Ability Limiters — Lack of Interest, Part 2: How Young is Too Young?

I have read and heard discussions about how young is too young to begin lessons and the “standard” answer basically is “however young your teacher is comfortable with.”  That may be true in theory, but I disagree with it in practice.

Many teachers have “guidelines” for accepting pre-K students; this is normal and expected.  There might be requirements regarding a student’s age, whether they are potty-trained, if they are in school or daycare (for socialization or just interacting with people who are not family members), observation requirements, and the like.  No single requirement carries any more weight than another, because each teacher sets up student success a little differently.  [Note: In my studio, I require parents of students under 4th grade to complete a five to six week course of parent training before we start lessons.  The sixth week is specifically for parents of pre-Ks, to discuss things that are special about pre-K lessons and learning styles.]

I can show anyone, no matter their age, how to do basic violin stuff.  The youngest student I’ve taught to this point had just celebrated her third birthday when she started lessons.  I’ve also had students in their 60s and 70s.  They all learned, so I’m pretty sure it’s not a matter of “teaching.”

I can work with any parent of any student, doing parent ed. until I’m dehydrated from talking so much.  I can show them videos or DVDs until my eyes hurt.  I can ask them open-ended question after question about how they think the lifestyle is going to work.  I’m honest with them up front.  I don’t promise things I can’t deliver.  Taking their money and stringing them along on false hopes and dreams is stealing, pure and simple.  I figure when someone comes to me for lessons, they expect to learn something, so I am all about getting it done, and having fun doing it.  But what I have found over the years of working with pre-Ks and their parents is that many parents are not honest with themselves about how much “lifestyle” they can handle.  They really want lessons, and are willing to go through whatever to get them.  They shake their heads yes, agreeing with Dr. Suzuki in principle, and give what they think are the “right” answers, the answers that they think their violin coach wants to hear.  It’s so easy to do this when you’re sitting with a supportive teacher, or group of parents. It’s hard to be honest when you’re discouraged and alone at home. [Note:  many teachers make this initial phase a very long one, stretched out six months to a year. It’s hard to really get a grasp of what is expected and what the teacher is trying to do in a short six week course.  I think this is a good thing because it removes all of the pressure to “get started” and impress the teacher with how well all the paper lessons have been learned.]

In practice, the scenario typically plays out like this:  shortly after things get past the super-easy-this-is-such-great-fun-because-it’s-new stage, they begin to feel overwhelmed, like they are in over their heads.  Then Home Teacher (usually Mom), gets bogged down in guilt and has trouble keeping the routine going smoothly, and the kids lose interest because the whole dynamic of the “home lesson” has been changed.  It’s not fun anymore.

In violin lessons for pre-Ks, the parent assumes the lion’s share of responsibility:  making sure the assignment is written down correctly and understood, scheduling the time and place for practicing and listening, juggling other commitments that might interfere with practicing, being the home teacher, following through on getting it done, transportation to lessons, etc.  All of that might be enough to unnerve any experienced Mom-of-Steel, but add in the responsibility of discerning between correct and “needs work,” acknowledging the effort while reserving true praise for the achievement, and therein lies the recipe for, the justification for, lack of ability.  “He just doesn’t like it anymore” is more often than not a polite way of saying “I can’t do this anymore.”  But it is also placing the blame on the child, which conveniently masks the fact that the parent created the environment that nurtured the dislike in the first place.  The child is only responsible for doing what the teacher or parent asks of him.  They can only be responsible for what we have taught them.  If we don’t teach them honestly and fairly, with the highest expectations for their success, I can certainly understand why it wouldn’t be fun.  But, any child who hears a parent offer the child’s dislike of practicing as an excuse has learned a lesson they won’t soon forget:  I can blame anyone else for my problems and it’s OK.

So then, wouldn’t it be more correct to say, “however young the PARENT is comfortable with?”  If the parent is not comfortable with that level of responsibility, how is she supposed to make it interesting and fun for her child?  Children can read their adults like books.  You can’t hide anything from them.

Adults sometimes have great difficulty coming down to the level of fascination, wonder and discovery inherent in small children.  We get bored, mainly because our “process” has been taught and honed and given much experience.  We have the benefit of time.  After the 50th repetition, chances are pretty good that we have learned it.  But ten thousand times? Yikes.  Yes, it can get (very) annoying to hear the same review sequence for months in a row.  But you can’t let on that it bugs you.  If you do, you make yourself out to be a hypocrite when the teacher finally hears and praises your child for that improvement she’s been waiting for for months.  Yes, I’ll admit, it can be long, tedious, even boring. Boooorrrrring.  But it is the process of getting there that is important.  The child needs the process, and so does the practice parent.  The product will come a the child is ready.

Now.  If only I could heed my own advice…

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