student who says “I don’t want to”

Elizabeth said: Oct 8, 2010
1 posts

I’m a new teacher (3 months, plus Units 1-3 of training and ECC), and am having trouble reaching a new student, a 4-year old girl I’ve worked with for about a month. This student began lessons after visiting my class, observing some of a lesson, and spending time meeting me and “getting acquainted” with a violin. At that time, she wasn’t 100% sure that she wanted to start lessons, but she was definitely curious, and made comments about liking the way the violin looked and sounded. When I first met her, she gave the impression of being very shy—she wouldn’t really talk to me, and mostly spoke through Mom, lots of whispering in Mom’s ear, etc. In our lessons now, shyness doesn’t seem to be a problem. She is perfectly happy to talk with me about anything, as long as it doesn’t involve the violin or music, and has even asked that her parent’s not come in to her lessons. The problem is, when she comes to lessons, she tells me that she doesn’t like the violin, doesn’t want to play the violin, and hates to practice. When I try to talk to her about why she doesn’t like the violin—does she not like how it sounds, does she feel frustrated when she practices, is it hard learning a new skill—she can’t or won’t be more specific. I’ve tried to emphasize that violin is hard work, and that it can be frustrating to learn something new, but that she will enjoy playing music once we’ve learned the basics (bow hold, violin hold, etc.) and that it’s ok that it takes time to learn a new skill. She says that her dad says the same thing, and that she doesn’t believe it. I try as much as possible to make our lessons on basic violin technique as fun and game-like as possible—balancing paper cups on our bows, having her be the “teacher” during lessons, and giving her opportunities to move around the classroom so that she doesn’t feel antsy. At most of our lessons though, she refuses to do any of the activities I suggest: she says “No”, or “I don’t want to”. I’ve asked her if she can think of anything we could do in our lessons that would make them more fun, and she said that she just likes to talk (as long as it doesn’t involve music). At this point, her dad and I are both feeling frustrated. I’ve tried to suggest ways of practicing at home that might make it more fun (coloring or putting together a puzzle while practicing, so that she doesn’t have to focus on the violin for too long at a time, etc.), but she doesn’t like any of my suggestions. I tried giving her dad a lesson once when she refused to cooperate, offering opportunities for her to work with us (can you correct your dad’s bow hold?), but she didn’t seem any more inclined to work with me if he was involved. As our lessons are prepaid and taking place in a music school that is not strictly Suzuki-based, I feel like I don’t have too many options as far as suggesting that we start by just teaching her dad, and then involve her as her interest grows, or postpone lessons until she begins to show more interest. If anyone has any ideas for how I can approach this situation differently, or how to help her to open up about why she doesn’t like the violin, I would really appreciate them. I’m beginning to feel manipulated—I get the sense that she really likes having the power to say “no” to violin and be in control of this situation.

Jennifer Visick said: Oct 9, 2010
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts
  1. Would the music school have a violent objection to you teaching the father for a couple of months while the child observes or plays quietly by herself? A child who does not speak at first is still learning language by exposure to it. So long as the parents are on board with this philosophical teaching point, there shouldn’t be a problem with this.

Also, is there a group class or another student whom you could partner her lesson with?

  1. If she likes to talk to you, perhaps you could use non-musical conversation as a reward—reserve some time at the end of the lesson to talk, and tell her that if she “passes” (that is, if she show that she’s trying to do) the thing you’re asking for in the next 3 violin or music games, then we can finish the lesson early and talk. And then don’t engage her in conversation until she “passes”.

  2. She doesn’t have to believe you NOW that hard work pays off in the end, but she’ll never believe it if she’s never pushed (not just encouraged, but given multiple examples of, and yes, even forced) to work hard and SEE that what she was told is actually true. So long as the parents are on board with what you’re teaching, you don’t really have to be concerned if she “likes” it or is “happy” at every lesson. One of the advantages of teaching violin is that it IS difficult for almost everyone, but so is learning a language—yet everyone does it anyways.

Your job is not to entertain her, nor is it to make her happy or even to get her to have fun (although that’s a nice side benefit of making practicing into “games” or “challenges”). You are not her friend first (nor are her parents primarily her friends, although that may change after she becomes an adult)—friendship and amusement CAN be left by the wayside right now if they are not helping you to do your job with her. Your job is to give her the opportunity to become a better person (and enrich her life) through exposing her to the discipline of learning a musical instrument.

Laura said: Oct 9, 2010
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

This is a common enough problem, I believe. However, there are so many factors involved that I would hesitate to offer any real advice without knowing your student, her father, and even you more personally.

In the big picture, however, 4 years old is still so young that I wouldn’t take the “I don’t like violin” type statements too seriously. In fact, if you ask any older player who began at age 3 or 4, it is more likely that they don’t even remember what things were like when they first started out. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve been playing their whole lives.

In the beginning, there can be a huge hump to get over. Please don’t lose heart. It sounds like your little student does feel very positive and comfortable around you as a teacher, or else she would clam up completely instead of wanting to talk to you continuously for half an hour! Invest in this relationship, as this is what will be one of the biggest factors in turning things around eventually. I agree with Rainejen, though, in that at some point she has to begin recognizing and responding to your authority as a teacher. It’s a fine balance isn’t it?

It is entirely possible that a “Little Princess” situation exists. Have you tried asking Dad about how they usually handle situations in which she objects to something that isn’t an option?

I also hope that the school will be flexible enough to allow you a few more options.

In the meantime, a few tricks I’ve used in the past for negative students (which may or may not work in your case, but for whatever it’s worth):

  • I allow them a limited number of no’s per lesson. Say 3 or 5—depending on what I think would work for the student. It’s either a verbal agreement, or I write out little “no” coupons that they are free to “spend” during the lesson. Once they are used up, they cannot say “no” anymore. This allows them to retain a sense of control and choice, while limiting their overall behavior. Of course, I also discuss with them how to make choices in spending their no’s. Sometimes I even challenge them, “Are you SURE you want to use up a no on this little thing? I’m sure if you did it, you might find something better to say no to later on…!”—at which point they can become remarkably compliant! As time goes on, the number of allowed no’s decrease, until they disappear altogether.

  • I spend the time simply playing for them, with the only requirement being that they sit nicely and listen politely (i.e. “since we are here together until the end of lesson time”…) I don’t necessarily stick to Suzuki repertoire—in fact, I might choose something much more advanced, just to help them realize what this instrument can do. Over time, they eventually choose to try things for themselves.

Sara said: Oct 9, 2010
191 posts

Purple tulips and rainjen had some great things to say!
Sometimes when my students have told me they don’t want to, I respond with “you don’t have to want to do it, you just need to do it.”
Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I would say it has worked more times than not though.

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

Ruth Brons said: Oct 10, 2010
Ruth Brons
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Livingston, NJ
148 posts

ead1123, please be assured by the excellent comments/advice already posted that this is not an unusual situation.

In addition to the advice already offered, I can point out two major objectives that need to be accomplished before significant progress can occur with a new student—especially a young student with wonderful avoidance skills—are:

—Student must come to trust that the teacher will never ask the student to to do anything impossible.
Substitute daunting words like “hard” and “long term” with words like “easy” and “now we’ll do”

—A very specific and realistic home practice routine must be established and rewarded/celebrated
I am very big on practice charts, but whatever system you choose should be very clear. It is okay to spend chunks of early lessons talking about what specifically is going to happen at home. It’s better to ask for too little each day at first, just to make sure the student establishes a daily routine.

Best Wishes,

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