We’ve all been there: stuck sitting next to some kid at dinner, doing your best to appear kind and attentive, maybe even striking up a little conversation to pass the time. Inevitably, the kid will do something naughty like say something unkind, kick a sibling under the table, perhaps make a scale model of Mt. Kilimanjaro with the remnants of a nice meal. The parents will be so happy to have another adult minding their kid that you will either have to deal with it or, like me, you’ll be charged with stopping the offending behavior.
“Please don’t throw blueberry cobbler on my shirt.”
“Because it’s not polite, and I don’t like it.”
“Because this is Prada. Can you say Prada? Praaah-daaah.”
One of the liabilities that comes with teaching adults is that some feel like they need to know why I’m asking them to do things. On the surface, it seems like an innocent quest for knowledge, when in fact it’s a fairly transparent way to articulate resistance to change.
“Why do this Galamian pattern?” (v. popular in recent weeks)
“Why martelé?” (also on the Greatest Hits list)
“Why metronome?” (*insane cackling*)
I can’t blame my adult students for not having been brought up in the culture of lesson etiquette, and in fact I sympathize. Although it would have been unspeakably rude to ask why a particular method was being applied to my practice, I certainly groaned and questioned it loudly and frequently in my head when I was a student. And even that small inner resistance crippled my progress and tested the patience of the list of impressive names who attempted to penetrate my thick skull. What wasted time! As if my dotted rhythm would have been snappier or my left hand more flexible had I voiced my complaints!
I offer explanations for nearly every technical adjustment and habit I ask my students to cultivate. I offer it without being asked. But in the end, I can always tell who is going to show improvement in a week and who will come back, mysteriously ailing from a lack of comprehension, even though they are clearly smarter than I am, and probably could be a finer cellist with better practice.
It’s always the students who practice questioning the approach as opposed to simply practicing the approach who flounder. Always. Perhaps it is because they want to see the method behind the madness. Perhaps they don’t trust me because I have an exuberant teaching style. For many, it’s just a part of their personality; a defense mechanism. Regardless of the reason, I now have 15 years of personal experience with this phenomenon, and have yet to see someone who is an exception to the rule.
This is not a college class where you will gain the respect of corduroy†-wearing people with a barrage of challenges to the professor’s point of view. We know you’re clever, and it’s irrelevant. Save it for the crossword and Jeopardy. If brains were the deciding factor in instrumental success, it would be a very different kind of industry! (and not necessarily for the better) Realize also that good teachers are constantly working just as hard as you are (frustrations and all) to adapt to your needs. Our goal is the same as yours: to make the cello easier, more manageable, more natural, more fun. After all, that’s why we’ve stuck with it all these years. We’ve been exactly where you are, no matter where you are in your progress. Every teacher had a first week. A first shift. A thousand missed clef changes, a million coordination problems. We overcame those obstacles by enthusiastically dining on our teachers’ advice, improving because we repeated the task, not because we understood or appreciated the rationale behind it.
Despite my mock-surliness in this post, I truthfully maintain near infinite patience with students, even those who question me on a constant basis, although I do not humor them with answers every time. What’s funny is that the answer to every question, every grumble, is provided not once, but twice. Pay attention in your lessons. Remember what was going on right before the new technique (or whathaveyou) was introduced. That is your answer. That problem is why something needs to change. What you do with it is up to you, but you still have your answer. If you practice with the correction implicitly in mind, you will again be provided with the answer. If you resist the correction and practice instead with the question (why exactly am I doing this?) in mind, the result tends to be muted; masked by halfhearted change and frustration.
I’ll leave you with this. After every lesson except the very first one, your teacher can only shape what you bring to each successive lesson as a result of practice and retention of concepts introduced during instruction. The very best thing you can bring to a lesson is trust.
Trust that your teacher has your best interest in mind.
Trust in the face-value of the tasks at hand.
Trust that you are capable of being a magnificent cellist.
Trust the process.
Trust that you are not an exception.
† A fabric I happen to enjoy. Though I’m always afraid that I’m going to start a fire with my legs if I run whilst wearing cord pants.