When Intermediate Students Hit a Wall

July 2, 2020, 1:53 PM · Let's say you have a *adult* student that practices a reasonable amount (maybe 30 minutes a day), and they progress nicely through the beginner repertoire and even a bit into the intermediate stuff. But at some point, you eventually give them a piece that is just taking too long to pass. Maybe it's been a month, so the first thought is to give them something else - a bit easier - for a while so we don't experience burnout. So they work on that piece, and while practicing it, you also give them some etudes to better prepare them for what's coming next. Ok, so now you give them the more difficult piece again (or, something equivalent). Once again, they're just not really making good progress on it.

There are 2 conclusions at this point: either they're not practicing enough in order to pass this piece within a decent amount of time, or the quality of their practice is no longer sufficient to pass this difficulty of a piece.

Ok, so you talk to them and they agree to double their practice. You also go over, in good detail, exactly *what* their practice should be like, in terms of quality and execution.

No effect.

Fast forward to a year later. This same process has been repeating itself. The student has, in essence, just been stuck at a particular level of playing that they just can't seem to surpass. Different etudes have little/no effect, and working back up from easier songs has little/no effect. Everything that you want to hear from the student has been stated, written in notes, perhaps even recorded in video form. And yet it never seems to happen.

Now, despite all of this, the student isn't bothered at all. They're happy with what's happening. Is that the core of the issue? That they're pleased enough with the quality of their playing and their technical skills, so that no matter how much advice/material you give them, when they go home, they're fine with playing it somewhat out of tune with no significant phrasing and questionable articulations?

This is a phenomenon that I can't quite find a solution to. It's not that they have no work ethic. They'll practice as much as is asked of them. But somehow, they just never care enough about the quality to really sink their teeth into the core issues at hand. Playing very slowly, listening with a critical ear, trying to comprehend the phrases -- they just don't care enough, and they're ok with not really caring. They're happy. And the worst part is, it's not like they're not *trying.* I just feel like when they go home, they go into a state of "practice hypnosis" where they just play through the piece without really realizing what they're missing.

What do you do, as a teacher? Do you just accept that this student will continue paying you for essentially no progress whatsoever? If they're happy, should I be happy? I feel that weekly lessons are an important part of their life, so I think it would damage them to say something like "hey, this isn't working out anymore." And I really doubt that finding a different teacher would change the nature of their situation, otherwise I would recommend that.

Replies (52)

July 2, 2020, 2:48 PM · Do not fight it over with your student. However, at that level, violin study should become a bit serious in order to advance. The brain-body connection hasn't been fully realized, and the student may not wholly grasp the full, good advice you are giving. So if the student is willing and able, try teaching him/her as you would a conservatory student, granted that he/she has the time and love for the instrument to advance. It is also obvious that this student does not know what to do to improve further-it may also be that he/she does not care, of course, as you are led to believe, but in general, people that are willing to spend that much on lessons would not relish being "stuck" forever.

I know you are an experienced teacher, but I humbly suggest you encourage your student to remain inspired to improve by watching/listening to performances/recordings that may inspire him/her not to be content with their current advancement.

It may be that the student is "at his/her limit", but I generally do not like to put limits on people (excuses such as "it's just an adult, he/she is tonedeaf, etc. are IMHO the easy way out)... there must always be a way to improve and solve violinistic problems.

Since the student seems not to be aware of seeing "any problem" in his/her playing, that is likely the most important thing that should be pointed out and fixed.

In summary:

-Intermediate repertoire and upwards from there require lots of conscientious practice, and is the period where many if not most players get stuck. Things now "get serious", and it is hard to advance without putting the extra effort. Though of course always be mindful that some players can be stuck while actually working hard at home, just because their brains/body are not yet ready to understand. Keep at it. "Intermediate hell" may take years, but just be sure you are doing your best for him/her, and not using "he/she is only an adult without future" as an excuse to slack off on your teaching (please do not feel offended-it is something I have observed many teachers do, and that is why I mention it in good faith.)

-Figure ways to inspire your student, whatever it may take, to "push the envelope" towards new heights.

-On the practical teaching level, if the student is happy with your teaching, and you are not overly stressed about the "lack of progress", keep changing pieces, improving scale work (bet the student can improve there as well), working on new Etudes, until the student finally "Gets it" and overcomes his/her advancement obstacles.

In the end, if you are not comfortable teaching this adult learner, do not torture yourself. But if the person is happy and you can endure it for a bit further, try to keep working it out, if you *both* agree on it. Sometimes the student may be happy with this "bad" level of playing, and may play like that throughout his/her life, but unless you are ethically uncomfortable, I do not consider taking lessons a waste of his/her/your time (this person may "get it" sooner or later, even if it is also possible he/she may never do.)

My apologies for not offering any other more concrete advice. Be well, and stay safe.

July 2, 2020, 3:49 PM · Erik,

As one of those adult-beginners over 40 years ago I have to ask you what I think is the essential question to ask of all adult beginners: "What is your goal in playing the violin?" I have the feeling that you never asked this question.

Why does an adult plateau? From my personal experience as a violinist and Supply Chain Management consultant/teacher there are three things that cause plateaus: First is that the actual goal has been achieved and the next step isn't something that the student wants. Second is that life gets in the way other commitments, issues, concerns and the violin (or other education) stops. Lastly, there is that tendency to just keep going because you have been going even though the fire/motivation has died out.

I would suggest exploring the literature at the level your adult student is at right now. Some emphasis on playing duets at that level. Perhaps looking for a performance opportunity again at the current level. Of course, you could simply ask "Where do you want to go from here?"

FWIW: My teacher, at my first lesson, asked me about my goals. Back then all I wanted was to be able to play the melody/descant line on Episcopal Hymns. I achieved that in under a year but my teacher opened up the world of music by teaching me music theory, understanding how the violin works in the various positions, he also asked me to join the local community orchestra both to play and assist young musicians who aren't as skilled as I was/am.

I stuck with the violin because I enjoy it - Period.

Don't ask us - ask your student.

July 2, 2020, 3:58 PM · George, I always ask about goals when I acquire a new student, and I usually ask every few months if their goals have changed at all. I believe she mentioned "it's something to do," and her answer hasn't changed since then.
Edited: July 2, 2020, 4:22 PM · First Question: How old is this *adult" student"
2nd Question: How long has the student been playing violin?

My experience playing for over 80 years, having taught for 40 years, and playing chamber music and in community orchestras (mixed amateur & "pro") for over 70 years has been that people do reach a limit in their playing. Even the greatest reach a limit (which fortunately is an "acceptable" level). These days I play with people who are mostly younger than I am, but not that much younger; clearly (I should say obviously) many have reached their limits - probably some time ago, as I did.

I sought a new plateau in my playing after I was 40 and spent 30 minutes on "my warmup routine" before launching into my hour or so of "practice." Whenever I had trouble with a passage I would work on it to try to get it right 10 times in a row. After my daily warmup the next day I would play that (or those) passage(s) and if I got it (them) I would not worry about them again until I next played through the whole movement. Other than my "warmup routine" the music I worked on was an "act of will," chosen because I had a strong reason for wanting to play it.

I have found that wanting to play something is stronger motivator than a cattle prod!

So... I guess my 3rd question is, what do you expect of this student. Can you demonstrate it?

P.S. Erik, you live in a nice area - I have extended family (by marriage of one of my daughters) in Auburn and surrounding area. Sounds like they are lucky to have you.

July 2, 2020, 4:28 PM · The intermediate wall is common.

What about assigning homework to your student? Ask her to write down concrete, specific goals for one year, three years, and long-term. You could give her a list of things to choose from (e.g., join an orchestra, play a piece from memory). Tell her, "As a teacher, this would help me plan your lessons more effectively."

Performance is a motivator for a lot of people. Have you considered holding studio recitals (virtually) and requiring this student to perform in it?

Edited: July 2, 2020, 5:20 PM · I was stuck at the intermediate wall for six or seven years, self-teaching.

I think what the intermediate wall represents is the farthest that most students can go with flawed fundamental technique. Below that level, most people can figure out a way to make the piece work even with serious bad habits. I would guess that a common reason people get stuck is that improving further requires not merely technical tweaks but a complete rethinking of some aspect of playing. This requires both the mental flexibility to approach technique differently and enough motivation to put in the effort to break existing habits. And even for someone who is putting in the effort, breaking bad habits is harder than forming good habits.

July 2, 2020, 5:30 PM · Consider asking your student to just make a video of themselves practicing -- unedited. Or spend a lesson watching them actually practice. This may be instructive in determining what's going wrong in the practice room.

But it's also possible that their skills aren't solid enough to make good progress on the assigned repertoire, and that it's necessary to go and micromanage the skills development for a bit.

Edited: July 2, 2020, 7:21 PM · I could be way off, but, maybe the student just likes to play without feeling the pressure to advance, and maybe someone to play with that can keep them in check is worth the cost of lessons. I thought of this because I remember my husband teaching guitar to an older adult student for an hour a week. He was retired. The first half of the lessons they spent talking about the town gossip, the last half they spent actually working on music. My husband would get frusterated at the slow progress, but the student couldn't be happier. This went on for years. When age and health had an effect on the student, he still came, even when he could only strum a few chords before getting wore out. I would sometimes jump in if I had free time and fiddle "Faded Love" so he could play along, which he really liked. The lessons continued on for years until we moved out of state, and the student and my husband have a really neat friendship now. I wonder if my husband would have told him he wasn't progressing quickly enough how different things would have been.

I know, the analogy can have a lot of flaws, but it's something to think about.

July 2, 2020, 7:11 PM · George said what I was thinking.

Your student is telling you that violin is a nice hobby that brings them pleasure, and that they're happy where they are. I would respect that point of view and take it as an opportunity to explore the vast world of violin repertoire at that level. Adding in some duets is also a very good idea.

I have a somewhat similar situation with a young adult student who, due to a disability, is making very, very, VERY slow progress. So I am taking advantage of this opportunity to cast my net ever wider for pieces at their current level instead of my usual repertorial march up the mountain of difficulty.

Edited: July 2, 2020, 7:49 PM · Andrew said: "I would guess that a common reason people get stuck is that improving further requires not merely technical tweaks but a complete rethinking of some aspect of playing."

This is exactly what I'm thinking at this point. She really needs to change the way she practices, but I just don't think that's going to happen, based on the many, many times it's been brought up. You can only beat a dead horse so many times.

And on that note, I guess I'm realizing that I'm the problem here. No, not that I'm the reason she can't improve more, but that my mentality is that if a student isn't progressing in some way, then I don't enjoy teaching them anymore. I find it deeply unsatisfying if I can't notice some part of their playing getting better. It doesn't have to be technical improvement or "moving ahead in the books," but perhaps a better vibrato or tone. Perhaps the shifts getting cleaner. I just need to notice something getting better, or I feel stagnant.

***Also, I'm planning on responding to other posts, but I just don't have the time at the moment.

July 2, 2020, 7:53 PM · Don't forget there's room for nontechnical improvement, too, in terms of musicianship.
Edited: July 2, 2020, 8:09 PM · "They're happy with what's happening. Is that the core of the issue?"

The core, the peel, the stem, and the fruit.

As an adult student I can tell you that it's very hard to "keep at it" when your regular job is very mentally exhausting as mine is. And once you reach a certain point technically, you can entertain yourself by just playing through a few easier things for half an hour before bedtime. At that point starts the eternal tug-of-war between improvement and enjoyment.

I think your student still benefits from his or her lessons though. Partly because of what Lydia said and partly because they know otherwise they'll probably develop bad habits and whatever level of technique they may have reached will begin to erode rapidly without expert tutelage. And in line with Mary Ellen's remarks, they may be counting on you to provide new ideas for things to play that are within their technical grasp. I can see all of that having real monetary value.

July 2, 2020, 10:02 PM · Please consider a pair of strategies: (a) one new piece each week, and (b) work on shaping phrases.

I would prefer a new etude each week, and from a collection, so that the next etude in the book is the next piece, but this is up to you and your student, of course. No matter how well the etude is played, go on to the next etude. The student, of course, can play anything else that he or she likes, as well as the etude.

Seriously focus on shaping phrases. Maybe just a few phrases in each etude, for you have only one week, as per part (a).

After two months of weekly lessons, discuss any improvements with the student, both as a review of the pair of strategies, and as a stepping-stone toward a new "plan".

July 3, 2020, 1:35 AM · May I ask, at what ABRSM level is the typical 'intermediate wall' found? And what level is this particular student at?
July 3, 2020, 1:55 AM · Looking at the current ABRSM repertoire lists, I'd say typical is somewhere around ABRSM Grade 6, give or take a grade level.
July 3, 2020, 10:25 AM · Erik, et al.,

"Something to do" that is an interesting response and also quite telling. She is, in my opinion, looking for something and using the violin as a search tool. Hence, she has hit a plateau and is quite comfortable being there while still looking for that "something."

My guess is that there is a large amount of music at her current level. If she were my student, I would take her on a tour of different kinds and styles of music that can be played where she is now. She may find that "something" and launch forward.

I try to "find the energy" with my students. While they are still developing skills I find that with my 9-10 year old young musicians Disney gets them to practice and I find music that develops those skills, one loves smooth/30's/40's Jazz and I do have one that actually likes "classical".

Maybe a basic question: "What kind of music do you listen to when you are alone?" Genre doesn't matter as a wise musician once said: "If it sounds good, it is good!"

July 3, 2020, 10:43 AM · I "hit a wall" about ABRSM grade IV.
It's about then you are expected to start playing in other positions, play off the string, make a nice sound, learn vibrato etc.
Luckily I perservered and after getting through it, I found I was starting to play real music.
Think I was about 14 at the time - an awful long time ago.
Edited: July 3, 2020, 2:12 PM · Frieda mentioned studio recitals and that's a very good idea. "Require" maybe not, but cajoling seems fair. Or would your student be interested in performing a whole solo recital? Pieces need not be memorized, and they can be within present technical grasp. Set a goal for, say, 6 months after the "end" of the pandemic (whatever that means), and then try to learn two new pieces a month -- from folio books or whatever. Arrangements are fair game! That might stimulate a little more polishing which probably does as much for one's technique as the early parts of the learning curve for a given piece.
July 3, 2020, 3:37 PM · George said: 'Maybe a basic question: "What kind of music do you listen to when you are alone?"'

I have indeed asked this question! If I recall correctly, her answer was a *shrug* and a "whatever's playing, I guess."

And in response to joining musical groups, she has done that and honestly, I think it made her less excited about music! (Most of the players in community orchestras around here are unable able to play their assigned parts).

July 3, 2020, 4:46 PM · If I were an adult student playing the violin as a hobby, quite satisfied to continue playing pieces at my present level, with no ambitions to play a particular harder piece or to join an ensemble, and I felt that this was unsatisfactory to my teacher or I felt pressured by my teacher to aspire to something that I truly did not care about, I would give serious consideration either to changing teachers or simply quitting lessons.

Edited: July 3, 2020, 11:00 PM · re: Mary Ellen Goree's comment: I couldn't agree more!

If my teacher started pushing me on a direction I am not comfortable to go to, or care for, you can bet that I will start looking for a new teacher, maybe not quit, but definitely look for a new teacher. And who knows, maybe that's the best path to take for both parties.

I don't have a teacher anymore, but when I started taking violin lessons again after college, I told my teacher specifically what my goal was --- I wanted to learn how to play Bach S&P!

We reached that goal and more (I reached Bruch level with him, and I still continue to learn other repertoire on my own now). But I play for 2 reasons only; to serve in my church ministry, and to play for myself and my family. I don't have, nor ever had any intention to play or perform for anyone, or anywhere else.

Playing the violin to me has always been a respite amidst the rat race we're in. No pressure, no hassle. I Just enjoy playing the violin for the love of playing it, period.

Maybe your student is the same way. Maybe you can just continue giving her "intermediate" pieces that she can play and enjoy for herself.

Edited: July 3, 2020, 11:26 PM · "I told my teacher specifically what my goal was --- I wanted to learn how to play Bach S&P!

We reached that goal and more (I reached Bruch level with him,"

Sorry for the off topic, but I was under the impression that solo Bach was more difficult than Bruch. At least the Fugues and the Chaconne

July 3, 2020, 11:25 PM · Nope
Edited: July 4, 2020, 5:19 AM · This is all impossible isn't it. Someone who considers changing teachers is by definition motivated somehow and wouldn't be in the doldrums like that. And if I had no interest in improving or joining a group, why would I be taking lessons anyway?

I suppose the person may be wishing to do what they do better without playing harder pieces. That's understandable, but it ain't gonna happen - you learn harder pieces in order to play easier pieces better. You drive a big car in order to do 70mph in more comfort than in a mini.

But there is the belief that if you play one single piece for 10 years you will become "perfect" at it. Where do people get these insane ideas from? I've met the same sentiment on Delcamp. A lot of idiots play guitar, so that's one explanation.

30 minutes a day "practice" isn't enough.

There's a guy in another thread who has played a piece for 8 months and wants to know if he should change piece. YEEEEEEEEEEEES! I change pieces every 6 weeks. I was in the doldrums on ABRSM 6 then I got out of them when I went to ABRSM 7.

"What kind of music do you listen to when you are alone?"


July 4, 2020, 11:09 AM · The Bach solo fugues and Chaconne most certainly are harder than the first and second movements of Bruch 1. I would rate the g minor fugue and the Bruch 3rd movement as roughly equivalent except that the fugue requires more stamina; the other two fugues and Chaconne are harder than the Bruch 3rd movement.
July 4, 2020, 11:47 AM · I am an adult taking weekly lessons who values that interaction deeply, but I don't ordinarily really practice all that much (indeed, I am much more likely to do 20 minutes and not 30, though I do buckle and do more when a performance is coming up). I find the lesson invaluable for ensuring that the time that I do spend practicing is absolutely maximized in efficiency. It also ensures that I don't fall into bad habits and forces me into weekly accountability for actually picking up the violin and playing. And I am improving, albeit not as quickly as I would be if I dedicated more time to it. Just as importantly to me, I am picking up new insights from my teacher, though.

It is, at this point, often more satisfying for me to play music that I can relatively easily get to a performance level, than to push myself. (Pushing is sometimes fun, but has a lower time-to-reward ratio.)

Erik, I notice from your post that the *length* of the piece seems to be an issue for your student? Can you consider the use of repertoire that is more bite-sized? (Could you give an example of the repertoire you're current using with this student?)

July 4, 2020, 3:10 PM · Everyone,

This discussion is bringing out my skills in people management. My brain is screaming that: This isn't about music.

There is something in another part of this student's life that is driving the behavior. The lackluster attitude could have a number of different root-causes.

Erik: If you can remember, what was her stated goal in the beginning? Has she reached or exceeded that initial goal?

Without being too specific: what do you know of her life outside your studio? Do you know anything about her interests, job, schooling, likes, dislikes,...?

I have had employees who behaved similarly and have usually found that they either realized that they chose the wrong carrier path or are dealing with a life-problem that is sucking all the energy out of them. Most often, in my experience, it was a life-problem that truly was none-of-my-business but it had a direct effect on job performance.

Last thought, was the change sudden - as in the last six months where the whole planet is consumed by Covid-19?

This isn't about music, it is about her as a person and Erik, you are one of her human contacts. You may net be advancing her music but you may well be the one safe/calm/nice... part of her week. Hence she keeps coming because "It's something to do."

July 4, 2020, 4:49 PM · Everyone can have personal problems, and unless you're willing and able to step in and do something about them, they're none of our business. Erik has mentioned lack of apparent progress in his students before, and I'd hate for her to find this thread and think that there's something specifically wrong with her.

"Now, despite all of this, the student isn't bothered at all. They're happy with what's happening. Is that the core of the issue?"

We could certainly fix that by making her unhappy, but most people wouldn't regard happiness as a problem. Not everyone, especially relative beginners, regard technical minutia to be huge problems, and it is the job of the teacher to motivate improvements in areas which the student might not otherwise appreciate and value sufficiently, especially in view of the effort and non-musical work required to overcome them.

Rather than putting the onus on the student to do the work in their own time, I'd suggest having them do the work during the lesson - to make the specific changes which produce an improvement then and there - to recognize and emphasize the improvement at that time, and encourage its continuation in the students' time. This would also focus the effort rather than add an overwhelming number of separate and potentially conflicting expectations.

Analytically, we must: 1. Recognize and understand the problem. 2. Develop and understand a solution to the problem. 3. Exercise will and effort to apply the solution.

Who does those things, the student or the teacher? If the student is expected to do certain work, they might need to be taken through the previous steps in order to motivate that effort.

July 4, 2020, 5:00 PM · Is it just me who thinks that the fact that the student is still taking lessons is an accomplishment onto itself for the student and her teacher?
Edited: July 4, 2020, 6:38 PM · Hey Lydia, I have many adult students (and several in the same situation as the one I'm talking about, but at different levels) so right now I'm comfortable that on the off-chance that the particular student in question found this thread, they wouldn't be able to definitively identify themselves as the subject of discussion.

However, I'm afraid that if I start mentioning the exact pieces they've been doing, it would be a bit too specific and it's more likely that they could recognize that *they* are the subject here. I'm not super afraid of that, since I don't think they'd find anything that I'm saying offensive or take anything personally, but I'd like to be on the safe side. It's very rare that any of my students know when I'm dissatisfied as a teacher. I keep that under wraps very well, and thus I keep very good relationships with all of my students, most of whom consider me a friend. It's never been my policy to make any of my students feel bad about anything. I just try to be as honest as possible with them and tell them everything they need to know in order for me to feel like I did my due diligence. But, I also have a line of honesty I don't cross, because telling a student they have a lack of progress may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy, when all they needed was a different path or more time.

Anyhow, I really want to mention the most recent specific music, but let's just suffice it to say it's about 2 pages long, romantic in style and at an early intermediate level (but past book 4 Suzuki level). It's a commonly used piece, but it's not in the Suzuki books. So, at an early intermediate level, I do consider 2 not-so-dense pages of music to be fairly "bite sized."

And I'm not so sure the problem is the length of the music as much as it's the lack of a drive to pursue higher quality. I have indeed given her truly bite-sized pieces before, and what seems to always happen is that once the notes are played somewhat in tune, with proper rhythm and tempo, the "drive" to push forward stops. It always ends up at 75% quality, and never the 90%+ that I would like. Theoretically, this might sound fine, but it really seems to prevent progress forward beyond this point. 75% just isn't good enough.

There are tonal aspects missing (mainly clarity and confidence in the notes), a level of intonation that really just isn't good enough at this level, and many missing articulations. (And yes, I've given both traditional and unorthodox suggestions to fix each of these problems individually).

And of course, none of this thread was intended to shame any student for being stuck. I was just trying to get some ideas, and perhaps just have some people tell me that it's OK to have a student who is no longer making progress. I've read many times on here that if a student is no longer making progress, they need to switch teachers. So part of my dissatisfaction comes not from their lack of progress, but the feeling that somehow the situation is my fault. But my instinct tells me that not only would suggesting a new teacher go over very poorly, it also wouldn't help the student make progress. My guess is that they would quit if I wasn't their teacher. This is also the case with almost all of my students (which partially motivates me to improve my own playing/teaching skills, since I I really need to be able to carry them as far as possible).

It appears most of the people here are just saying that as long as the student continues to enjoy lessons, then it's fine that their progress is very slow. I just feel like a scam artist if I rely on that as my only metric for keeping a student. And it's pretty common that I get adult students who, over time, seem to continue coming to lessons not because they care about the violin or music, but because they just enjoy the lesson itself (I'm sure I've mentioned this in previous threads).

July 4, 2020, 7:53 PM · Interesting thread. As a teacher, I definitely like to see "progress". However, as a person with several different hobbies, I have some hobbies where I have already reached a level that is satisfactory for me, and I am not actively trying to improve. I continue doing those hobbies because they are fun, not because I am trying to "reach another level".

If your student is still taking lessons and practicing, I would assume it is because this is something she enjoys. The chance to do something you enjoy is valuable; not everyone has this opportunity. The fact is, it is not necessary to play in tune for music to enrich your life.

Maybe the question to ask is whether you are willing to provide a service for students who are enjoy what they are doing but, for whatever reason, are not improving in the way that you would like. If you can improve someone's quality of life by providing them with music they like to play, I think this can be seen as something even more fundamental and valuable than just improving their technique.

July 4, 2020, 8:13 PM · "It appears most of the people here are just saying that as long as the student continues to enjoy lessons, then it's fine that their progress is very slow. I just feel like a scam artist if I rely on that as my only metric for keeping a student."

Erik, I commend you for admitting dissatisfactory results and working to improve them while many teachers might have been fine just collecting the fees.

I wouldn't expect lack of significant progress to be a secret to the student, but being "fired" by a teacher, particularly in the absence of viable alternatives would likely be a shock, so should be avoided if possible. It's a big world, and there may be better things for us to do, and being given an opportunity to reconsider the choices wouldn't necessarily be the worst thing to happen, but I'd be reluctant to suggest in effect that music isn't for someone.

I think most people have plateaued at some point or another, and at that point one shouldn't just give up and conclude that that's it, but could be taken as an opportunity for discovery and growth.

I think you aren't a scam artist as long as you aren't making any insincere promises, and the choice to continue despite lack of significant progress is the student's, and there is some continued effort on both parts for improvement.

My own progress has been very slow since about Suzuki Book 4. There are physical, mental, personal, temporal, and pedagogical factors at play. I recall that one of my plateaus was surmounted simply by getting fed up with my own playing and making a concerted effort to do better, in detail, until it was better. And that breakthrough was somehow accompanied with a very surprising ability to hear music better.

My teacher hasn't let me stagnate on the same piece, and also hasn't had me stay on the same piece until it was anywhere near as good as I'd like it to be. Most recently he assigned pieces that I think to be much higher than my level, but I think I'm learning quite a bit while slogging through them. To be a more specific, it's Bach, in which I think Bach himself teaches through the music. More generally, I might suppose that music written by violin players can teach through the music itself, and perhaps such repertoire, or perhaps continuing to change the repertoire might facilitate advancement and eventual breakthroughs.

July 4, 2020, 8:17 PM · Last two paragraphs of Erik's last post: I can relate, nearly exactly. Before COVID, I reconciled by figuring that if the student (or parent) was content with spending the time and paying the tuition, then that met their expectations/needs, and I would just have to lower mine. Lessons were "something to do" for those students/families, and I was not willing to tell a years-long student that they are "not meeting my (original) expectations". After moving online, I've had to make some changes.
July 4, 2020, 9:03 PM · "The fact is, it is not necessary to play in tune for music to enrich your life."

Intonation is a curse if not the curse of violin playing (and in theory a blessing when done right), and while we would often be oblivious to our own faults in this regard, and learn to live with them when not, and it's very hard to get right and teach it, I don't think it's right to give up on it. And I don't know how teachers can stand it - it's much easier to be tolerant of our own flaws than those of others.

Modern recordings teach us that what passed for good enough professionally not long ago is no longer good enough, so even professionals need to make and continue making that effort, which begins with knowing when you're out of tune, or better yet, what is in tune.

Then again, not knowing when it's out of tune can be a blessing when listening to others.

July 4, 2020, 9:31 PM · Intonation gives me a sense of pride... when I’m in tune that is.
July 4, 2020, 10:17 PM · There's also no reason why it's not okay to do simpler repertoire. For a student whose intonation is shaky, there may be fundamental issues in the hand frame or the like that's making it that way. Or they need to play something highly and obviously tonal (Mozart or Haydn, say) to help them more clearly hear that they're out of tune.
July 4, 2020, 11:53 PM · Eric, you are not scamming anyone unless you are being dishonest. Sometimes we don't know what we don't know but you aren't making any false promises as far as I can tell.

One suggestion I have is to ask your student if she wants to take a private "masterclass" with a different teacher. Are you still in touch with your own teacher? Or, it could be another teacher who is very good at diagnosing problems. After so many years together, it's not a bad idea to get a fresh perspective.

July 5, 2020, 12:45 AM · I have been following this thread with interest, as I can identify with the student here, being stuck on a piece for months , then COVID got In the way, and work has been so stressful, that I’ve stopped lessons or practicing much since March. I’m vaguely also hoping that taking a break may let me come back to it a little fresher.
However I am bothered by this plateau, and I worry that I may just physically not be able to advance - speed is the major hurdle, although I seem to make mistakes at any speed. Past a certain speed, my fingers seem not to obey me in certain passages and LH/RH co-ordination gets marginal.
I remind myself that a very large number of people can get past this piece, so why can’t I? People talk about plateaux - is that all it is , and how to get past it?
If you asked me what my goals were, they would be similarly vague- I have no target piece- I would love to be able to play well enough in any genre to enjoy it ( and others too) , but I don’t have an end in sight. I can’t imagine ever being satisfied enough, though I’m sure Bruch is never going to happen.
If someone tried to make me perform a solo at a recital, I absolutely wouldn’t .
I enjoy learning classical pieces , but it’s not the music I listen to most of the time.
The light at the end of the tunnel is probably a month away, so may tackle Skype lessons with my teacher then- I just haven’t felt mentally up to the challenge of a new media for now.
I will probably ask him to help me with fresh practice technique suggestions then. ( that would have happened months ago if not for lockdown)
And if he said he was stopping lessons due to my lack of improvement, I would be crushed. ( I don’t think he would, as he knows I normally practice regularly )
When is it acceptable to give up on a piece?
I don’t want to change teachers, but I like the suggestion of a troubleshooting “masterclass” with another teacher. I think that would be easier for the teacher to suggest than the student.
Edited: July 5, 2020, 1:12 AM · Sometimes a plateau is just a natural part of a student's progression. You get stuck and it's frustrating, and you work, and you don't seem to make progress. And then you take a little vacation, or you don't touch the violin for a week, or just out of nowhere, you make a big leap in your playing. Sometimes, the brain just needs some time to do its calculations, and if you keep at it, it does just that.

If not that, then if there is a problem with the instruction, the student is simply not going to progress, and if the teaching is fine, then likely the practice is too fast and doesn't actually work on problems in digestible pieces, and instead does stuff like continuously playing through whole pieces and other forms of anti-practice.

July 5, 2020, 4:22 AM · Indeed plateaux are always natural.
COVID is definitely screwing me up. Different people will be screwed up by it in different ways.
I am taking the optimistic view that if the orchestra I wanted to join in September doesn't reconvene until January, then at least I will be better prepared for it.
July 5, 2020, 5:03 AM · Idk but taking time away from the violin seems like an excuse for lack of motivation. I don’t think the brain is recharging or doing its calculations or whatever, I think for certain people taking time away from the violin is like splitting up with your wife for a period of time, you feel good initially then ache to get back together.
July 5, 2020, 6:22 AM · Is it such a bad thing then? Maybe that’s the point of it.
I have no idea how it really works, but I’ve heard from this forum, and also my teacher, that it sometimes helps to take a break.
If I tried to practice at the moment it would be going through the motions and very unproductive .
Edited: July 5, 2020, 8:06 AM · Don't take a break: if you do, 30 years will fly by.
July 5, 2020, 9:57 AM · "I’ve stopped lessons or practicing much since March."

When I stopped taking piano lessons, in order to focus more time on violin, I thought that I'd be able to continue on my own at a slower pace, resuming once I'd solved the violin hurdles. My teacher warned me about losing everything that I'd learned on the piano, but that's what I chose.

Several years later, my violin problems haven't entirely been solved, and I have indeed lost most of what I had been able to play on the piano. I have made progress on the violin, but lost more on piano.

Taking lessons despite challenges and lack of the sort of progress we want is often simply a means for continuity, and stopping them has bad effects.

July 5, 2020, 11:48 AM · "I have no idea how it really works, but I’ve heard from this forum, and also my teacher, that it sometimes helps to take a break."

I think that a valid point for a break could be in order to "get your head straight", to figure out what you want, and then recommit to it.

I could evangelize more about this or that and how classical music is not that far from genres, etc., but in the end you'd have to consider those things yourself from your own perspective.

Erik's thread subject brings to mind hitting a wall with a violin or bow or hand or head, and while it's potentially fun/funny for a moment, one has to stop doing that.

July 5, 2020, 6:15 PM · A one-week break can help, but definitely not a several-month one.
July 6, 2020, 10:06 PM · I'm with George. While I am a motivated student who is making slow but steady progress, my lessons are ESSENTIAL to my well-being with all that is going on in my life outside of the violin.

Nothing wrong with working with the student exactly where they are at and introducing some kind of games to help improve intonation and so on.

July 6, 2020, 10:42 PM · Maybe "it's something to do" means "it's something that reminds me I have a life."
Edited: July 7, 2020, 2:53 AM · Anders Ericsson, the man who is credited with the term "deliberate practice" passed recently. He's also miscredited with the "10,000 hour rule", which he refuted in the following article.


It seems to me that Erik's complaint, in large part, is that students aren't engaging in deliberate practice, and are accordingly not improving at the rate they might.

I found Ericsson's book, which he co-wrote with Robert Pool, "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise" to not merely popularize the notion, but defend it successfully with evidence-based arguments, with some interesting aspects that are missed in typical casual discussions and thinking.

So.. could deliberate practice be looked upon also as a meta-exercise in itself - how can one (Erik) practice the education of deliberate practice deliberately so that their students can? Might having students read the book help?

Edited: July 7, 2020, 10:51 AM · It's rare for adults to receive the consistent, focused attention of another person dedicated to their personal (or professional) goals. This is the service Erik provides. Regardless whether the student's technique and musicality improves, she benefits personally from his positive engagement with her in her pastime. It wouldn't be enough for me, but it seems to be enough for her.
July 10, 2020, 4:23 AM · I didn’t have the time to read all replies, but I read that you think YOUR attitude towards progress is different from that of the student.
My suggestion would be to change the teaching agreement. If she doesn’t do anything different, she doesn’t need so many lessons. You can tell her she should come to lessona only, when she had reached a point where she herself thinks she needs help. That might be less often than once a month.
Or, try to find another teacher, for her. After all, she seems to be a nice person that maybe just needs someone fresh teacher tell her the same things in other words.

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