When a small human being walks into the door for violin lessons, you never quite know what to expect, particularly if they are under the age of, say, six.
As a Suzuki violin teacher with nearly 30 years of experience, I've taught a lot of "first lessons" to youngsters. Occasionally a young child will display the calm of a Buddhist monk, stand where asked, and show interest in doing exactly what you tell them to do.
Okay I'm not entirely kidding. Children's personalities are as wide-ranging as adults', and occasionally they are naturally calm and compliant.
But more often, a small child is intensely curious, not yet a master of impulse control, and not quite sure about following a teacher's instructions. A very young new student might want to ask a thousand questions about things completely unrelated to violin lessons; to touch everything in the room; to barrel ahead with any task, without much attention to form or detail.
An objective onlooker might say, "Give up, right now!"
Believe it or not, the kid who is pinging off the walls, with his or her attention seemingly on everything except for the task at hand, has great promise.
As violin teacher Eloise Hellyer said recently in her excellent Violin Teachers Blog: "Obedience does not equal either intelligence or the lack of it." (By the way, Hellyer has written a book full of wisdom on teaching called 1 Teaches 2 Learn; it is well worth reading.)
From a teacher's perspective, it seems a lot easier to teach an "obedient" child. And for sure, a teacher needs a degree of compliance from a student to achieve anything at all.
But when it comes to the very young student, I have found that making room for their spontaneous curiosity and extra energy can pay off in the form of trust, mutual good faith and increased buy-in by the student.
For example, I was taken aback when a very young and exuberant student suddenly started galloping around the room while we were singing the "Do, Re, Mi" song. On the face of it, this looked quite literally like "horsing around." As it turned out, he was trying to act out the song. "Do, a deer -- I'm a deer!" he said brightly. I realized at this moment that he was actually 100 percent bought-in; this was not a form of rebellion against the task at hand. He was attempting to act out each degree of the scale. He had fully embraced the lesson, in his own way.
So it's very interesting: Those out-of-turn reactions or seemingly unrelated questions often wind up being relevant after all, and answering them can lead straight back into the lesson at hand.
Of course, as a teacher, you do need to have a "lesson at hand." And that's what makes all this improvising with very young students a real balancing act. In order to meet the mind of, say, a four-year-old, you need tremendous imagination and flexibility. But you aren't going to let the four-year-old run the show. So you also need about 500 tactics for getting back on track.
That said, a child will be much more willing to get back on track if they know that they were understood and that they won't be shut down every time they try to express what they are thinking.
Because, as a teacher, you really don't want to shut that down that natural curiosity and desire to communicate with you. The student wants to show that he can play the first line of the next piece, even though he's not ready? That's a desire to move forward and excel. A student seems to completely change the topic? That student is trying - awkwardly - to relate. A student points out that you are wrong about something, or that you contradicted yourself? That's someone who is paying attention to you.
Assume first that a child is acting in good faith with his or her efforts and sometimes-awkward communication. If there's truly a behavioral problem, then that's another topic. But if it's just a five-year-old acting like a five-year-old, go with it. With patience, attention, time and maturity, this can grow into a beneficial teacher-student relationship with strong communication, steady progress and continued enthusiasm for the task at hand: learning to play music.
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