I think we can safely say that if you have a young student who begins lessons kicking and screaming (either literally or figuratively) because they don’t want to be there the chance for success is low. This of course has nothing to do with ability or aptitude. If a student expects they aren’t going to like something and fights it to this degree it’s not likely they will submit themselves enough to the process to find out any differently.
However, what about the young student who comes eager to learn? What about the child who has begged their parent for lessons for months or years and is finally getting a chance to fulfill that desire? How does this student’s expectations contribute to their likelihood of success? Is it greater, less than or equal to a child who may not be opposed to lessons, but has maybe not expressed any great desire and who is enrolling because their parents think it is a good idea to learn an instrument?
Initially we might be tempted to say that the child who is overly enthusiastic about beginning lessons is probably going to stick with it and have a greater success rate than the one who is ambivalent.
I used to think this as well.
However, it came to my attention most recently (and has been confirmed in numerous occasions over the years) that in fact the enthusiastic student may be more at risk for quitting, and quitting fairly soon after starting lessons.
This seems counter intuitive.
In my experience, student enthusiasm is usually fueled by seeing someone playing the violin on TV. Maybe the child enjoys watching Lindsey Stirling or perhaps a guest artist introduced the violin on a children’s program. Whatever the spark that ignited their desire I believe the child develops an alluring picture of creating beautiful music with ease. Maybe they start pretending they are playing, maybe even going so far as to create a violin out of a box or use a toy violin, dancing around the house and singing to themselves where they are transported to the world they create in their head.
Any parent or even an outside observer would say “this child seems to have a natural desire for music/the violin!” and if that child started asking for lessons, it would seem perfectly reasonable to assume the child would enjoy and succeed given the right instruction. As a teacher I also think it is natural to think “I would LOVE to teach that student! What a joy to have such an enthusiastic pupil!”
Given a competent, warm and encouraging teacher why would such a student not succeed? Why would an energetic smiling student be turned to tears within a few short lessons? I have considered the question, and I believe the answer is often that:
The reality of learning an instrument (especially one that offers little immediate gratification like the violin) is so far from the ideal that the child has built up in their minds that they cannot reconcile the difference and collapse under the disappointment.
I asked one such student struggling with a new task why she was crying, and through her tears she put it very eloquently when she turned to her Mom and said sobbingly, “I’m just not having any fun right now!!”.
Many students, in fact I would say probably ALL students, at one time or another in their journey of learning an instrument have not had fun, and have experienced frustration at not being able to live up to the expectations in their mind and (like me) have probably cried tears of disappointment in their lessons. However, I believe the student who has unrealistic expectations from the start is more at risk for quitting when faced with the harsh reality of the work it takes to learn the violin than the student who does not have strong feelings, or has more realistic expectations to check their strong desires.
That said, if these enthusiastic students can learn to reconcile hard work with their dreams I believe they CAN find success and enjoyment. Given the right environment they can even perhaps make their fantasy become reality when they become willing to put in the 10 or 20 years it takes to reach the level of perfection their TV heroes demonstrate.
My advice to teachers who find themselves with a student in this situation is to:
1) Be frank.
Be frank with both the parent and the student about the hard work required to play well (and if applicable about how you feel the child may have expectations to the contrary). Also be real about the great joy and fulfillment that comes with a job well done. Learning an instrument is not an immediate gratification pursuit, much like many of the things a child will experience in life. What a great opportunity to teach this life lesson!
2) Speak to the parent one-on-one.
If you’ve only worked with a child a short time there may be (and probably is) a whole lot you don’t know about them. Do they struggle in school? Do they respond this way in other situations or is this abnormal? What has been done in the past that works? Are there environmental factors like a divorce, an illness, a change in routine, etc. that may be contributing to the emotional response of the child? When you know more you will be able to be more effective.
3) Problem solve with the parent.
Not only will you be able to better address the problem, but you’ll be building a report with the parent. This is essential for a good long-term relationship, and as the saying goes, two heads are always better than one!
4) Be creative in your teaching approach.
This student may need something different than your other students; try and find out what that is. What makes this student tick? How can you capitalize on that? It may be that the student is really smart, but is hesitant to answer because they fear being wrong, or perhaps the student struggles with academics and doesn’t understand (even though you think you’ve explained it clearly) and is afraid to tell you about their confusion.
Every student is different and the silence of one student may be for very different reasons than the silence of another student. Digging deep and being creative in your approach can often lead to surprising discoveries!
5) Keep your high expectations.
It’s easy to acquiesce and let fundamentals slip in order to create a fun environment, or to avoid creating a stressful or emotionally charged encounter. There are different ways to get to the same destination, but the destinations of correct technique, a steady beat, pitch accuracy, etc. are non-negotiables in my book. If you sacrifice proper playing to avoid emotional breakdowns I believe you do a student more of a disservice than a help. Do your best to find out how you can get the student “on your team” and meet their needs, while at the same time making sure the quality of instruction remains intact.
6) Be generous and gentle with yourself.
When you see a kid excited about learning, who falls into despair it’s easy to blame yourself. While you want to make sure you are not contributing to the problem, you are most likely not the cause. Take a step back and realize that this child (even though they are young) has already had many influences in their life. Young children are not blank slates when they come to us, and just like adults, they bring their baggage with them wherever they go. Being objective will help you see what course will be most effective and will help you best to be the best teacher you can be.
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Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers, http://howtoteachviolin.com