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Extremely untalented pupils who don't practise at all and choosing

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#1 AirVarie

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 13:16

I've been hesitating to write this as it may come across as controversial or simply as a rant, but it is really affecting my daily life. There was once a section in a magazine titled "what they really think" (or similar) and they asked members of different professions who then revealed some shocking truths about what their real thoughts were behind the professional facade. So this is a bit what a violin teacher really thinks...

 

I'm wondering what other teachers do with pupils who have no talent or interest in learning the instrument (here: violin) whatsoever and on top never or hardly ever practise at all between lessons, over a year or longer.

 

The following applies to only a small number of pupils. Generally I do like teaching and find it rewarding, and the vast majority are progressing at least reasonably well, and they pass their exams, many with good marks, play in concerts and some in festivals, some get music scholarships, but then there are those, hmm, difficult pupils.

 

I don't mean the normally slow learners who don't practise much but still somehow learn something just by attending the lessons and progress very slowly, but talking about extremes here:

 

 Pupils (aged between about 6 and 8, having individual lessons) who can't play a "tune" consisting of, say, 8 bars of  just crotchet As (so always the same note, open string, in the very slightly "advanced" cases using maybe 1st and 2nd finger) and some crotchet rests after more than a year of lessons, because they are unable to keep the bow on the string. The bow constantly slips to the wrong string and all over the fingerboard and they say the bow "just doesn't stay" on the correct string. 

 

Of course I make them clap, sing (if they don't refuse), then pluck the tune first, several times (even the pizzicato isn't great and of course not rhythmical), then guide their bow, teach a correct bow hold using bow games, talk about adjusting the bow arm level, having control over the bow, guiding the bow. Tell them they'd guide a pencil and wouldn't allow the pencil to write, say, a "t" if they want to write an "a" etc. All of this doesn't seem to have any effect whatsoever though, they just stare at me blankly.

 

They stare at me as if the bow has its own will and they are completely powerless and too weak to do anything about it (which in a way, they are, but it seems to me their inner determination to make the bow stay on the correct string is entirely missing). They are like floppy dolls and can't stop the bow when there is a rest, even if they can clap it correctly. 

 

Needless to say, the pupils I'm talking about have no parental support and never or hardly ever practise between lessons. Parents ignore the practice book completely, either leave the violins in school (so obviously pupils can't practise even if they wanted to) or repeatedly "forget" to bring violin and books to school on violin lesson days (I'm inclined not to do the lessons then, especially if it's not a one off thing, but somehow school makes me use school violins or other pupils' instruments in those cases), pupils claim they "never" have time to practise (ever, not just in a particular week or even month), not even 5 minutes once a week apparently. 

 

Emails to parents even about the timetable and when the violin is required in school, that they should buy a new practice book and practise at least sometimes with their children get completely ignored. 

 

I don't think they're too young, having lots of average pupils that age who can play simple tunes around Initial/Prep Test/Grade 1 level somehow and some super talented ones who played around Grade 5-7 standard at the age of 7/8 which are the exception of course, but show it's more down to talent and practice than age.

 

Another example: A pupil, aged around 13 who luckily can already play something (which is a relief compared to the above), yet, a year after a Grade 1 (strangely passed with distinction!)  is unable to play just one Grade 2 piece and one Grade 2 scale in a semi recognisable way. Completely wrong bowings, out of tune by a whole tone, no concept of pitch whatsoever, does not understand the difference between 2nd finger low or high, not even in a purely mechanical way to the point I'm suspecting a learning disability or low IQ (although parents never mentioned this). Posture and bow hold as if I've never explained or corrected it (and I have for the past 2 years in every single lesson). Parent sitting in the lesson, completely ignorant, asking me when child can sit exam? 

 

I'm really surprised when I read that other teachers' pupils don't just do three exam pieces but lots of other repertoire, learn the exam pieces in about 4 weeks and of course none of their pupils have stickers on the fingerboard.

 

In an ideal world, it would be like this with my pupils. In reality, it is only the case with my talented pupils (or, say, at least average pupils) who practise at least fairly regularly and have at least some parental support, too. 

 

But it's completely unrealistic with the above mentioned "floppy dolls". I'd be glad if they could play anything, even the most basic tune, badly, scratchy, slightly out of tune, but in a recognisable way.(To give you an idea, Stepping Stones and Joggers way, way too hard for them). Yet, the bow is everywhere, all over the place, left handshape as bad as it can get (if they use left hand fingers at all). Do other teachers not have these kinds of pupils - they must do, but what to do with them?

 

I am really used to the whole spectrum from complete beginners to beyond Grade 8 distinction level and anything in between, but currently I seem to have a bunch of absolutely hopeless ones among them. In the past, these cases just naturally gave up lessons, but these seem to stick around!

 

It's frustrating because I'm completely fully  booked (60 pupils) and have a waiting list of around 20 potential pupils with new enquiries coming in every week plus parents of existing pupils who want their other child to start, and they don't consider another teacher but insist they want to wait until I can offer them a place, even if I say it's unrealistic that something comes up soon. I don't have the heart to tell them that I don't want the sibling if already child 1 is not practising and not very talented (as it does run in families, in my experience). But I guess I should?

 

Also, I'm not very interested in doing any more remedial work with transfer pupils, namely teenagers who have been messed up (posture wise and generally) by the local Music Service. 

 

I don't know how to get rid of the completely hopeless ones who show no commitment or even a slight interest in the violin whatsoever and are blocking spaces for other, potentially more talented and committed pupils (or is the grass greener and the new ones will be even worse?).

 

Do you call parents and tell them there is no point continuing lessons? I'm too scared to do that. Do you write carefully worded emails? This may upset people. Give warning that if it doesn't improve over time, the pupil will have to go?

 

Contrary to common belief based on my experience I don't think everyone can or should learn the violin. 

 

Also, I don't know how to choose new pupils, and yes, I think I should choose them more wisely. But even if trial lesson went well and parents seemed supportive initially, sometimes after about six months it went all downhill. Then there are other pupils who are finding the first lessons really hard then suddenly make excellent progress - but it's those who practise every day.

 

Do any of you do aptitude tests, if so, in what way? Explain bluntly what is expected of the potential new parents in terms of a minimum amount of practice? That it is not fun unless you find pleasure in boring, repetitive activities with no instant gratification? That when they do the next Grade (or in fact, any Grade), is largely down to their commitment? That for some children the violin is simply not suitable, in the same way that not everyone is destined to become a good rugby player or good at maths? That a transfer pupil will need lots of remedial work rather than taking the next exam?

 

 

(One could argue, as long as they pay it doesn't make a difference, and I'm very lucky and next year I might be struggling to earn enough money. I'm very aware of that.)

 

 


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#2 lingle

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 13:55

Better out on an anonymous forum than in!  That "What I'm really thinking" column is brilliant isn't it?  

 

You obviously do your thing very well or you wouldn't be so sought after. But let's remember that what you do is a tiny subset of "music".

 

Can I flip the question: are you the best music teacher for these children?  Are you offering value for money? It doesn't sound to me as though you are.Your teaching conditions alone (you do violin only, grades, etc) are going to prevent you from finding out what's really going on in the musical minds of these kids.  And you've reached the point where you no longer feel an abiding curiosity about their musical lives.

 

Believe it or not, there are music instructors around who would love these pupils and find them much more interesting than the pupils you enjoy. I'm one of them.

 

I think that's your answer. Ask what you are doing for the child. If the answer is "nothing", don't assume that 's the child's fault. Network with people who enjoy remedial work and working with children with challenges. Find out as much as you can about the children's real interests. Then suggest that you may not be the teacher for that child and recommend someone else. If I had a driven violinist on my hands, I'd happily pass them on to you (believe it or not!) in return for a child who is "untalented".


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#3 lingle

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 14:03

A bit harsh Muso.

 

we all make the mistake of thinking the kids  - or their families - are the problem if there is not complete alignment between our methods and the kids' aptitudes.

 

I confess I would find teaching a talented violinist quite dull if they weren't playful and didn't want to improvise. Whose problem/weakness is that? Mine of course, but I forget it too.


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#4 AirVarie

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 14:16

"Practice, done properly, is fun, exciting, rewarding, involving, and satisfying."

 

I agree, but if they don't do any practise at all and don't even try the most basic thing in the lesson, such as putting the bow on the string and moving it and then stopping it, somehow, how will they ever know? Or even plucking a particular string. As I've said, the vast majority of my pupils do learn something. But a small number are "floppy", maybe it's not the right word - maybe better described as low muscle tone, but they physically can't move or stop the bow. Of course there are other musical activities, clapping, singing, listening games, learning to read music, you name it... whilst these do support the violin playing, without actually trying to actually playing the violin, they are not going to learn it, no matter what other exciting activities I offer.


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#5 dcvos

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 14:29

I'm not a violist so I could be wrong. But it possible that your pupils are left-handed and that therefore bowing with the right-hand gives troubles?


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#6 lingle

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 14:38

left-handers have an initial advantage on the fiddle.

 

I don't think this is the real problem. If it was, the OP could try various strategies. I put violins on the floor and use the bow with two hands - anything to make a good musical noise. Then progress to holding it right in the middle. Drawing the bow across the violin is actually a pretty advanced thing to do.

 

The problem is more that the OP isn't interested in teaching these pupils. Which is fine too so long as s/he passes them on and realises that they are not the problem (I'm a bit worried the OP hasn't replied to that bit yet).


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#7 AirVarie

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 15:26

Thank you for the answers so far. Yes, I really think I'm not the right teacher for some of my pupils  I refuse to think for all of them, then why would I be so oversubscribed. Also, I believe at least some more would leave after a while if they hated lessons with me so much.

 

I'm grateful there are other teachers out there who would love to work with them (only why are they changing to me then and insist they want to stay is what I don't get). But I will recommend to parents of those pupils consider finding another teacher with whom they might click better, or who is able to offer what they need at this stage or in general, or a different instrument or another musical or other activity.

 

It's just a sensitive matter sometimes, as I know very well what it feels like from the parent's point of view..

 

The pupils I have problems with are mainly in a particular independent school. Strangely, the pupils from that same school who I'm teaching privately after school are the complete opposite and play very well and practise and have parental support. I have generally speaking fewer problems with my home pupils where I see the parents more often (the Pupil B example is more of an exception) and the ones in a state school. I don't know why this is, it's just the way it is. Maybe it's just a coincidence and could be the opposite in a few years' time.

 

For some pupils, simply being taken out of class makes them arrive in the violin lesson in a grumpy mood, no matter how much encouragement I offer. I do feel sorry for the children who are simply "signed up for the violin" by their parents. I have communicated with one parent already that their child doesn't seem very happy about it, but they insists her child "really likes" the violin and shall continue. 

 

I don't mind doing remedial work as such, as long as the pupil and the parent understand what is involved and don't ask me at the same time when the pupil can do the next grade. If I had my own way, I would give them exercises, studies and pieces I'd consider useful for undoing the damage and not let them do an exam for at least a year. But of course they turn up with the next grade book and the pupil looks quite disheartened if I explain even gently that they basically have to relearn the bow hold or practise finger dropping and lifting and can't do any grade pieces, so I give in - but probably I shouldn't.

 

 I realise I have to be clearer about this when accepting them as new pupils, so they can choose if they want to start with me or another teacher.

 

I never took any exams myself as I'm from a country where they simply don't exist and found the idea totally odd and even offputting when I first came to the UK. I played the violin because I wanted to and to join the youth orchestra, not to pass grades, so the idea seemed alien to me.To the point that I still think exams can be detrimental. On the other hand, it's good that they exist as they get at least most pupils practising. But at the same time they are very limiting. Many pieces and studies get ignored just because they are not in the syllabus. Pupils refuse to play pieces or learn them properly because they are not grade pieces. Parents want their child plays pieces from one board but not another because they heard board x is better than board y. So after a few years I gave in, because pupils' classmates do grades, because they "need" a grade to get into a certain orchestra or school. I admit I probably would have fewer pupils if I didn't offer preparing them for exams, so I offer that as a standard nowadays. I have some pupils (mainly from my own country) who don't do exams and I don't push them towards them and they play because they want to play.. 


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#8 violinlove

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 15:31

I wonder if the OP's strengths lie elsewhere and not in teaching 6 to 8 year old violin beginners.

You sound frustrated and it sounds as if you are having this problem with several pupils. If it was just one pupil I would be inclined to think the problem was individual to that pupil but because it is several pupils perhaps it is something to do with your approach. I don't know you and have no idea how you teach but I have never had a problem with a pupil not being able to bow reasonably well within a couple of months.

You mention you have taught a full range of levels - perhaps you are much better with more advanced violinists.

Maybe it is time for some reflection about your teaching practice and whether you want to change the type of pupils you take on or whether you could experiment with a new approach.

If you feel you are not getting anywhere with a particular pupil, the best thing for all concerned is to have a discussion with the parents. Perhaps there is another teacher in your area who may be better suited to teaching this particular pupil.

If you have a waiting list of 20 and you aren't prepared to teach people who won't practise or who have difficulties learning then you are free to choose to "move them on".

Others have given good suggestions as to how you can word a "moving on" conversation along with suggestions of giving time scales to improve and so on.


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#9 AirVarie

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 15:45

In lessons now, in case anyone is wondering if  I've disappeared.


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#10 jim palmer

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 17:08

As a student, I don't see anything wrong if a teacher wants to teach students with potential, selected by a simple aptitude test.

Ability to sing back a tune, and for the violin, a test of physical co-ordination and geometrical understanding such as using a small saw to cut a piece of wood at right angles!


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#11 becster

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 17:18

It sounds like a difficult situation. Whatever the original cause of the situation the OP now has a number of poorly practising students.

I think it is reasonable to take one of two approaches. Maybe first one and then resort to the other if not successful. So the first approach could be to try some new methods - to engage both the students and the parents. This is where other violin teachers could advise... If this doesn't improve matters then the second approach could be resorted to - to instigate some sort of practice contract and to give notice to pupils who don't adhere to this. In giving notice you could of course recommend some other teacher. All of which is pretty much what an earlier poster has in fact suggested.

What I really wanted to add is that in my experience of teaching (not violin) in a wide variety of schools it is sadly the case in some independent schools that there is an attitude held by some parents that money can buy everything. So they may see violin grades as desirable, without any interest on the part of their child, and feel that by paying for the lessons their child will automatically get the violin grade passes. Without hard work or of course practice. With gcse and a level the attitude was often that they've paid so why isn't their child getting an a? The sad extension of this in some cases is parents paying for everything instead of giving love and support to their child. Such parents would unfortunately not have the time to support their child in practising.

As such, whilst I completely agree that being musical is a possibility for everyone and that different teaching approaches or indeed a different teacher may benefit these students, I do rather suspect that the poorly practising students may well not be of the OP's making. Good luck to the OP in finding a solution!
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#12 erard

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 18:41

For the OP, I wonder if you would find it useful to introduce a pupil - teacher contract.  Setting out what you offer (and probably already do) but also what you expect of your students.


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#13 jpiano

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 18:52

As a student, I don't see anything wrong if a teacher wants to teach students with potential, selected by a simple aptitude test.

Ability to sing back a tune, and for the violin, a test of physical co-ordination and geometrical understanding such as using a small saw to cut a piece of wood at right angles!

Well, the latter 2 of those would have counted me out for sure! I lack co-ordination and spacial awareness- couldn't catch a ball as a child, and still can't- I struggled with learning to drive a manual car because I found that the need to combine hand and foot co-ordination with making safe judgements involving distances difficult. I eventually passed after about 4 years of lessons, off and on, and after switching to an automatic car. A couple of my instructors were bemused when they found out I was a piano teacher! The whole area of musical aptitude is fascinating. 


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#14 Chomp

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 19:09

Why would a student be expected to sing back a tune before they had music lessons?
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#15 jim palmer

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Posted 12 November 2014 - 20:02

Why would a student be expected to sing back a tune before they had music lessons?

They will have reached the stage of development to hear a tune as music, remember it and imitate it (like language).

As far as the violin is concerned, it's a tricky instrument for beginners. How to keep the bow at right angles to an instrument at 45 deg to yourself, and touching the right string while moving the bow throughout its length?


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