Bad Fit

Lyle recently expressed an interest in playing the violin.  Having played violin and viola myself growing up, I was absolutely thrilled.  I signed him up for some private lessons and rented violins for both of us.  For a few weeks, I’ve been relearning to play some simple pieces of music and he has loved listening and learning the little things I can teach him while we waited for our class to begin.

His first lesson was last Monday, at a reputable folksy music school here in Chicago.  I sat in and observed.  His teacher moved fast.  She was intense. She wasn’t “mean”, but there was no small talk, no friendly chatter.  She moved right into work on posture  – holding the instrument properly – and told me that he wouldn’t pick up the bow for at least 2-3 weeks.  She spent the full thirty minutes on a sequence of movements required to move from “concert rest position” to “playing position”.  Each time Lyle moved his arm into a correct position he moved one of his feet a step and had to start over from the beginning.  It was hard to watch but I was so impressed that he stuck with it and cooperated so beautifully.

However, the instant she told him he was finished, he rushed across the room, fell into my arms, and sobbed.  She didn’t address this, simply let the next student into the room and pushed us quickly out the door, Lyle still crying.  He cried all the way to the car, raging at me, saying he never wanted to take another lesson, never wanted to go back.  He asked if he could keep his violin, but I told him we couldn’t keep the rental instrument if he didn’t take lessons.  I assured him that we could find another teacher, however, if he wanted.  Much to my shock, by the time we got home he told me determinedly that he would go back.

All week I grappled with this.  Was the teacher too harsh? – or is this the way you teach a young child a challenging instrument like the violin? I don’t remember starting out that way, but perhaps I’ve forgotten.  Shouldn’t she have established some sort of rapport with him first, made a connection with the child? – or was I applying what a good therapist does to a different situation, one that doesn’t require it?  She was teaching him skills and he was capable of learning them with repetition, I saw that.  But was it meaningful to him? No.   Was he motivated to learn from her? No.  So how could it be that different from a negative therapeutic situation, then?

In fact, although he was determined to continue so that he could keep his beloved tiny violin, I watched my son struggle more and more as the week went on.  His anxiety grew more with each day, and his behavior became extremely controlling and defiant.  He wanted to be in charge of every conversation and everything anyone asked him to do.  The closer we got to the second lesson, the less tolerable his behavior.  On Saturday morning, we had to leave a Halloween festival we’d invited friends to because he was acting downright nasty.

I could see it quite clearly.  He was turning the tables on us, acting out exactly what he felt the teacher had done to him.  She had controlled every move he made for thirty minutes straight.  He’d never seen an adult act like that with a child.  Each time I tried to discuss it with him, he waffled painfully; on one hand, he never wanted to go back to that teacher again. “I HATE violin,” he shouted angrily, many times.  On the other hand, he was asking to go back to her rather than another, unknown, teacher.  He didn’t want to give up that violin.

And I still wondered: Can he do it?  Should he do it?  Is this how he needs to learn?  Will he just get used to her style?  Should he?  After all, we need to be able to learn from different kinds of teachers, don’t we? Do we pull the plug this fast, or give him one more week, especially since he says he’ll go back?

But I watched my kid and saw how incredibly dysregulated he was becoming, and decided to cancel the lessons.   I realized suddenly that this is exactly the kind of thing I talk about at work all the time with families.  The violin teacher did all of the things I warn against in therapy:  she sat a brand new child down and started drilling discrete skills (e.g., posture and movement sequences) without establishing any rapport whatsoever, without placing those skills into a meaningful context (e.g., music), moving too fast, and talking too loudly (not adjusting pace and volume to a child’s developmental level and temperament).  There wasn’t a word of praise. When he had a negative reaction to the session, she did not address or acknowledge it even for a moment.  And, thanks to these missteps, my child’s behavior took a huge turn for the worse in a matter of only 5 days, even with me processing it with him every day.  (Imagine a child with a classroom teacher or aide who behaves this way towards him all day?  Think about the “naughty” behavior we’d be seeing!  What if a parent didn’t see it, and so didn’t know what accounted for his behavior at home?)

Maybe that is considered to be an optimal way to begin this particular instrument and some kids can learn that way, but my kid clearly isn’t one of them – and I can’t feel bad about that.  A good teacher or therapist of any kind doing a private lesson is going to assess a student long enough to figure out who this child is and meet him right where he is developmentally in order to move forward.  I don’t think that would’ve taken more than five minutes in this case.  This is exactly why I always do a free initial session with a new client to make sure that both the child and the adult are comfortable with each other.  No therapist or teacher is going to be a good fit for every child.

Now that Lyle knows he’ll never see that teacher again, he has started to relax.  I have a couple other violin teachers for us to meet with this week and he’s happy about that.  Maybe one of them will be a better match and we’ll continue on this road, and maybe not.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  But one thing is for sure: we are not going to suffer through 8 weeks of lessons with the wrong teacher.  Lyle showed us very clearly how he felt about that.

This parenting stuff?  It’s just not easy.

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10 responses to “Bad Fit

  1. One of the things I love about Charlotte’s piano teacher is that right off the bat she showed a willingness to adapt to the way Charlotte learns.

    The right teacher is out there!

    I also really like the way you drew comparisons to therapists – there really is truth to what you’ve said.

  2. Thanks! And I’m very glad Charlotte has such a good teacher.

  3. WHEW! That teacher is not the right one, clearly. And, yes, the right one IS out there. I mean, really, substitute “math” for “violin” and it’s a no-brainer that teh teacher needs to find out where the child is before s/he can even meet them where they are.

    I love Lyle’s desire to keep trying, too. 🙂

  4. You’re so right – we’ve been in so many situations where someone is not the right fit. We struggle with this in school every year, agonizing over teachers and class lists, trying to make the boys feel comfortable. It’s not easy, but we know what we have to do.

    I love that Lyle wants to play the violin like his mama. I, too, think the right teacher is out there. She’ll (he’ll?) be happy to have such a good student. 🙂

  5. Wow – sounds like it was a tough week!! I am so impressed that you all perservered and figured out what was causing Lyle so much distress. Dealing with unpleasant behaviors and stopping to take the time to figure out what’s behind them takes PATIENCE. Thank goodness you have that in spades. 🙂

    I hope that it works out for Lyle! He does love that sweet little violin!

  6. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Perfect reaction. Perfect.

    Proud of you guys!

  7. Loved that post!
    Your descriptions and questions are so appropriate. Your son is lucky to have you.

    That teacher was totally in her routine of teaching techniques, forgetting who was learning. She might not even be aware of the need to adapt to each pupil’s skills and learning style.

  8. Kimberly Daniels August

    I can really see this happening with violin teachers. Suzuki I’m assuming? But funny enough we actually had a teacher who was too lax and Eliana did not learn anything. Had a lot of fun though! We switched her after a few months and she had to relearn everything but we just love the “new” teacher. She is very kind and friendly but also can be serious. She sees when the kids have had enough and does some kind of violin game to break things up. Eliana just loves her and has learned a lot. Not that we don’t have violin struggles (boy do we!) but they are not related to the teacher. I’m sure you will find the right teacher too. Good luck with it!! (And so great that you realized where Lyle was coming from. I’m not sure I would have connected the behavior to the lesson. Always learning from you Mrs. T! Thanks!)

  9. What a great analogy between your experience and the experience of our kids in general. What an opportunity for you to raise awareness through this personal example.

  10. Well done. And you played viola? Really? Me too. 🙂 It was a passion for many years, but I burned out. I still have mine… in my bedroom closet. Keep meaning to bring it out, but there’s never time, and on the occasions when I have it sounds so awful! I used to make it sound beautiful…

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