, etc....

With me, there are days where I'll teach a promising student that has 99% good intonation, but I might be nitpicking that last 1% with them. Then, immediately afterwards, I might be teaching a student that learns much slower and has 75% intonation at their best. I sometimes find it difficult to not mix the "level of magnification" in my criticisms from the more advanced students to the beginners. Obviously, I manage to make it work, but it requires serious mental work on my part to "shift gears" throughout the day. Thus, days where I teach a fairly homogeneous mix of levels are my least stressful days.

Another good example is the students who are advanced enough for me to spend a good portion of their lesson time on musicality and complex layered phrasing, rather than simpler concepts like rhythm and pitch. Sometimes I catch myself accidentally carrying over these more complex ideas into lessons that really need to be simpler.

I suppose it doesn't help that most of my students take 30-minute lessons, so I don't always have the ideal amount of time to adjust my levels of expectations.

Anyhow, I was just hoping to get a dialogue going about this subject. I'm looking forward to hearing some advice.

Replies (13)

June 21, 2019, 5:06 AM · How do you determine, that expectations should be lower or higher?

I give you one example. One 10-years old was transferred from one teacher who adjusts expectations from student to student to my son's teacher about a year ago. And from a "hope-less" student who played 75% of correct pitches at most he now plays very clean in tempo, pitch and they work on musicality.
Our teacher does not change her expectations- 100% should be clean.
Start from scales and etudes with every student each lessons.

According to her, if you let your student play sloppy, her/his ear will be not recognising anymore correct pitches, even if the student has a perfect pitch. The student will not remember which sound is correct and should be there.
On the other hand, the student who needs to develop pitch essentially needs to listen to only correct pitches. These students are better without practicing at home. They need a high level of the teacher's control.
It is better to do not practice, than to practice incorrectly.

She also says, that sometimes students are not accurate in pitches, because they do not understand why they should be accurate (about kids). She spends quite a bit time on the explanation of the music concepts, compositions etc.
That boy, I started with was never explained the pitch concepts. Two lessons was enough for him to understand and 2-3 month to re-learn everything he new.

To her, expectations never changes, only how much of material can be digested by a student.

Edited: June 21, 2019, 5:21 AM · As a student, I normally have goals, mostly proposed by my teacher in the class. She gives me exercises and scores for me to practice, and in the next class I show her how much I progressed with these. She more or less remembers how I played those during the last lesson, so she can compare if I'm getting better and understanding the exercises. Since we commit a lot of errors and mistakes, my teacher has plenty, infinite things to correct. She knows what I've played in the past, she knows my level.

May be your problem is you spend so little time with each student that you don't know what they can play, are capable to play, and how good they are.

But, actually, not really. A master class:
Does Vengerov freeze when he listen to a student he doesn't know and has never listened to?
He surely doesn't know the capabilities of the student, neither what they can play. Nevertheless, he goes and teaches 5 or 6 consecutive students with totally different levels, pieces, periods... how?

I think it's basically that he knows how the pieces should go; he, based on his experience, can recognize mistakes so easily. I mean, these guys can spend a whole 1h correcting and explaining the very first phrase of the piece.

So basically, you listen to the student, what he's working on, and that's what you use as a reference. You know it takes a lot of time to improve in violin playing, so even though you have your own idea of how the piece should go, you know when you're expecting the student to do something in 20 minutes that actually takes weeks and weeks of practice, and when not.

Expectations?
All the same, each student must play and understand each piece based on your understanding of the piece, kind of 100% correct. You have your own ideas about the piece, you know how the bow should go in this part, the dynamics here and there, the bow strokes... a student of yours should meet those expectations so you can recognize the performance is perfect, allowing some ideas from the student and knowing he will have a different style.

Reality?
Each student will play different, at different levels, and you can totally adjust to those levels, you know when they can't play any better, so you give them tips to improve at what they are doing wrong. Your goal is that they can perform the piece according to your understanding of it.

Edited: June 21, 2019, 8:06 AM · Paul N.- I am sure Erik can tell students' levels after hearing them play the first few notes of a scale. I am not a teacher, but it is not that hard for an experienced amateur, let alone a professional.

Based on other things Erik has said about his studio, I wonder if he is coming up against his students' (and their parents') different expectations regarding what is good effort and how hard you need to work to play well. He has students with learning disabilities (and perhaps emotional problems?), and impatient adults who think it should be easy. Dare I say it, I suspect there are some class differences he is dealing with also, and different ideas about study and achievement that come along with different backgrounds. I think it would be tough to manage.

June 21, 2019, 8:24 AM · I don't know, may be I'm not understanding what he means or what's the problem.
June 21, 2019, 9:12 AM · I'm teach and know exactly what Eric is talking about. Yes, pitch is important, but many times, teachers have to deal with the biggest problem first. And we also have to take into account that some students are fine being pushed and some will shut down. And some just learn very slowly.

I jot down notes before I start teaching for the day about what I want each student to walk away with that day. I also do a quick check of last week's notes so I can check their progress. Scheduling with 15 minute breaks in between lessons might also help you cleanse your teaching pallet, if you're able to. Back to back can be really hard.

Edited: June 21, 2019, 4:12 PM · K Ch, no offense, but that teacher's beliefs are highly idealistic. Either that, or maybe you don't understand what I mean when I say "100%" intonation.

Would it be their implication that regardless of repertoire level, I should be discussing intonation concepts at the "100%" level? I should be talking about Expressive intonation vs Pythagorean intonation vs Just intonation while they are on Twinkle or May Song? That they should be playing ever so slightly sharp if they're going to be soloing above an orchestra? I should be talking about how notes in 3rds are to be played differently notes in 6ths while they're just struggling to even understand why a "B" is called a "B"?

What if their attention span is limited to 10 seconds because of ADD? What if they're on the autism spectrum? What if they have impaired motor skills? What if they're hearing different sounds out of their right and left ears? What if they're just very slow learners, or have a learning disability?

Let me tell you something: with some kids, it's a *really* good day if they're just managing to bend their index finger correctly, or land on their finger-tapes. If I told those kids "no, it's not good enough, adjust your intonation so it sounds like *this*," and didn't relent until their intonation was as good as mine, I would end up discouraging those kids into complete submission until they just quit. There would probably be a lot of crying, and a lot of upset parents. They would never progress.

A good teacher understands that the level of expectations must be adjusted depending on the special needs of each student.

These teachers that say "nothing but perfection" from the very beginning end up killing the joy of the less-talented students early on and then when they quit, they just validate it by saying that those students weren't dedicated enough in the first place and shouldn't have been playing anyways. Yes, the students that remain there probably end up doing well, and so an outsider can look at that teacher and say "wow, their students do well in competitions, so they must be good." But that's just an illusion that was built upon the filtering/culling of the slower learners. A lot of kids that could have benefited from continuing to play music and may well have "caught up" eventually were culled early on by these "100% expectation teachers."


Actually, kind of a relevant example where *I* was the teacher with too-high of expectations: I taught an autistic teenager who had been receiving lessons from a high-school student for about a year before he started taking lessons with me. The parents thought he needed a more advanced teacher, so they came to me. I saw his crappy technique, his bad intonation, his sloppy tone.... everything was wrong to me. So I started to try to fix these things right away.

Well let me tell you: he learned *nothing* from me. He had learned 100x more from that high school student than he ever did from me. Why? Because the high school student's expectations were much lower, so this kid was allowed to progress at a much slower - but much steadier - rate. Sometimes we just have to accept that the candle is a slow-burning one and "let go of the reigns." Other times we need to grasp control and be more strict. It just depends. And any teacher who says that it doesn't depend on the student is just a fool.

But, I'm glad that your son's teacher's attitude has blended well with your son's natural abilities. Some students do very well with high expectations, so just count yourself as fortunate.

As a side note, I also teach students who respond well to me being very precise/strict. To be honest, these are the students I enjoy teaching the most, because I feel that my teaching skills have the greatest impact on them. It's really amazing what they can absorb and do at such a young age. However, I don't expect the average kid to behave like they do.

Edited: June 21, 2019, 5:16 PM · Oh, interesting, I'm starting to get what you mean.

First, if you are working with "problematic" kids, then I guess it's you the one that must put boundaries, based on your experience with the kid.
Is it OK to insult your teacher in a class?
Of course not.
What if it comes from a student that normally slams the violin to the ground and hits or fights physically the teacher?
Then it would be a huge progress.

Second, if you're working with "special" kids that over react, then of course it's again you the one that must know the kid. Only time and getting to know him will let you discover how much you can push. We can't help there.

Special cases require special attention and special solutions, so I don't think you can find a good answer here. You can get "inspired" by some comments, but at the end of the day, it's you the one that must know and talk to the student. A real good relationship between teacher and student requires talking in and out of the class, if not, you won't be able to notice the little but important things that each student does.

I for example take as a compliment every little correction, but of course, sometimes I've been forced to tell my teachers "stop correcting me deeper and so accurately because I'm having huge trouble correcting this little thing you just told me". But, most of the time I'm seeking complete destruction of my playing, I like to hear that my playing was not good, because I think I'm not good. Only one thing really shuts me down: high expectations in my progress during the same class.

How? It normally happens when the teacher teaches something that is very easy and natural for them, for example, playing in 3rd position, or playing in tune. I had hard time the first 2 classes I was requested to play "up there" because it was so difficult to control, I couldn't read the notes, everything was changing, the position, the fingers... My teacher expected, but for real, like really expecting, me to get it quite fast, at least reading and playing the correct notes. Since I was progressing remarkably in that year, she over pushed me and, we never got angry in or out class, but definitely I noticed she was very upset when I was playing the wrong notes and way off. She was saying "but can't you see it's an A and not a G??? At least you should be able to distinguish that"

I think the simple fact that you're asking this yourself tells you're doing it right. Also outside class problems are a huge deal. Sometimes a student can't stand a critic, specially if the student put effort last week working on the things you said, because if everything outside the class is wrong, and one thing that the student loves, becomes also wrong, then imagine. I also think that, at the end of the day, violin is something you must enjoy, even doing it wrong must be enjoyable. I'd "kill myself" if playing the violin becomes a sad and angry task, and had to do it.

June 21, 2019, 8:32 PM · I don't think it's necessarily about "problematic" kids. I've been accompanying (on the piano) my violin teacher's Suzuki Group for several years. I see some kids who have great this and not-so-great that for just about every combination of this and that imaginable. There are just differences in their development and aptitudes.
June 21, 2019, 8:41 PM · Yep, it's a spectrum. Some people are naturally great at rhythm but not so great at pitch. Others have natural musicality but poor discipline for practice.

And of course, there are indeed "problem" students who just have anger issues or whatever, probably from a bad home life.

Anyone broadly involved in teaching has seen this spectrum. We can't expect all kids to perform to the same standards, just as we wouldn't expect every kid to learn high level calculus. For some, just being able to get through algebra is a big accomplishment. But this certainly doesn't mean they're "special needs." It just means they're stronger in some subjects than others. Not everyone's brain jives with math, and not everyone's brain is ideally suited to music.

June 22, 2019, 3:14 PM · Erik, et al.,

Humans, from young to old, are fascinating and each one is pretty unique. I teach young musicians who come from families of limited resources exclusively for my own set of reasons. Hence, they come from families where a lot of the qualities that a good teacher looks for in a student are not demonstrated by the parents or other adults outside of school.

Yes, they often progress much slower than I would like, or think they are capable of, but my job is to help them do the best that they can. I always wind up teaching life-lessons along with the violin and music. The basics of time management because their families tend to live from crisis-to-crisis and never plan ahead but to have effective practice/study skills you have to manage your time. Impulse control is another part of life where they have to learn to manage themselves in stressful situations instead of blowing up at the smallest problem. My list goes on and, no surprise, learning the violin brings these problems to the forefront quickly.

Taking time, going slow, riding a plateau for some time, can be frustrating for the teacher but it may be exactly what the student needs. While music is important, we who teach young musicians, may be one of the few adults they encounter that give them the time and attention they need to develop both as a musician and a person.

I will say that I am fortunate in that I don't deal with parents who want me to turn their child into the next Paganini in six months, or even get them an audition for a conservatory. Most are happy that they learn to play as well as study and not have as many difficulties in school because they now do their homework, study, ask questions, participate, and have goals.

Erik, you may not realize it but you are teaching more than just the violin and music. You are, potentially, one of the most important adults in their life - even if they never master the violin.

June 23, 2019, 8:58 AM · Amen to George Wells.
June 23, 2019, 10:21 AM · "Another good example is the students who are advanced enough for me to spend a good portion of their lesson time on musicality and complex layered phrasing, rather than simpler concepts like rhythm and pitch. Sometimes I catch myself accidentally carrying over these more complex ideas into lessons that really need to be simpler."

I found myself nodding and agreeing with you, that we need to deal with the basics first and foremost - holding the instrument and bow, movement, intonation, and can deal with the higher points of musicality and expression for later after more advancement.

Except that that's complete nonsense, and we need to enjoy music throughout, and have it as our drive, road, and goal.

June 23, 2019, 3:19 PM · Lol J Ray, there's nothing enjoyable about lacking the basics to such a degree that you can't even ponder the idea of musicality yet.

For example, if my bow is constantly wandering from bridge to fingerboard and my intonation is horrible, do I yet have the capacity to think about bring about the leading voices in a fugue?

I suppose my main point was that there are times when I very briefly go into *high* level musicality with students who aren't ready for it, then I catch myself and come back down to earth.

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