Uncooperative Students

Laura said: Jun 9, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

What tricks do you guys have in your arsenal in immediate response to students who are not only reluctant and unwilling to cooperate, but actually lash back.

Some examples:

“Stop talking while I’m playing, you’re making me make mistakes!” (Which is not true—we are working on this part BECAUSE of the mistakes, and I give verbal signposts to avoid the mistake as the tricky spot approaches. Same mistake is made when I then discuss it before the playing starts instead of during.)

“I can’t DO that!!!” as another form of saying “I WON’T do that”, even before trying for the first time. This is regardless of how simply I present the task—even 1-2 notes slowly (for mid-Book 1 to Book 2 students)

“I’m not doing that again” (in a deliberate pouty manner, not a reluctant/hestitant one) after trying once and not quite getting it.

“But I don’t WANT to play it that way” (over a point that is a matter of technical correctness and is NOT open to interpretation)

General age category: second to fourth grade.

I do not tolerate rude and disrespectful behavior in my studio, and address it very firmly as required. But in general I try my utmost to be supportive, positive and encouraging. My general communication style while teaching is not simply to dictate things my way, but to always consider what may be in the student’s mind and feelings before I say or do anything. I obviously have my weaknesses, but let’s just say that I have the insight and experience to turn many situations around—for example, when a student is crying and shuts down for one reason or another, they are usally back to smiling and happily playing soon enough.

I therefore do not believe that my words and/or body language are causing these responses—which, fortunately, is limited to only a very small handful of my students. The compassionate and understanding Suzuki teacher in me is striving to uncover any other possible explanations behind this kind of behavior. But with one student in particular, I suspect there is a bit of “princess complex” involved. And I must say that this time I am stuck!

The parents are aware, and deal with it as best they can. I’m sure these things don’t disappear overnight. But what I’m looking for are some ideas for the next thing to say, immediately after hearing statements from the student like the above examples.

Advice, anyone?

Deanna said: Jun 11, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
90 posts

It sounds like those particular students don’t respect your authority. I feel very underqualified (I’ve only been teaching 4 years) to give advice or ideas but I’m going through something similar with a couple students who simply refuse to try anything new in their lesson—especially posture-wise. They aren’t openly disrespectful or rude though.

This is just an idea… I find students do the best and make the most progress when they can hear the difference a certain technical or postural point makes in the sound. For example if they can hear the difference in tone between playing on the highway (violin) and not they are more likely to play on the highway because they recognize it sounds better, rather than because I said so.

So when these students do give you a statement about not wanting to try or they want to do it their way—play it both ways or get them to and ask them to be honest about which sounds better, feels better, is more effecient, etc… If they are too belligerent to be honest. Well then you have to address the issue of your authority…

Asking why they’re taking lessons, if they want to learn the instrument, maybe even switch roles—let them be the teacher and you act two ways—how they are treating you, and then how you would like them to treat you, ask THEM which one works better. I find that usually works quite well as most students KNOW the right way to do things even if they don’t do it themselves.

And if none of that works… addressing their behaviour as rude and disrespectful. They need to know that it is. Use the words “rude and disrespectful” and let them know that that is not an acceptable way to treat people. If they aren’t willing to listen to you and try the ideas you put to them well then you aren’t going to teach them. Talk to the parent or teach the parent instead or even just let them listen to you practice until they’re ready to try again.

Power struggles are so hard! Good luck!

Jennifer Visick said: Jun 11, 2009
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

Not having met the student, it’s hard to say what I would do. But here are my thoughts:

  1. I would have a parent-teacher conference about the issue, if it is ongoing for more than two weeks in a row. Find out how the parent deals with this kind of response in other areas, and during home practice as well.

  2. I might ask directly why the student is not obeying me, with the express purpose of somehow bringing out the following answer: because the student does not trust me, and thinks they know better than I know. I have occasionally gone through a question and answer lecture during a student’s lesson to find out what the student thinks teachers are for, and if the student thinks teachers are necessary or useful for any subject, and what difference does a teacher make vs. a student teaching themselves.

“Stop talking while I’m playing, you’re making me make mistakes!”

I might devote a lesson to the challenge of playing while attending to something else.

“I can’t DO that!!!” as another form of saying “I WON’T do that”, even before trying for the first time. This is regardless of how simply I present the task—even 1-2 notes slowly (for mid-Book 1 to Book 2 students)

I might say “True—you can’t do that YET. But it’s my job to help you learn how to do things you couldn’t do before”. Or I might say “you could do it last week. What has changed?” OR I might say “you can do it, because I know what you are able to do. Please don’t lie to me. If you don’t want to do it, you are allowed to tell me that you don’t want to. But don’t tell me that you can’t.”

“I’m not doing that again” (in a deliberate pouty manner, not a reluctant/hestitant one) after trying once and not quite getting it.

I would probably give some sense of “You’re right. You shouldn’t do that same thing again. What needs to be changed?” OR I might go into the idea that in music, if you fail, you’re not supposed to “try, try again”—rather, it should be “if you fail, do something different. when you succeed, THEN try, try again”.

“But I don’t WANT to play it that way” (over a point that is a matter of technical correctness and is NOT open to interpretation)

I realize that you don’t want to. Why do you think I want you to do it this way? (This might elicit some variant of “because you’re trying to torture me”, but you can take that response and say “no, that’s not true. There is another reason. What do you think it is?” OR you could be slightly facetious/sarcastic (if the student can understand this sort of thing with a smile) and say “yes, of course I want to torture you. But that’s only a side benefit. There IS another reason. What do you think it is?”

I have recently taken to explaining that there are only two reasons to do any motion on a musical instrument. One is for your health (i.e. I don’t want to injure you now or in the future, and I don’t want to cause you to do more work than is necessary) and the other is for musical reasons (i.e. so the music sounds better). If the student can discern why a certain physical motion or position is necessary, they may be more inclined to do it.

Laura said: Jun 11, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Thanks for the great input! I have tried quite a number of those angles before, with limited success in anything that actually seems helpful or helps them “discover” what they should be doing. For example, if I use either the see-the-difference? approach, or start explaning about how something will be easier on them (in terms of technique or practice) or sound better musically, the response would be one of the following:

“Well, I don’t notice anything different.” (the difference was obvious, even exaggerated—impossible for them NOT to have noticed, they just don’t want to admit it)
“I don’t CARE about that.”
“It doesn’t seem better to ME.”
(indignantly) “I was already DOING that.” (no, they weren’t)
“Well, YOU can do it that way, then. I don’t want to.”

Irritating, huh? I continue to be taken aback by the amount of nerve that goes into voicing such thoughts.

I realize, after reading your responses, that the root cause must be a power struggle more than anything. They simply do not like being shown how to do something, nor do they like to be corrected in anything. Problems respecting my authority? Absolutely.

I have resorted to strong words (to point out how rude and uncooperative their behavior is), and have also used the question and answer approach (to discover why they need a teacher), but they just get all pouty and grumpy that I have burst their bubble. I’ve spoken directly to the parents, who appear to be trying their darndest, but things haven’t truly turned around yet.

Time for a Million Dollar Lesson, I think.

Gyula said: Jun 11, 2009
 5 posts

I don’t know if it would work or not, but perhaps a game of “Simon Says” is in order.

Or one of those “trust” games that they use in teambuilding seminars.

Sara said: Jun 12, 2009
191 posts

Are these students typically boys or girls or both?
There is a book called “Boys Adrift” that might offer some insight as to what could be making them behave this way.

“What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.” Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Laura said: Jun 13, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Unfortunately, I have tried Simon Says (or similar fun tactics) but once they are onto what seems to be going on, they get pouty and uncooperative again.

The students in question are both boys and girls, But the most challenging ones are girls.

Thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds interesting, and I will check it out!

Laurel said: Jun 13, 2009
Laurel MacCullochViolin
Langley, BC
120 posts

I find that it’s great if I can say “use low 2nd finger” or “keep your wrist straight” or “use more bow” or whatever—but those are still Me Telling Him/Her What To Do, which can lead to the digging-in of heels.

So instead I tend to “personalize” body parts. I will say something like “Finger 1 is out of her space!” which tends to work better. Or, “Bow arm is being naughty, make him behave.” Or, “You are the boss of First Finger, put her back”. Or, for younger students, “Does violin hand need a time-out?” In all of these, it at least sounds like the student is in charge, and thereby seems to sidestep the idea of them not wanting to play a certain way or whatever.

Also, sometimes I’ll give them a whole list of what they did right, before I give them a teensy suggestion of what to correct. You know, “that was a big tone, your bow was right on the highway, you stood nice and straight, you really remember the notes very well, fingers were nicely placed”—whatever is appropriate.
If they don’t like to be shown, might they be up for a challenge of “can you sound just like the CD?” and then give them “cheat codes”—i.e., if you use low 2nd finger every time, it’ll be just like the CD”.

Anyway, hope this helps! good luck!


Kay Taylor said: Jun 22, 2009
Kay TaylorPiano
Vancouver, WA
5 posts

Try a lesson with minimal talking. Put on a timer and then: —demostrate, ask student to play, demonstrate
I put M&M’s or Cereal pieces (ask parents first) in a small bowl. Each time the student plays the way I requested, they are rewarded with the candy or nut i put in their bowl. Sometimes, there is no more need for correction after this “game”. I’ve used it at 3 lessons in a row with student and no more correcting needed on that particular problem. :D

Jentry said: Jul 28, 2009
Jentry Barrett
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Lincoln, NE
4 posts

What if you tried rewarding them everytime they cooroportated with you? Everytime you give an instruction and they follow it without a snide comment they get a poker chip. For every five (you may need to start small like two or three the first time you try this) poker chips they get a trinket from a box or a one minute break or you play a game that doesn’t have to do with the violin, or they get to go get a drink. You get the idea. Make sure that you explain the rules and regulations before you start the program. They need to make choices about how they behave, and this rewards them for making the better choice.

The reward has to be something that they want, but is easily controlled by you. If they get a one minute break set a timer so they can see that the timer said they were done, not you. If they then come right back to the lesson after the reward they get another chip. If they make a comment or throw a fit don’t take the chips away, just remind them that they could’ve earned one if they hadn’t said something. This is something that you can eventually phase out. The next week they may need to earn 6 chips to earn the reward then the next week even more.

Eventually things will get easier. Have the parents do this process at home during practice because I have a feeling if it’s happening at lesson, it’s happening in the home practice as well. The child might treat their parents like this, so they feel they can treat you like this. Just remember above all that the child really does want your attention and praise, even though it doesn’t seem like it right now.

Good luck!

said: Aug 22, 2009
 0 posts

I was wondering if you have tried switching roles on a private, one-on-one basis with each of the “difficult” students? So you tell young Susie that this time, SHE’S going to be the teacher, and you’re going to be the student. He/she might find this really fun. You could even tell them to pretend to be YOU, and you’ll pretend to be THEM. It might give you some insight into how they see you, how they feel you teach, your tone of voice, etc. Then if you act “difficult” they might just find it funny, or better yet, they might realize how hard of a job teaching can be. I don’t know. It was just a thought.

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