Inheriting, losing, and rehabilitating students
Rictor Noren

 

All teachers gain and lose students to either natural attrition or mutually agreed upon terms. Students float in and out of our lives, and this is the course of things. Understanding the inherent fluidity that exists can keep teachers from taking the loss of a student personally. Students mature out of studios, which is to say that they've achieved a skillset that exceeds the teacher's ability. The teacher/student dynamic can change dramatically over the course of years. Expectations can shift resulting in the student who feels increasingly less challenged. Welcoming a new student (or string teaching in general) should come with the gravity and the expectations of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.

 

When inheriting new students, there are ways to make the transaction healthy while retaining everyone's dignity. You may feel as though the student's previous teacher had no business teaching the violin (viola, cello, bass), but this is better left unuttered. Teacher-bashing never ends well. It won't make you look more evolved or clever, but rather caddy and insecure. The world of string teaching is small, and what you say will come back to you in ways you can't predict.

 

Under no circumstances should you speak ill of student's previous teacher or their teaching. If you disagree with everything the student has been taught, gently steer them toward another way of thinking. For example if students presents with an overly pronated right hand and insists that this is the way they were taught, rather than take this opportunity to explain all the reasons why the previous teacher was wrong, gently lead them to a reasoned understanding of your method. Your currency is your understanding, and the promulgation of your material. Remember that there are many ways to get to a similar end. If you point out the past teacher's flaws, students tend to get confused, and may not have the nuanced thinking required to sift through your arguments.

No matter how poor a student's previous training is, you never want them to feel as though they've wasted their time (years, in some cases), and heaps of money. Rather, point out that the hard work they've done, and the successes they've had have brought them to this point.

"My teacher never taught scales to me"
Wrong answer: "How ridiculous. What were they thinking?"
Right answer: "Okay, well let's try something new, and here's the value in this."

It's NEVER too late to teach scales, as we all know. Just because a student's previous teacher didn't invest in their objective verities doesn't preclude them from future study. Try to find something to celebrate in the previous teacher's method. This may be challenging, but a caring, empathic teacher, even if minimally skilled, deserves acknowledgement.

 

Remember that even the finest teachers have intractable students who don't necessarily follow their advice. We've all had them, and if we were judged by our weakest students many of us would be out of a job. If a student comes to you with a particularly attractive vibrato, encourage them to call their previous teacher to thank them for their excellent work. There's usually something that was done correctly, and acknowledging this is a win for everyone. I prefer to give the previous teacher the benefit of what can seem estimable doubt.

Students often develop strong attachments to their previous teachers and this must be honored. Transitions can lead to crisis in some students who had found a meaningful rhythm with their previous teacher. For some, the end of this relationship can feel like loss. Make certain that if possible, the students understands that it is not only acceptable to retain a relationship with their former teacher, but encouraged. Previous teachers should be invited to recitals and other musical life passages.

Choosing repertoire for inherited students

Students who require significant rehabilitation have unique repertoire requirements. A common mistake is to think of student's repertoire as an ever-increasing linear projection.
Most students will benefit from lateral moves. That is, pieces that offer similar technical challenges while offering new musical concepts. Lateral moves give the student time to assimilate new techniques while giving the impression of increase. 
When offering a rehabilitating student a lateral piece, only you need know that this isn't a leap forward. How you introduce a new work can make the difference in how the student sees his/her own progress.
Finding appropriate pieces can be challenging, as students often judge their position relative to their peers through the pieces they are working on. Finding lateral pieces that are unknown to the student can prevent this upward comparison. This can also be true for the student who, for lack of adequate technique needs to take a significant step backward in order to fill-in or fix a specific problem. 
Again, it's dependent on how the piece is presented. Introduce the piece as unique, of rare value, and given to few students, as this can help the student feel special.
To that end;

 

Remember the Ego!

Children have egos. Teachers, parents, and most sentient beings have egos. Many young people wear their egos as if it were their birthright (it is!), however others hide them in cunning ways. Most are fragile, and all but a very few need nurturing. 
How we protect and celebrate our student's egos says a lot about how we see them, and our role in shaping their development. The teacher who assumes that their teaching routine works for all students has a limited understanding of the teacher/student dynamic. Every hour (or half-hour) is an entirely new set of challenges.

Most teachers have learned that their role extends far past intonation and piece learning. We are mentors, confidants, gurus, therapists, and safe places to alight. We are so many things because we teach a population that is so many things.

Choose your words thoughtfully. Using terms like "good" and "bad" is better left to moralists. Playing out of tune isn't "bad" anymore than a misspelled word embodies "bad-ness." It's the result of a misplaced finger, which is a teachable moment. Faulty intonation can be traced back to tension, mal-formed left hands, insecure pitch recognition and even right hand malfeasance - all fixable. To call an out-of-tune note "bad" can set up a culture of fear, and such polemics should be avoided.
 

Words matter, and how we shape ours is remembered, assimilated, and ultimately regurgitated. 
None of this is to suggest that we shouldn't hold up a standard of excellence in everything we teach-we must- but rather that we remember to choose our words thoughtfully and with compassion.
Young people often listen in binary ways. They hear "good" and "bad," "beautiful," and "ugly" and aren't as yet equipped with the skill of nuanced language that comes with age, experience, and a fully realized prefrontal cortex. 

A simple misplaced word can crush a fragile ego, as the student's "area of second sober thought" often isn't qualified to handle all its implications. Conversely, a gentle word of encouragement can bolster and encourage a student to correctly repeat the necessary task. I would add that I don't buy into the notion that so long as we're happy everything will be alright, as we must espouse standards: it's just that we need to choose our words wisely.

Students must feel successful. Teaching through intimidation never works, and the discomfited student can resent their weekly lessons and feel hopeless.
We've all known, or have studied with teachers who strong-arm their way through lessons, often leaving broken students who learn to fear their instruments and are paralyzed by the concern that they will miss or fail.
Students feel successful when they are presented with the right information, understand the right information, assimilate the right information, and are celebrated for it. To that end, I encourage my pedagogy students to "move the lens" in and out, learn adaptive teaching skills, and never publically compare one student with another. Respect the individual and his/her own track.
I wish I had written the following words: I did not. They were written by the great Maya Angelou, and I try to live by them as I teach, and in all the relationships:

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget 
what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."


Inheriting an injured student

String players are no less prone to injury than tennis players, runners, or any practitioner where repetitive motion is common. While treating specific injuries is beyond the scope of this paper, the string teacher should have some basic understanding of violin-related injuries, their treatment, and their avoidance.

Listen to your students when they describe pain. Pain is the body's message board signaling potential injury. Very young students often report that they are in pain when in fact they are experiencing fatigue. This is common and should be met with regular breaks and the shaking-out the tension. In the presence of real injury understand that we are string teachers are rarely qualified to make a diagnosis. This is better left to a trained healthcare practitioner, preferably one who specializes in repetitive motion injuries. Because most teachers will see injured students in the course of their careers, it's a good idea to seek out providers and experts in their area and engage them as necessary.

Injuries take time to properly evaluate and heal. Creative teachers have workarounds that include teaching without the instrument as the student recovers. For example, there's so much a teacher can teach about music history, theory, solfège, ear-training, the politics of music, etc. Just because a cellist isn't playing doesn't mean s/he can't have a valuable learning experience. If the injury is in the left hand, give it a holiday and focus on bowing techniques using open strings. A clever teacher can use valuable lesson time without exacerbating the injury.

 

Familiarize yourself with the physiology of playing and the dangers of tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and nerve compression, Learn to recognize students who play with pressure instead of arm weight, leverage, and balance. Become an expert in properly sizing an instrument for a young player, and never be afraid to take away a violin that is too large in favor of a more appropriate size. If a child is between sizes, it's generally better to choose the smaller size. Encourage bodywork: stretching, yoga, Alexander technique, etc. Fully appreciate the concept of "follow through," and momentum.

Keep the conversation open and fluid. Rarely, a student will appear to get something out of playing the "injured" role, and this must be handled delicately. If you suspect this is the case, it's better to err on the side of health and safety and encourage them to see their physician.
 

Don't let the injury become the script. We don't want this to be the thing that defines a student. 
Injuries take time to heal. Be patient and never try to rush the process.

 

Moving a student out of your studio

Smart teachers know when it's time to move a student to another teacher. This must be done carefully, graciously, and filtered through a sense of accomplishment and graduation if possible.
Knowing when to let go of a student is a skill that takes time to master.

 

Students can become too comfortable with their situation with you and stop responding to your direction. In other cases, students may have moved past your level of expertise. Allowing them to move on is an act of grace. It's difficult to let an advancing student go, as better students make for better studio reputations. Having the courage to admit where your skill set lies is a gift. It's important that you broach the subject carefully. You should already have a teacher or two in mind whom you respect and feel would be a natural fit. Ideally, you would have already made arrangements with the new teacher who can then expect to be contacted.

 

As you start the conversation with your student about moving on, remember that they're coming to you in many cases not just to learn to play the violin. They've come to trust and rely on you, and their relationship with you is a constant in their lives. Remind them how well they're doing and that because of their burgeoning expertise they're "graduating with honors" from your class. You may want to celebrate this with a night out with their families as a way to mark the occasion. 

Assure them that although they're moving on, they will always have a place in your studio, and are welcome to check in on occasion for the odd lesson, or even to be included in a recital. This transition can be difficult for some, and it's your job to facilitate this in a way that protects the student from feelings of abandonment.

On occasion there are student with whom you just don't get along. You may find them disrespectful, and can't wait to shuffle on their way. All the same rules apply. Because you are the adult, you need to treat this gently. We've all had the Wednesday student who can make us resent Wednesdays. In a way it doesn't matter who's at fault, rather that the time has come to part amicably - well-wishes all around.

 

We often like to think that we're putting our students needs ahead of our own, but resenting a student's coming isn't going to make you a better teacher. Having some clarity around why the relationship failed might be helpful, but in the final analysis reclaiming your Wednesdays might not be such a bad idea. Implicit in this is the feeling of self-care and protecting yourself from burning out.

 

No teacher is right for every student. Discerning where your limitations are can challenge you to get training around whatever your particular issue is. We can all learn from each other, and the more open we are to new ideas, the more fulfilled we'll be with our chosen path. Nudge your students firmly but gently, and frame your lessons with expertise and compassion. Most students deserve your time, energy and wisdom. Do you deserve theirs?

Copyright Rictor Noren