Student refuses to play

Alex-Anne said: Nov 21, 2014
Alex-Anne Troxel
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Jackson, MO
5 posts

This is my first post on the SAA website, although I’ve been reading others and gathering such valuable information from other questions, I figured I would just go ahead and ask my own and hopefully get some help!

Recently I have had some behavioral issues with a once very promising young student. This fall marked our third year working together (He is 7 turning 8 in January.) He is a very bright kid, once very motivated, and always practiced diligently. He is in the beginning of Book 2. His mother, the primary Suzuki parent, has also always been very supportive in the past, taking him to live performances often and they always went to Suzuki Institutes in the summer.

However, starting this fall, my once very eager and sweet student has disappeared, replaced by a sullen and resentful little boy. Out of 12 lessons so far this semester, they have attended only 7, with 3 of the attended lessons being completely wasteful because he refused to play anything. I’ve tried games, I’ve tried guilt, I’ve tried ignoring the crying and just carrying on with the lesson, teaching the parent. Nothing seems to work!

Every time I try to discuss the bizarre attitude change of the child with his mother, she always has an excuse, i.e. He’s so tired after school, He’s upset because he has so much homework tonight, I think he’s coming down with something, etc. She is also the type of parent that will always spin it back onto me, “Well he used to have so much fun in his lessons, what are you doing different?”…..

The problem really came to a head this week in the lesson (to which they arrived 15 minutes late-to a thirty minute lesson!) when the mother asked me about signing up for our Academy Christmas recital… in 3 weeks! In my studio, while all the children participate in the group recital, solo recitals are a privilege, a reward for good practice and perfect lesson attendance. He hasn’t earned it! Furthermore, for him to perform at a sub par level would set a bad example for my other students and wouldn’t be a good experience for him anyway….And as I’m thinking now, might be the nail in the coffin to just make him quit altogether.

I’m seeking any and all advice on how to get this student out of this rut and back to his old self. Also, any help on how to better communicate with the parent would also be greatly appreciated. Thank you!!!

Alex-Anne Troxel

Heather Figi said: Nov 21, 2014
Heather FigiViolin
Eugene, OR
97 posts

I am very sorry to hear about this sudden negative shift for your student.

I fearfully sense that there has been something traumatic and/or disruptive happening in this child’s homelife. The inconsistent attendance and sudden character shift are telltale signs.

Hopefully this is not the case!!!

Please private message me if you would like any resources.

Alexandra said: Nov 21, 2014
Alexandra Jacques
Suzuki Association Member
Mesa, AZ
35 posts

I feel for you, this sounds like a tough situation, and must be especially frustrating that the mother is not as supportive and making excuses for him. I agree with Heather that something has changed in his home life, this is the first thing I thought when I read your post. Perhaps he is overwhelmed by school or over-scheduled with other activities. What are their reasons for missing lessons and arriving late?

Next time he arrives to a lesson in a bad mood, if possible, try to talk to him about what he’s feeling without his mother giving reasons. Lately, I’ve realized I get a better response from students when I allow them to voice what is bothering them (and causing their behavior), and empathize with them. Using guilt makes them more upset or unwilling to listen at all, and ignoring it when they’re upset is denying their feelings. If you can get him to say what’s wrong, work together to brainstorm ideas to make the most out of his lesson time. If you haven’t already, check out the book How to Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It’s geared towards school teachers, but it can definitely be applied to what we do as well.

Some changes need to happen on the parents’ part, but talking to parents is something I have a hard time with as well… I’ll be following this post to hear others’ advice, because I could use it as well! I would have a hard time finding the right words to tell her why her son shouldn’t be playing at the recital. I’d also want her to know that inconsistent lesson attendance isn’t helping his behavior, but it’s hard for me to say these kinds of things to parents without feeling like I’m a 20-something with no kids giving parenting advice. Haha! However, if there is something traumatic happening in his home life, as Heather suggested, it could be that his mother doesn’t feel comfortable discussing it.

Good luck, I hope the situation improves!

G said: Nov 22, 2014
G Ordun
Suzuki Association Member
Vienna, VA
21 posts

So Sorry.
Something huge must be going on and there is probably little that you can do.
But if you can, stick with him.
Let the music slide a bit and just be a loving support.

I recommend speaking to the Mom outside the lesson, in person if at all possible. Let her know that you recognize something is happening. You don’t want to pry; but neither can you pretend that lessons are going well.

Do not listen if she tries to pass it off as tired/homework. Missing over half of their lessons—with no explanation—is a very big deal. Yes, the sullenness and crying are also; but attendance is an objective issue, which can minimize defensiveness.

Ask for her support in scaling back expectations. She will probably not respond well; but it will at least give her the chance to not be surprised when you have that conversation with the student.

Let him know that you will always be honest with him and you both know that he needs a break from solo recitals (maybe even the regular recital). Let him know that you are there, ready to listen, whether he will play or talk. And then be there.

Hope things turn around for him soon …

Barbara Stafford said: Nov 22, 2014
Barbara Stafford
Suzuki Association Member
Plano, TX
59 posts

When you talk to the mother alone, you might also ask if the child is having any bad educational experiences that are leaking out and having a bad impact on his feelings toward himself at the violin lesson. (Although, it sounds like she is not a very open woman since she has not already told you. And maybe she is not honest because it seems ridiculous that she has turned this around on you at least once. Although she might have just done that out of frustration and obliviousness.

Although I do think it is plausible that he could be spending so much time to survive in a tough academic situation that he might not be finding time to practice and is not feeling successful at it. I do agree with adjusting expectations at that point. Although you might be a Suzuki teacher in an institution that expects Suzuki music, I see nothing wrong with changing current materials, to keep him learning while stepping aside on the steep slope that I believe the Suzuki approach is. He could do review pieces he knows with the group classes. And then be doing reading songs from books at equivalent level to the books he has already achieved— maybe book 1 & 2 level???? Anything that will give him a feeling of success.

This would be a situation where a teacher might be willing to donate some free consultation time to the mother. I normally don’t like to give away too much “for free” but this would be an exception. I often communicate with email to parents, and especially when I am feeling concerned. It can end up time-consuming and mentally or emotionally taxing, but sometimes written word gives you the time to be very careful about selecting non-accusatory and caring word choices while still offering your perspective of a way forward that might be helpful.

At this point in time, I don’t believe in using guilt. I know I have also tried it. And I have experienced it as a student as well. In those settings I know what was going on. It is the pressure to “get results” either for a teacher’s own ego, to prove their own value as a teacher, or for the institution’s reputation. I don’t believe it is an approach that is in line with “love” or keeping the best interest of the child in mind. If I recognize my student is ever feeling bad in reaction to something I have said, I have learned to apologize and take responsibility for maintaining a healthy learning environment for them. I am not here to force an accomplishment, I am here to assist development. And I deeply believe this teaching is about more than just the surface result of playing the violin very well.

Take Care and let us know how this shakes out if you feel comfortable sharing.

Alex-Anne said: Nov 28, 2014
Alex-Anne Troxel
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Jackson, MO
5 posts

Huge thanks to everyone who contributed to helping me with this issue! Your advice has been very helpful.

I had to turn a little secret agent-y, but finally after calling and talking with the music teacher at his elementary school, I have found out my student’s parents are in the middle of a divorce. Everything really came together then. Unfortunately, knowing that this is probably the catalyst to his behavior makes things even more frustrating as this is not something I can just make go away, or change.

Given the holiday break, we haven’t yet had another private lesson. In his last lesson we were able to read through a cute duet arrangement of We Three Kings. He loves chamber music, and I figure if he really wants to perform I will allow him to participate in the recital. I figure on the flip side, maybe having a fun, non stressful recital experience would help reawaken his passion for music and the violin.

I’m definitely going to try talking directly to the student about his emotions next time he is difficult. I have used this approach before, but the child just wailed louder and the mother continued to answer for him. Its worth another shot though, I suppose if for nothing else so that the student can know I am genuinely concerned.

Thanks especially those who called me out on my “guilt” technique, your words were quite beneficial. I’ve had one primary instructor throughout my entire string career thus far, and his keystone method was guilt, with some doubtful attitude thrown in. (I.E.”Well I hope your cousin’s wedding was worth it, you certainly could have used the practice time” and the ever-famous “Well this piece is certainly too difficult for you.”) May sound a bit harsh, but it always worked like a charm on me! But I realize now that it can certainly backfire when a student is already has something traumatic happening. :(

In closing, if anyone has any supplemental advice on how to
a) Discuss with the parent how to let the student communicate with me
b) Calm down the student and save at least part of the lesson when this inevitably happens again. I want him to feel like his violin lesson is a safe haven, not just another place to be unhappy.

So blessed to have this forum as a resource. :) Thanks again everyone!

Alex-Anne Troxel

Margaret Parkin said: Nov 29, 2014
Margaret ParkinViolin, Viola
6 posts

I have had several situations similar to this in my studio. In fact while reading your initial entry, my first thought was ‘are the parents going through a divorce’. This student’s world is being blown apart and without question this is going to affect both lessons and his progress. You are an important and consistent part of this child’s life and I would encourage you to continue lessons at all cost. This will not be a ‘productive’ year in terms of progress through the repertoire or building playing skills. It will, however, provide a constant, safe, and positive space for this student to exist in. That is an invaluable support both to him and his mother. An honest, one-to-one converstion with the parent would be a big help. Proceed gently as she is also suffering (worry, guilt, grief, denial, hurt…..) but she may also welcome your support and concern. Asking open questions is a good way to get people talking without you or them feeling that you are prying. As for calming the student, the most important thing for him to know right now is that you care about him and are not going anywhere. A drink of water and some deep breaths are also really useful in the midst of crisis. And if the lesson ends early because he is ‘finished’ for that day, make sure he knows you’ll look forward to seeing him next time. Ed Sprunger’s ‘Helping Parents Practice’ has a lot of information about child development in it’s opening chapters, I have found that invaluable both as Suzuki teacher and parent! Take care and hang in there!

Margaret Parkin

Emmy said: Dec 4, 2014
 9 posts

My friend’s daughter was in the same studio with my daughter studying piano and my friend went through divorce. Another thing that made studying instrument difficult for her daughter (in addition to emotional distress) was that her daughter was not able to practice when she had to be with her father (shared custody). It really disrupts kids schedule and also when they miss days to practice, kids naturally lose confidence, and therefore, they don’t want to show up for lesson and get more frustrated with their studying of instruments. At the end, her daughter quit because of that. It was so sad because her daughter was really gifted with music, and the type of girl who was able to express their emotion through music. Maybe you can help them figure out ways for him to practice when he is away from his mother or just even find out what is going on with their living situation etc…when I read this post, it totally brought me back those time that my friend’s daughter had to go through and I really really hope the best for this child.

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