Eloise Hellyer is a violin teacher who lives and works in central Italy. Born in Chicago, she studied privately with Edgar Muenzer, Hannah Armstrong and Ludwig Schmidt. She has a B.A. in Greek and Latin from Beloit College and did graduate work at Loyola University in Chicago which she interrupted when her first baby/student was born. She is also a life coach, mentor and the author of the award winning Violin Teacher's Blog.
(This article appears in our Healthy Playing - Healthy Studio Booklet)
Science tells us that happy people are a lot healthier than unhappy ones. And we all know that if we are happy, we tend to spread happiness around us. This is especially true of teachers. If teacher is in a good mood, then she tends to do her job a lot better and everyone is much happier.
So what does it take to keep teacher happy and in aforementioned good mood? Not much - just three little things:
1. Perfect students who always practice even more than required without complaint, always have their assignments done, always show up for lessons on time with all their music, never miss a group class or a rehearsal for an individual or group recital.
2. Perfect parents or practice helpers who always do exactly what the teacher says without question, never complain about the difficulty of the violin or the difficulty of getting their progeny or charges to practice, in fact never having a problem getting them to practice in the first place (see number 1), and who never bring sick children to lessons.
3. Parents who always pay on time without ever complaining about having to pay for lessons they missed due to their own problems.
Welcome to teacher heaven.
Now back to reality. We do not, alas, live in a perfect world. And if teaching were easy no one would pay us so much money to do it. They would simply avail themselves of any of the fabulous (well they claim to be, anyway) and very inexpensive online courses that guarantee you will be able to play Paganini caprices in just a few short lessons, and not bother with us at all.
Fortunately for us, people still see the need for hands-on teaching. But you are going to have imperfect students, imperfect parents and those who don’t pay on time. What to do? How to keep your equilibrium?
DON’T GET TOO TIRED
I would advise anyone who is embarking on a teaching career to take the Myers-Briggs personality test. It will tell you if you are an introvert or an extravert, for one thing. It’s really a good idea to know this officially and see it in black and white. So once you know which one you are, you can plan your time accordingly. Some of us can teach for six or seven hours without stopping and feel just fine. Others may need to hide in the bathroom for 15 minutes every now and then to recharge. Nothing wrong with this - some of the best teachers (and performers) I know are introverts. You just have to identify which type you are so you can organize your teaching day in such a way as to make the best use of your energy. Being exhausted or overwhelmed is not going to keep you in a good mood or make you a better teacher. This test will also tell you other interesting things about yourself which I find extremely helpful in understanding not only myself but other people - my students and their parents in particular. While you already intuitively know a lot of this information about yourself and others, it really does help to see it written in front of you. Learning something new about yourself, even though you may think it’s unrelated to teaching, is always useful.
Secondly, it is important to remember that playing the violin - and teaching it - is all about learning to dose one’s own energy. If you give too much energy to a situation that is just as bad as giving not enough. How do you, the teacher, know which is which?
KEEP YOUR EMOTIONS OUT OF IT!
If you give too much energy to a situation that is just as bad as giving not enough. How do you, the teacher, know which is which? Emotions give energy, too much of it sometimes. Think of it - what do you feel physically when you are angry, for example? What you feel is an abundance of energy that can be used profitably or not. Usually, it just has to be controlled which can be very tiring. Do you make your best decisions when you are angry? Do you do your best work when angry? Unless you have iron control, probably not. So how do you stop this beast from rearing its ugly head when you are provoked? And you will be provoked, trust me.
Easy, just remember that if your emotions are involved and you are attached to them, you are not seeing the situation clearly. If you cannot see the situation clearly, you cannot help your student, his parents or even yourself effectively. This goes for any emotion. The mistake many teachers make is to invest themselves emotionally in the outcome of their work. Sometimes they have an emotional relationship with their students and their parents - either positive or negative. This is not helpful. This is not to say that you have to be an automaton or a computer with no feeling. Of course you have feeling! You can love your students on a philosophical level and be very warm to them but they have grandparents to love them on an emotional level. They need you to teach them and to do this you need a level and clear head which you won’t have if you are worried about how your students feel about you (i.e., emotional involvement) or how you “feel” about them (ditto). Think of how doctors do it - they call it being professional. They can be marvelous persons, very warm with a great bedside manner, but they are not allowed to treat or operate on anyone they are related to, i.e., emotionally involved with. They don’t worry about whether they like or dislike a patient or if the patient likes or dislikes them. They have to keep themselves detached and we have to do the same thing. Only we aren’t trained for it.
Or are we?
Look at it this way, you have studied in university, privately or in a conservatory for many years to learn to give the emotions necessary for the best interpretation of the piece you are playing. If not, we would be all going to concerts to listen to computers play (they never miss a note), which no one does. This means that if you have gotten up too early in the morning, tripped over your child’s toy, argued with your significant other and lost a fortune on the stock market, your audience would never know any of this from your playing. The kind of emotional discipline that musicians have to have and, more significantly, have to learn to have, is really almost unparalleled in other professions. Doctors don’t have to use emotions to do their jobs well. Musicians do. So you see, you already know how to do it! Just apply the same system to your students (and their parents) and you are home free. When you are provoked by, say, a student who arrives unprepared for a lesson, instead of viewing it as an insult to your teaching or a lack of respect for you, take a step back and try to understand what his circumstances are so you can help him.
This does not mean you cannot use your emotions appropriately for the situation at hand. Sometimes I “lose my temper” or even “raise my voice” to a student because he needs that (I live and teach in Italy) - not because I need to do it, no matter how satisfying that might be at the moment. If you feel your student needs to be bawled out, by all means do it. Just like you would give an angry sort of emotion to certain types of music - whatever the occasion demands - without actually feeling angry yourself and thus draining yourself of energy. If you feel your student needs some warmth and understanding due to difficult circumstances in his life, go right ahead and give it. Just remember that it’s all about the student and not about you.
YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION MAY CHANGE WITH EACH STUDENT
Another thing to remember is that not all students who come to you for lessons really want to learn how to play the violin. You may well ask, “Well what are they doing here?” The fact is that the relationship that a music student has with his teacher is probably the most intense and long-lasting one of his whole youth. You are an important figure to him. You are probably the only adult in his life who does not give a grade or judge him in any way and that is a precious thing to a young person. Let go of what YOU think you should be doing (and what you think the parents think you should be doing) and recognize that your job description is a lot more vast than you think. You may think you are just there to give information but if that were the case, people could get that for a lot less money on the internet. I wish I had a dollar for every time a parent told me that I give life lessons as well as violin lessons to their children. I see my non-practicers as having a difficulty of some kind that they need help with (helpful and gives them hope) - not as the lazy vagabonds that even they see themselves to be (unhelpful and makes them feel hopeless). This means that I don’t get drained by them as I used to many years ago when I thought energy drainers were codified and written in stone. When you have parents who don’t collaborate as you think they should, stop and try to see what their problems are instead of judging them. You may well be surprised by what they tell you and by how much help you can be to them. I have found that if a child wants to come to lessons even though he doesn’t practice and his parents are happy to send him and pay me for it, then he must be getting something from the lessons that I am not aware of or capable of perceiving, just as a musician cannot always know how important the music he makes is to his listeners or the different effect it has on each individual. Remember, you studied music for many years with excellent teachers who produce professionals. Life outside of the ivory tower is quite different. So don’t think your job is the same as your most recent teachers’ was, that your students should be the same as you were, and that their parents should go to the same lengths your parents did to further their children’s music education. Lots of people study music for the fun of it and are happy with very little. Some of these souls, whether they come in child or adult packaging, just need contact with someone like you for reasons only the universe knows. You will make them and yourself unhappy if you have unreasonable expectations or goals that you arbitrarily set for them (or that were set for you) according to some paradigm you have in your head that has nothing to do with the realities and desires of your students, no matter how talented, and their families.
MUSIC ISN’T ALWAYS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN A STUDENT’S LIFE NOR SHOULD IT BE
Do not think that a child’s music education should be of overriding importance in her life. Sometimes teachers get excited about their talented students and begin to project their own ambitions and desires onto them which can be extremely damaging to the student and frustrating for the teacher when the student decides not to follow the course set out for her. Teachers don’t do this consciously most of the time, but it is almost irresistible when you have an extremely talented child in front of you. What to do? More emotional control and reflection, for one. Then remembering that there is a big wide world out there and if your student shows talent for music, it probably means that she has talent for other things as well which should be explored. “You have talent so you must practice two hours a day,” does not necessarily follow. The fact that a child has talent does not mean he must develop it at all costs. You are going to have students who decide that they would rather be doctors or tree surgeons and you will be happier if you keep in mind that your input in their education is NOT wasted and has probably made all their future endeavors outside of music much easier for them. They will also one day look back on their lessons with you as an important part of their growing up. Thus win/win for everyone.
YOUR INTUITION IS YOUR BEST FRIEND - USE IT!
You have, knowingly or unknowingly, spent years developing it musically. Now it’s time to use it interpersonally. When you play with others, for example, you have to listen more to them than to yourself. You often intuit what your fellow musicians are going to do before they do it and modify your playing accordingly. Try the same thing with your students. If you are really listening to your student you are there for him, at his disposition, listening to what his playing says about him, listening to the soul behind the music. We don’t teach children, teenagers or adults, we teach souls which often have a great deal of difficulty finding a way to express themselves. The best way is through music, no matter how badly played by our students, and this aspect of teaching deserves our full attention. Remember, a violin student is nothing other than a soul seeking self-expression. There is nothing more satisfying for me as a teacher than helping a soul find its voice. And you can do that just as well with the Twinkles as with the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Listening to Minuet 1 twenty times in one day can either be incredibly boring or incredibly interesting, depending on if you are listening to the music or to the student who is making the music, what his technical problems are and what he is transmitting. You decide. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine what’s going to keep you more involved, concentrated, interested and thus fulfilled as a teacher. One of my guiding principles in my own teaching is to teach the student and not the “method.” Didactic methods are wonderful, extremely helpful and great guides. But you can get caught up in adhering to them too rigidly, thus stifling your own intuition, with the result that you do what is good for the violin, the method and not necessarily the student. Once you let go of the constraints that any method tries to impose and give the student what he needs (trust your intuition), not what you need to give him or what the method says is the right thing to do, you are not only more free and relaxed you can really help your student, the flow of energy between teacher and student is unimpeded and EVERYONE is happier.
HAVE COMPASSION FOR PEOPLE WHO BEHAVE BADLY
On a practical note, about parents who don’t pay: first of all, NEVER give free trial lessons. I mean NEVER, NEVER, NEVER. The only thing children learn from free trial lessons is how difficult the violin is and they will often give up before they really start. The parents learn, however, that you need them more than they need you which can lead to unpleasant situations. Like bargaining. Many teachers charge for trial lessons to see if there is a “fit.” I don’t do this as for me they all “fit,” but there are teachers to whom this is a justifiably important consideration (again, that Myers Briggs test is helpful). That’s fine but do charge for the trial lesson. If you decide you don’t want to take the student (be careful, this could be devastating to a child) you can, like some teachers, give the money back. But you don’t have to. When a student does decide to start, or you decide to take her on, make sure the parents invest in the book, the CD (if you use one), the instrument and insist that instrument is seen by a luthier to make sure that it is playable. People will usually follow up on what they have invested in. If you make it too easy, they will not have the necessary respect for your work. If you don’t give value to it, then they won’t either. Also, it is a good idea to ask for payment in advance, either monthly or semesterly, whatever you decide is the best method, and make clear your policies on missed and make-up lessons. Don’t worry about seeming venal. Contrary to popular misconceptions, a starving artist is not a happy one. We need to earn our daily bread just like everyone else and we mustn’t undervalue our work. I am fond of saying to my students’ parents that I teach ALSO for the money. Being paid on time is a sign of respect which you deserve. Obviously, if you have special cases you can make exceptions but make sure this is confidential. You can also decide to give more time to a student who needs it but can’t afford to pay for it because you want to and think it is necessary, just as long as you make it clear to the parents that you are doing this for yourself (you want to feel you are doing your job properly) as much as for the student. Again this should be confidential.
In other words, you can be very flexible in your approach toward your time and money, but it is good to have clear general rules of conduct so everyone knows what is expected and how to behave and, above all, that you are the one deciding what these rules are. When you have those cases who pay reluctantly, late or not at all, my attitude is to feel sorry for the student who has parents like that. I also think that people who behave badly are not happy and deserve compassion (“I wouldn’t want to be like that person, would I?”). I am aware that we can’t really judge anyone else’s happiness, but it makes ME feel better to have compassion for them instead of getting angry or taking it personally. This doesn’t mean you have to let them continue to abuse you though. I hate to make a student pay for having difficult parents, but sometimes it is inevitable. Do what you have to do and let it go. In any case, the real deadbeats do tend to weed themselves out sooner or later.
I know this may sound trite, but one of the best ways to keep yourself happy is to be grateful. Science bears this out. There are many reasons teachers have to be grateful although sometimes they may elude us temporarily. Here is a short list of a few of them which can serve as a reminder when needed:
1. People are willing to pay you to transmit something you love to their children.
2. You are lucky to be a transmitter in the first place and that you have had the talent and have had the teaching necessary to get to the level that makes you fit to teach.
3. You have had the possibility to study something you love and are passionate about.
4. You have learned all the techniques of transmission and expression for performance which are extremely useful in teaching even if you never thought about it that way.
5. Above all, you have the possibility, for better or for worse, to have an impact on many future generations. If you do your job well (and you wouldn’t be reading this book if you weren’t interested in this), your teaching will go on for generations, at least in spirit, even if your students’ children never take up the violin (life lessons, remember?). If you do your job badly, well, you have surely come across bad teachers in the course of your general or music education and you know what a disastrous effect they can have. I am, however, extremely grateful for the bad teaching I had - it taught me a lot, on reflection many years later, and I vowed never to do to my students what was done to me. So if you have had a bad experience or two in your learning life, be grateful for that, too, for what it can teach you.
6. You are incredibly privileged to be a teacher. “Without teaching, there is no other profession,” as someone wisely said. The most important teacher a child has on his instrument is the first one. I was told by a well-known violinist who toured the USSR (when it still existed) many years ago that the best teachers there were reserved for beginners. As the USSR has given us many great violinists, I would say that they knew what they were doing. So keep this in mind when you think you would rather be teaching Brahms or Sibelius. The Twinkles are the most important pieces a child will ever learn and you, you lucky and privileged teacher, are absolutely the most influential person in that child’s musical life (and perhaps his life in general). An enormous responsibility to be sure, but thinking this way will help get you through the darkest moments that beginning violinists (and very small children) can pose. Your teaching is important. Even if you don't think you are teaching anything in particular to your more uncooperative students, remember that you are always teaching them something whether you are aware of it or not. Be grateful for this opportunity (and be careful!).
7. You get to learn new things every teaching day from your students: even from the potentially most frustrating ones, and sometimes especially from them. Keep this in mind and be grateful for it. Surely musicians, above all, recognize that if we don’t keep learning about our instrument and about music in general, then we aren’t going to play very well or progress. Even the best and greatest violinists practice many hours a day. They are constantly learning. I have heard countless teachers say that they have learned more from their students than their students learned from them. While this may or may not be true (how can anyone judge this?), it’s certainly a great and healthy mind set to have. See each day and each student as a learning opportunity, and not only will you learn from your students and gain priceless experience you can use in the future, you will be a lot happier, too.
You see, whether or not we are happy teachers does not depend on our students, their parents and other circumstances outside of our control, but depends on our own attitude, our expectations, our perceptions, and our level of self-awareness and purpose which are the only things we have the possibility of controlling. We can make ourselves happy, healthy and vibrant or we can choose otherwise. It’s up to you.