How can I help this student?

Jennifer said: Jan 14, 2007
 7 posts

I have a 5 yr old Suzuki piano student who has been with me for about 6 months. She started out fine enough, learning her Twinkles. Then somehow along the way, she became very opposed to playing. Sometimes the parent would be unable to even get her to come to the lesson. When she finally did appear for a lesson after a long absence, I spent the time playing music games with her just to coax her to the piano.

She’s coming to the piano these days, but whenever I ask to to do something, she always vigorously shakes her head and says she can’t do it. It takes much coaxing and time and encouragement to get her to do anything. I asked her to play me a C scale, and she did it, but she looked down and kept a hand over her eyes!—as if she didn’t want to see herself doing it. Even asking her to bow at the lesson is a struggle….one time she just laid down on the floor and refused to cooperate for a good few minutes.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. Somewhere along the line something obviously happened, but I don’t know what. Her parents say her constant negative head shakes are a knee-jerk reaction with her and that it is something they are trying to correct. Her older sibling is studying successfully with me, and sometimes she will stand behind us to watch….suggesting there is an interest. I don’t know enough child psychology to get behind what’s going on here. Any thoughts?

Laura said: Jan 15, 2007
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Thanks for breaking the ice… I’m positive that every teacher has had at least one kid like that!

I can definitely say that I have one just like that, although to a lesser degree. This one is just more uncooperative and silly, and doesn’t seem to have any extreme hang-ups, but we end up accomplishing very little during our lessons. Meanwhile I can feel the mom’s blood pressure rising from across the room and I’m positive she’s ready to throw in the towel soon.

I’ve had more difficult kids before, but everything has managed to turn around after fishing for the right approach. With this kid, it seems to be going downhill as time progresses. I’m scratching my head.

I’d be interested to hear what others have to say from their experiences.

Lynn said: Jan 15, 2007
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
173 posts

Have you had a conversation with Mom outside of the lesson, no kids present, where you can speak candidly about what is taking place both at the lessons and practice?

You are right, you are not a child psychologist, and while you may have insight and a bag of tricks based on your experience, there are limits. In addition, what you don’t say is whether you have any more than a shapshot picture of what is going on during practice at home.

The conference with Mom would include:

What behavior is taking place at home and during the lesson
Anything the student has said about lessons, practice, you, and playing the piano in general
Whether she behaves similarly in other circumstances—not just the head shake, but the whole range. Does she go to school? How has this been handled elsewhere?
What does Mom think is going on?
If Mom is a stumped as you are, is she comfortable with you taking what is essentially a trial and error approach to finding the way to work with her in lessons?
Could she accept that, at least for now, lessons will not be about learning piano, but developing the willingness/ability to participate in an instructional situation?

The last two are particularly important for you. If Mom feels that her time and money are wasted if there is not a “productive lesson”, and she is hoping or expecting that you will resolve this, then in addition to trying to work with the child, there is the added pressure of trying to generate an outcome that will satisfy Mom, either at the current lesson, or in relatively short order. If you don’t think you can meet that expectation, you need to be candid about it so that Mom can decide what “works” for her.

If Mom can hold a longer view and is comfortable with allowing you to focus on working with her child without regards to specific piano outcome, that gives you a LOT more room to work with/focus on developing the kinds of behaviors, responses and interactions with you that you want. If you remove the “must play the piano because this is a piano lesson” imperative, you have removed a major source of resistance, and you can employ games and activities that don’t generate resistance to start to establish a pattern of positive and enjoyable interaction that would eventually lead to her being willing to work with you on piano. If she doesn’t want to do anything at all, just being happy to see her today while you go on to her sister’s lesson is a positive interaction.

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