Lessons can be stressful for students whose expectations are out of line with their current ability level. Lessons can be akin to torture for students who have Absolutely. No. Expectations. At. All. Teachers can also become stressed, especially when students are not meeting benchmarks, or even trying to meet even the lowest basic expectations (come to the lesson with your brain engaged in the “on” position). Regardless of whether one is a student or a teacher, we juggle constant demands on our time, even when we are doing everything “right” and setting good priorities. It’s OK to be stressed and tired. But it’s definitely NOT OK to be wishy-washy, uncommitted, or indifferent. If you’re not excited about practicing — if it doesn’t make your heart jump and raise your adrenaline a little to unlatch the case — it’s time for a break. Sometimes, a summer off from lessons (not from practicing) is a good thing.
So why might a student benefit from a lesson-free summer?
1. You genuinely need a mental break. Violin study can be intense, especially for students who are motivated to reach concrete goals. I am much more willing to accommodate a more relaxed mindset if my students ask nicely, have specific reasons for needing a break, and have a plan for what they’re going to work on in the interim, at least for the summer. Summer is the time for you to decide the priorities. Lowering the intensity (but not the expectations!) can make you feel like a new person.
2. You have lost focus. Lack of attention due to being lazy, zoning out, or from having too many things to concentrate on can allow bad things to happen with your technique. Summer can be a good time to regain your focus by limiting the the number of things on which you have to concentrate.
3. You have forgotten how to think for yourself. One of my pet peeves as a teacher is the automatic “I dunno” in response to lesson questions. Students who take lessons can become too dependent on the teacher to have all the answers, or to tell them what to do, and the joy and fun of learning is buried in the rush to add pieces to one’s repertoire. The opposite is also true, by the way: teachers can become co-dependent, or bossy know-it-alls. Whatever you learn will stick with you longer if you work through it yourself instead of giving up when it gets a little bit difficult. Or waiting for the teacher to tell you what to do. If you want to play better, you have to be willing to do the work to make it happen.
4. Your interest has gone a different direction. When lessons become a chore, it’s time to reassess. Are your reasons for taking lessons the same as they were when you started? What is your motivation? Are you excited, not only about playing and learning, but about the future and what you could be playing in a few months? Why do you think you’re having problems? Are you willing to put in the effort to not just play, but to play well, to the best of your ability? If your teacher has a valid point about some aspect of your playing and you zone out every time it’s mentioned, or you aren’t actively engaged in fixing it, are lessons still a good use of your time and money?
I think all of these issues can be addressed by backing away from lessons and breathing. (Deep breath in…don’t forget to exhale.) I’m guessing that your teacher would rather give you a summer off and have you come back rested, focused and ready to work than to lose you as a student. It is not the end of the world if you are stressed about lessons. I get stressed about lessons. And I’m the teacher. It’s OK. There are millions of musicians in the world. People start and stop lessons all the time.
For the record, teachers occasionally need time off too, although the reasons usually don’t fall into one of the categories above. This summer is the first since I started teaching that I won’t be able to teach. In fact, I won’t even bother making practice plans because I will be physically unable to practice for several weeks due to surgery and an extended recovery. At the moment, it doesn’t really matter to me because the surgeon gave me good drugs. When I come out of my artificially-induced happy place, I’ll be blogging about my away-from-the-violin practicing.
As you start your summer, it might be a good opportunity to develop or reshape your whole attitude toward violin study. In an upcoming post, I’ll talk more about how I plan to practice this summer, using the Four “Rs” — Relax, Recover, Reflect and Refocus — and how you too can make it work for your plan.