Random Thoughts (ongoing series)

Random Thought #1: Regarding people who complete a trial lesson, then set up a lesson time, then conveniently forget to tell me that they’re not coming for lessons after all.
      I’ve been offering free trial lessons for a while now, and every student who has taken advantage of them has signed up and started lessons. Except one. A few months ago, I gave a trial lesson to a very promising student, who, according to his mother, has dreams of Juilliard. Unfortunately, he’s been taking lessons from less-experienced teachers, or not taking lessons at all, and he’s in 9th grade. His mom made made a point of telling me (several times) that he’d been accepted by a couple of other teachers, including a professor at KU, but she didn’t have time to drive 35 minutes each way. I guess I was supposed to be both impressed and intimidated. Why would I need to know that? Actually, to be honest, it made me feel like she was “settling” for me because I was the closest teacher. Both mom and student indicated at the end of the trial lesson that they were satisfied and wanted to start on Date X. Date X arrived, but the student didn’t. So I sent an email, and the reply was that “the fit wasn’t right.” And that I must have lost her previous email about it. (Except that I don’t make a habit of losing emails. And my email program doesn’t designate people in my address book as junk mail. And her reply magically came back within minutes of my question. Hmmmm…) The student I referred to earlier rescheduled the trial lesson, because of a scheduling conflict on their end, and didn’t let me know about that until the morning of the original trial lesson. That tells me that they don’t value that old-fashioned, outdated concept of plain old common courtesy.
      In mulling over what happened, I tried to decide if there was anything I could have or should have done differently. (I came to the conclusion “not that I know of.”) But I was forced to think about the broader, more significant underlying issues that this particular situation brought to the fore. The first is prospective students who feel the need to be all secretive about lessons. When a student says, “Great, see you in two weeks” and then doesn’t show up, call or email, that can be a problem. Why? Well, the purpose of free trial lessons is to give a student information so that they can make a decision. Ideally, I think it’s perfectly OK to take a few days to make that decision, especially if the student is auditioning other teachers at the same time. Do you really think I care if you are also looking at other teachers? Or that I’ll be offended? Or that I’ll start promising you things I can’t deliver? It’s nice if a parent chooses to tell me up front that they’re considering several teachers, but I’m not competing. I realize that I’m not the best teacher for some students. This isn’t a competition to see who can get the most students, or who can get the best fee for lessons. I advertise as inexpensively as possible, just enough so people know I’m here. If I end up with a student or two from sending an introductory letter to local schools or other private teachers, I think that’s great and it cost virtually nothing except a stamp and a little bit of time to write/proof/sign the letter. I’m not arrogant or egotistical, but my basic philosophy can be summed up as follows: during the trial lesson, if the way I teach doesn’t motivate or inspire you, or if you don’t feel that you’re going to learn anything, then you should be running the other way as fast as you can! You need a teacher who does inspire you and motivate you to do your best. Teachers are not “one-size-fits-all”, and teachers who think they are are probably not very good teachers. 
      The other issue is having unrealistic expectations about a future in music. I didn’t graduate from Juilliard. I didn’t even try to get in. (I did seriously consider Yale, however, when I finished my M.A.) A quick visit to the Juilliard website yielded the following information and observations:
  • Less than ten percent of applicants in a given year are accepted as students.
  • The audition requirements for a violin major are considerably higher than the average standard for most universities.
  • Students who want to go to Juilliard, or Cleveland Institute, or Peabody, Eastman, Curtis, USC, Michigan or “insert the name of your above-average-music-school here” can’t wait til ninth grade to start working on violin stuff.
  • Most of the students who are accepted into the violin programs at these schools started violin lessons when they were still in diapers; thus the overall quality of the applicant pool is staggeringly high.
  • The typical violinist’s daily schedule at Juilliard is mind-boggling: orchestra two or three times a day for three hours per rehearsal. Plus regular academic classes, lessons, chamber music rehearsals, etc. Add in practice time (probably four to six hours a day is expected), eating and sleeping (oops, I forgot: college students don’t sleep), and the requisite partying (as a general rule, music students are notorious partiers, ranking right up there with the frat boys) and you have a schedule that would seriously impair most mortals. Those of you who have kids could compare it to the first few months of parenthood: no sleep, no time to eat, and a very small bundle of joy that requires constant maintenance and attention. Looking back, I’m not sure how I survived either music school or being a new mommy!
      In order to get into a top-tier music school, you have to be willing to eat, breathe, sleep and live music. Everything else is inconsequential. Some people can make that kind of commitment; others are not able to. Some students manage to have a life outside of music and still maintain the brutal and rigorous pace that professional music study requires, but not many. In the end, it’s either music or everything else, and the non-musical stuff usually wins. That’s partly why Juilliard is such an exclusive institution — they aren’t looking for the most perfectly accurate, technically advanced players. They are looking for musicians who have already developed a sense of the kind of professionalism required for a concert or academic teaching career. Being able to play above and beyond the average violinist is one small component in the selection process, although to be fair it is the part that carries the most weight and is what is ultimately used to make the selection decisions. 
       A decision like this is serious stuff. So serious that students who have ambitions in that direction make decisions in elementary and middle school that will affect their daily routines (and those of the rest of their families) until they graduate high school, and there are no guarantees of acceptance. Many students set up an individual educational program so that they can do their school work at home and have six hours a day available for practice. One parent or the other sometimes has to take a second (or third) job to pay for extra lessons. More than half of all music majors will change majors after the first semester of study, because they didn’t fully comprehend the amount of work and commitment it would take. So, on the flip side, there are some definite signs that you might not be ready for professional music study:

  • you don’t have time to drive an hour (or more) a week to study with the “best” teacher, if that’s what your study requires;
  • you’re not willing to commit as much practice time as it takes to master what you need to learn;
  • you have to postpone lessons because of schedule conflicts;
  • you have trouble accepting constructive criticism;
  • you aren’t willing to continually review the basics and old pieces;
  • you aren’t willing to go back and pick up pieces you might have missed in the sequence;
  • you’re offended at being asked to go back and re-study pieces that you’ve already played;
  • you’re not willing to learn to think analytically and critically about your technique, your musical approach, and about why you play in the first place.

      Part of my job as a teacher is to encourage students to do their best, and to give them the tools they need so that this becomes possible. What a student chooses to do with those tools is entirely up to them. Every student I teach has the potential to be a fine violinist. I have the benefit of having already traveled much further down that road and I can see the roadblocks and obstacles that are there. I feel badly for the student I referred to earlier, because neither he nor his mom “gets it”. In a way, I’m sorry that I won’t be a part of his maturation as a musician. When they start looking for a teacher again, because he or she didn’t meet their expectations, I’ll probably be able to find a spot for him because he has a lot of potential and seemed to be a nice kid. But in another way, his mom was right: it probably wouldn’t have been a good fit.




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