Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Impractice Makes Imperfect

The delay. The stall tactic. Using small talk to eat up lesson time. Asking me to play. Acting confused. Lost my place. Suddenly, I have many questions! Or, the worst, outright lying.

I am an old salt and know them all. I know them all, I know them all. They all mean the same damn thing: The student has failed to prepare for the lesson. In the grand scheme of things, this means nothing, but to a music teacher, it means quite a lot.

In the "real world" of study, that is, the professional music school, this act is unthinkable, but we are far, far away in another galaxy here. These are not aspiring professionals and so the response must be appropriate to that. I cannot make a scene, berate them and throw them out (although the temptation and the inclination are there, believe me.). As much as I want to give them the boot, alas, quiet acceptance and a hope to salvage the lesson are all that is left. Smile and secretly dream of when you get to go home.

I have suffered through, as have all music teachers, those students who did not belong near any musical instrument. God love them all, but I've had kids play basic notes so slow that I would catch myself spacing out like I was listening to ambient music. A few times, that was the most pleasant part of the lesson. When I taught in Hurricane, my room was on the second floor, where I had a great view over a pastoral landscape. That was at least a pleasant escape.

The question comes. A hard one, for sure, and rife with potential hurt feelings: When do we realize that our time together no longer has any purpose?

Things are always in cycles and teaching is full of them. There always comes a point, especially when teaching young students, that the novelty has faded, practice has stopped and the student goes flat. Not moving forward, but rather a kind of slow backwards drift. When this happens, it's only a matter of about three to four lessons before it's stay or go. This is the middle of the first plateau and I have been through it with students countless times. Adults will usually figure this out, but kids, under pressure from parents, may drag on way beyond expiration dates.

Or they disappear suddenly. I've had kids that I've taught for five or more years suddenly stop coming without notice or a call afterwards. "People are funny" is the old cliche, but that doesn't really apply here at all. People don't think of music teachers as having real professions, let alone having enough respect to let to notify us of cancellations.

Case in point: one poor little mug was chauffeured by his "sitter" to every lesson. In fact, I didn't meet that parents but one time. While teaching this little guy was a blast, it did not make me happy when multiple lessons were missed without notice or apology. I never said anything, but the one time I forgot to mention that the school would be shut down for Spring break and I missed without notice, they cancelled in anger. Again, music teachers are not real people, so we are not entitled to reciprocal courtesies.

You see, the private music teacher is only one of innumerable "experiences" (to use Boomer parlance) that the parent wishes to expose to the child. The trouble is the kid is involved in so many things that none of these activities take on any real meaning. It's like an educational buffet-take what you want when you want it and stop when it suits you. One kid had so many activities- I remember Karate, swimming, soccer among them-that he broke down into tears.

"I don't want to be here!" he cried.
"Why don't you tell your mom???"
"Because she wants me to come here."

That kid soon stopped without notice nor word from parents. Hell, who could blame the kid?

Recent case in point: Sensing more than the usual struggle to stay focused, my little 3rd grader was really pulling hard at the reigns last night. She was doing all the tricks. She went 'round and 'round. Until I had to figure out how to use the remaining time for education and not for defiance.

Another truth: because children acutely realize that you are not part of school and their attendance is not mandatory, sometimes they really act up as they possess complete impunity. Children are very smart and tuned in. What can you do? My friend, who teaches piano, has a whole book load of stories about South Hills brats who, once mommy leaves, act like little tyrants. So bad was one child, that mom had to be brought into the lessons to act as disciplinarian. Needless to say, that student soon stopped coming.

When mom came, I asked how much her child had been practicing. The answer was as expected-very little to none. Mom went through the "experience" thing with me or the "we were out of town" bit. These are valid things and people have very busy lives, but there comes a point when children are doing so many things that none of them have any meaning. They are doing a life/educational buffet-little of that, little of this.
Post script: this week, the third grader didn't come. No notice, no call.
Funny. I think I have read this book before.

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