You Ever Feel Like a Failure as a Teacher?
So, I've had some great successes as a teacher. I have a handful of students who make me so proud and play very well and always seem to implement my instructions well.
Then, a majority of my students are in the "making decent progress" category where it's not as fast as I'd like it to be and they don't always get exactly what I'm saying, but if I try something a few different ways they'll get the general idea. Their progress is slowish, but pretty steady, and I'm happy enough with it (and they're usually enjoying the experience and not learning to hate music).
But in the third category, I have students that really just struggle. Like, they try, sometimes very hard, and every lesson I try my best to be clever and work around their problems with creative ideas and specific drills. But no matter what I do, they really just seem like they're swimming against the tide.
And I'll try about 100 different ways of coaxing their body into doing what is necessary, or perhaps backing off on the difficulty of music/exercises to give their body a chance to "grow into playing," but it all ends up in ROUGHLY the same result.
Now, I know with a lot of these students that if they stick with it long enough they will get to the point where the instrument is comfortable, and that you can water a tree but you can't force it to grow any faster than it's gonna grow, and some trees grow far faster than others.
But, I can't help feeling like a failure as a teacher with these students. When they mention that they feel their progress is very slow or seemingly non-existent despite practicing, I tell them that "it's a marathon, not a sprint." I tell them that they're learning more than just the violin since they don't have previous experience with ANY music and are just now starting as adult beginners, so the progress will seem slower simply because there's more basics for them to wade through, such as coordination, rhythm, intonation, music reading, etc....
I tell them that violin is a 5-10 year project, but maybe I'm just lying to them and avoiding telling them that they just don't have the motor skills to do this?
I sometimes wonder if perhaps I should send them to a different teacher in the hopes that something will magically change for them, but I know that there's nothing magical a different teacher could do that I'm not already doing, when given students with such inherently bad coordination. Plus, I know for a FACT that they would feel like failures if I sent them off and they would quit before they got to another teacher's doorstep.
The worst part is, they really love the violin, and really want to play. It would be easy for me to tell someone that "this instrument just isn't for them" if they didn't care anyways and didn't practice.
This ended up being a bit of a ramble, but I suppose I'm just curious if this situation is common with other teachers (those who teach adult beginners with no musical experience whatsoever, including middle school band or anything of that nature).
Do you ever feel like a failure because you couldn't sort out their problems or keep them encouraged for enough years for their body to finally get the necessary coordination? Or do you just accept that some people aren't meant to play the instrument and not blame yourself? I know intellectually that's probably the case, but I also feel like perhaps I'm just validating my lack of ability to teach these people? I mean, almost anyone can teach a talented student, but isn't the mark of a great teacher that they can bring very untalented students to a REASONABLE level of playing?
We all struggle with this. Ask any professor who works with graduate students! You can teach them, but can't do their learning for them.
"...almost anyone can teach a talented student."
I don't teach Violin/viola, but guitar. Same problem, though.
To the OP: Have you told your students your struggle with their progress? Even the very fact that you care for their progress to this extent is powerful.
Scott Cole: of course that was a massive generalization (my post was already getting huge so I had to condense my words).
Erik, I would feel downright touched to hear that a teacher gave as much of a damn about my progress (or failure to progress) as I do :-)
One thing to consider, Timothy, is that you SAY you would appreciate absolute honesty from your teacher, but you also probably haven't experienced the effects of your teacher being brutally honest. Not to mention, you are just one of the few that would continue trying if your teacher discouraged you. That's certainly not everyone; many are fragile in both their self esteem and how they view their playing, and I can't be brutally honest with those people without crushing them.
As a student I what I feel like I need most from a teacher is their knowledge and their encouragement. While being honest is good, I would be deflated to hear my teacher telling me that I'm not improving after all those hours I'm practicing. Although, I wouldn't want him to tell me I am improving greatly when I'm really not. Lol. My teacher has a way of telling me in not too brutal terms if I need to work on something. He usually says "That's really good. Keep up with that." And for those times I'm having problems he'll say "Not too bad." Then he'll continue on with what adjustments I need to make. Haha. :)
Erik wrote, "One thing to consider, Timothy, is that you SAY you would appreciate absolute honesty from your teacher, but you also probably haven't experienced the effects of your teacher being brutally honest."
Hi Eric, just wanted to share some advice. I am not a teacher so keep that in mind, for what it's worth. Also I would guess you probably tried these things, but thought I would put them out there any way.
Hey Timothy, those are all excellent suggestions and of course any reasonable teacher should have those tools in their skillset!
I had a student once who was "all thumbs" in the laboratory. Some projects do involve delicate work -- nothing like playing the violin, but still there is a range. This is not a common problem, mind you, but in the case of my student and one other that I knew, I came to a better understanding once I learned of certain (doctor-prescribed) medications they were taking, which affected not only their motor skills but also their visual perception.
Not everyone is cut out for the violin. One of my children was obviously never going to be better than mediocre on the violin. He switched to double bass and made Texas All-State three years in a row (those readers in Texas will appreciate the level of that accomplishment). My other children also switched from violin to something else and reached heights that they were never going to approach on the violin. I used to think that musical talent could be equally well expressed on any instrument--I no longer think that.
"That being said, nearly every time a student's lack of progress has been frustrating, it eventually comes out either that the student isn't practicing enough (or at all),
Mary Ellen: I definitely do find that when students aren't making progress it is because they're not actually doing precisely what I said. In fact, 80% of the time, the culprit is them playing too fast too quickly, or assuming because they had a section down the day before it means they can start at that speed the day after.
"In fact, one of the reasons I've strayed away from group classes with my students is because I don't want this tiny handful to be utterly embarrassed when they discover how much more successful everyone else is."
Forgive my ignorance, but what could be the possible benefit of a group class except for cost?
"Mary Ellen: just curious, are you explicit about the way you want your students to practice?"
Very frequently, when a student is not progressing, the explanation lies in one obvious area: the student is not practicing. They have to practice every day. Every day! Otherwise no one should expect much at all.
Christian, I can't speak for the group classes of other teachers, but mine are designed as a way of
Charles, I can't really call what you outlined as the 6-18 month goals "playing the violin." Yes, they start to cover what is involved in playing, but don't really even scrape the surface of what is involved.
Wow, just wow! As an adult beginner after reading this thread I'm inclined to just quit my lessons in order to relieve my teacher's suffering ... Oh, wait! I just remembered that he told me he enjoys teaching adults far more than he did teaching children. Must be a flaw in his character then.
I'd bring a hanky for my teacher for every lesson if I wasn't already paying him. He can buy his own..
I am not a violin teacher, I teach something else in a land grant university. As a land grant institution, we accept students of all levels and EXPECT students would make progress at different rates. I don't think it is any different with violin students. It Is NOT a failure.
Hmmmm Zina, you seem rather triggered by this post. You should probably know: about 70% of my 50 students are over 18 (most of them well over 18), so I do indeed enjoy teaching adults.
Charles, I strongly disagree with your time frame! There is a lot of depth you can go into on this instrument, and it's not going to happen in that time frame, and most students will barely get the basics in that time. Not even the most gifted students!
As a non-teacher (but maybe a teacher in the future, you never know), I am absorbing a lot from this thread. Laurie, I actually think setting a time period is dangerous for the same reasons you disagree with Charles.
Lori, I think you should write an article about reasonable time frames to reach major milestones in progress, all the way up to playing Mendelssohn (or at least Bruch and the beginning of advanced land). Your years of teaching beginners would provide a great basis for reasonable time ranges for each milestone. I would like to know what good to reasonable progress is, for sure, since I was a slacker as a kid and can't use my own experience.
Lol Jason, you have to consider the implications of such an article; particularly how it might affect those who aren't quite as fast as the norm. She might as well title it "7 signs you should quit violin right now!"
Charles, I also work very hard at solving problems, and would even go as far as to say that my thoughts about teaching and playing combined consume about 80-90% of my thinking time in a day. The reason I can feel like a failure at times is because I care so much, not because I rationally see myself a failed teacher. It's an emotional response to me caring, not because I'm actually ineffective. As I've stated, this is a handful (3-5) out of my 50 students, so the proportion matches up with the percentage that one would expect to not be very successful even with proper teaching. I should also mention I never turn students down, regardless of their initial talent, so this might also add to that proportion being a bit higher than with others. I know some teachers will be quick to redirect less talented students because it risks giving them a bad reputation if they keep those students.
"I have a question for Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen, you mentioned earlier that musical talent is not transferable to every instrument. I agree with you, but I wonder, why? Why, just as an example, could your son who plays bass not play violin just as well? Is it a different body type? Different way of thinking that can't be changed? Is it one of those things we will never be able to explain?"
Even if all other things are equal, if you like playing one instrument more than another and that leads to more and more careful practice, then you're going to be better on the favored instrument. I myself like violin and classical music much more than I did as a child, in part because I spent my ten year interregnum listening to a boatload of classical music; I now practice much more intensely because I know what I like and what I want to play (Baroque fiddle music and Brahms chamber music). I would never practice a keyboard instrument as much because it ain't a fiddle, and I don't like the sound as much.
I don't consider myself to be a failure as a teacher, but I have seen epic fails from many other teachers in my area. These students come to me; sometimes I can help them and sometime not. What are the patterns of failed teaching? Let me count the ways:
That makes sense Scott. There are quite a few students, with some, if not all of those problems. And of course, some bad teachers as well. i was only discussing this with colleagues two days ago at a re-union, and especially about an ex orchestral member who was a dreadful teacher (and player).
I think it is true that people have to find the right instrument for them. Someone may become a fantastic pianist after trying the violin and not getting on. I know of very good singers who were only average on the fiddle. (Of course most, but not all, conductors, are failed instrumentalists). (Thought I would throw that in for a bit of controversy).
My biggest pet peeve, ever, is bad violin teachers. I can't tell you the number of students that I've had to tell (in the nicest way possible): "the teacher that you loyally stuck with for 2 years has literally been teaching you wrong and addressing none of your technical issues. It's pretty clear that they've just been giving you new songs each week to keep you occupied, without having any idea of how to actually teach." Some of these people could have been reasonably talented and dedicated players, too. So then I get to be the "bad guy" who tells them that everything they're doing is wrong. But it has to be done; oh well.
Erik -- two years? In my childhood that was *eleven* years. Scott's list? All of the above! And that's no joke. (Except musicality -- I definitely learned schmaltz.) Example: My "solo and ensemble" judges marked me for "bad intonation" year after year. My teacher basically said that would fix itself on its own. I didn't learn about "ring tones" until restarting at the age of 42. Why didn't I change teachers? Because I simply didn't know better, and neither did my parents, and anyway I liked him, he was a funny guy. And he was a good violinist -- concertmaster of the local orchestra, studied with Elman, etc. When I finally did ask my parents to change teachers there was resistance to that on all fronts. (For starters the new guy was more expensive, farther away, etc.) Why did I finally change? Because a caring, mid-60s violinist named Winifred, who I admired (I played in several pit orchestras with her and kind of she showed me the ropes) took me aside and gave me a stern talking-to about it, I mean she was really frank. Looking back, I can see for her to do that without talking to my parents first was, in those days, pretty brave. So I changed over to a guy who was supposed to be a great teacher, who played with Detroit Symphony and who had prepared students for conservatory, etc. Unfortunately I only had one year left of high school and I basically realized I could never make up for lost time, so I gave up after a year of that and focused on jazz piano (I had a fantastic piano teacher, his name is Barton Polot.)
I try very hard never to make disparaging remarks about a student's former teachers; my approach is, "Here's how I teach it and this is what to do going forward." The closest I will come is to say, "If you were told [specific wrong thing], I respectfully disagree." And then explain on the student's level why I teach something the way I do.
@Mary Ellen: Why though? If the teacher is blatantly incorrect and making hash out of their students' ability, time, and money, I would it prudent to bluntly tell said student so that they recognize it as such.
AO, because maybe the teacher was not the horrible teacher Paul Deck and Scott Cole describe above. Maybe the problems were more the student's fault and less the teacher's. No one should make a concrete judgment on a teacher they don't know just by hearing one of their students play a few times.
I'm sure Mary Ellen has inherited students from truly miserable teachers. But disparaging them harshly is first of all disrespectful and possibly counterproductive. Also what you're really saying to the student (or their parents) is that they've wasted their money. Nobody wants to hear that. And finally, if you get a reputation for dumping on others, you're going to wind up getting dumped on yourself, whether rightly or not.
@Paul: People are too sensitive nowadays, I of course sympathize that nobody WANTS to ever be told that they wasted their money, but what if a repeat occurs later?
As I said: "In the nicest way possible." I don't actually tell them they've been wasting all their time and money, but they quickly figure it out when I rework their entire technical foundation from scratch because it's so majorly screwed up. I'm not talking about orchestra-player-teachers who maybe just aren't born to teach; I'm talking about teachers in my city who maybe took 2 years of lessons, got to a Suzuki 2-3 level and then decided to start teaching because they knew that SOME beginners wouldn't know any better. I really try not to disparage their previous teachers, but there usually comes a point when they ask why we're doing it so differently, why I'm "moving them backwards" when they're used to the FEELING of moving forwards (due to always receiving new music that is different, but no more challenging or educational than the last music), and I have to be honest with them: their previous teachers literally barely knew how to play themselves, let alone teach someone else. But I break it to them more like "well, I'm sure they taught you plenty of useful concepts like musicality, intonation, and how to enjoy violin. But I'm going to go at your problems from a technical standpoint so we can break through the walls that you've been encountering."
"I figure this out by asking questions: "Just out of curiosity, did your previous teacher ever mention that your elbow shouldn't float in the air above your wrist?" "Did your previous teacher ever mention that you pinky should be bent on the bow?"
Just thought i would throw this in ... "are not teachers failed soloists?" (wink) (Only joking).
"There are a lot of students that want to play easy to intermediate pieces well, and have a large repertoire of this type. After a year or two, you should have an idea if this is an 'advancing' type or 'larger, simpler repertoire' type."
I have to say that I am totally and absolutely against using tape on the fingerboard. You are teaching them to by-pass the ear, and to play the violin visually, and not aurally.
Tapes are fine for a short period, say a month or two. Tapes only get you into the vicinity anyway, so they're not a substitute for listening. They're just a rough guide for finger spacing while you're learning where to put your hands. Tapes on the bow are just a visual reminder to "stay in the middle for now."
Guys, it really depends on how serious the student is. Maybe more serious beginners have the initial patience to learn by ear before even being able to play any music, but most of my students do NOT have that. They have to "Graduate" into being serious about violin before they have that level of patience.
"No one should make a concrete judgment on a teacher they don't know just by hearing one of their students play a few times." (Helen)
Guys, some people shouldn't be teaching. I'm sorry this isn't a popular opinion. If you play at a Suzuki book 2 level, you are not qualified to teach anyone. How is this even debatable?
Regarding the use of tapes - I have never seen a good string teacher at any level use tapes. If I were sending my child for lessons (as a player myself) I would take him/her away as soon as tapes appeared on the fingerboard and I would immediately find another teacher. (Of course it would be unlikely as I would have chosen a teacher who I knew did not resort to such methods).
If you can count one or two successful students out of every 10, you are a successful teacher. Playing a violin is at least as difficult as math, if not more in some aspects.
Reading through, there is something off with some of the posts. I could not have put my thoughts any more clearly than Peter's last post.
Man, I feel like a tape vs not tape thread needs to be started. I've always had such good success with phasing students out of tape usage, before the end of Suzuki book 1 in pretty much all cases. Their intonation never suffers and their aural skills are excellent due to us focusing on them so much from the very start, despite what is on their fingerboard. I really think it comes down to HOW the teacher implements tape usage, rather than the argument of tapes/no tapes. This discussion reminds me of the shoulder rest debates.
Nobody is saying that there aren't teachers who shouldn't be teaching. We are discussing professional behavior on the part of other teachers. Do I recommend every violin teacher in my city who has hung out a shingle? No. If someone has a list from a school orchestra director and is asking me for guidance, do I give a fair answer? Yes. But if I get a student whose prior teacher was less than stellar, do I tell that student that their previous teacher didn't know how to teach? Absolutely not. If I hear a student in the context of an audition I am judging, and that student has clear deficits, do I tell that student they need to change teachers? No, I do not say such a thing *unless* a student asks me directly, without any suggestion on my part, if I can recommend other violin teachers. And that has never happened in the context of an audition.
Mary: I'll admit that from the perspective of those reading my posts, it seems like I'm probably an outspoken and rude teacher who lacks proper training and is just bitter in general.
I didn't read thoroughly through all the opinions about the tapes, but I vividly remember the first time I tried playing without them (I had them for ~2 months). I felt like I had officially graduated to the next level! It was a great boost to my motivation.
"Mary: I'll admit that from the perspective of those reading my posts, it seems like I'm probably an outspoken and rude teacher who lacks proper training and is just bitter in general."
Thanks Mary, I do appreciate that recognition and I definitely have learned the principle of "not knowing what I don't know" in the past few years.
"But, I can't help feeling like a failure as a teacher with these students. When they mention that they feel their progress is very slow or seemingly non-existent despite practicing, I tell them that "it's a marathon, not a sprint." I tell them that they're learning more than just the violin since they don't have previous experience with ANY music and are just now starting as adult beginners, so the progress will seem slower simply because there's more basics for them to wade through, such as coordination, rhythm, intonation, music reading, etc...." (OP)
Zina, my thread was about the shortcomings of like THREE adult starters out of 50 students (maybe 35 of whom are adults varying in age from 20-70. How is this not clicking? And even in those cases, my thread was directed at teachers and how they feel when they can't make a student progress. So I'm not sure why you're getting so insulted by this thread.
Erik, I love playing and both me and my teacher are perfectly happy with my progress. Thanks for asking.
Zina, an important part of teaching is transparency. A lot of teachers probably avoid making - or responding to - threads such as mine because they feel that they risk either alienating their own students, lowering their potential future students, or just making themselves look weak to other players/teachers. However, these threads are important because other teachers who are discouraged might have the opportunity to stumble across this and say "oh, apparently others have this same sort of problem. Maybe it's NOT just me."
Actually, several teachers have responded, at times more so than students, but as a student myself who has struggled and is still struggling greatly, I find the OP's apparent perspective to be discouragingly one of resignation and disavowal.
J Ray, let me offer my perspective here:
Erik, I agree that we're all students and even the 'best' might be better, and that's a good perspective to have in mind. But there is a big difference between teacher and student in the typical relationship, and there the teacher's awareness of the particular student's perspective, and efforts to learn to be a better teacher are more relevant than the level of the teacher's playing, assuming that it's sufficient for the purpose. I suppose teachers of the greats have that rare problem -- that the student is a better player than the teacher, but the teacher still has a purpose, and applies it to the student's benefit.
Hmmmm in my personal observations I've noticed that there are multiple forms of talent. These are what I have noticed:
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