I fired another student a week or so ago. Basically, he was a very nice gentleman who systematically refused to do anything I asked him to do. In over a year of lessons, he progressed less than any other student I have had, including the ones who hated the cello, the ones who practiced only once a week, and even the ones who had traumatic brain injuries and technically no memory of the lessons or their practice.

The difference? At some point- in fact especially the students with TBI- they practiced in the manner prescribed. You don’t need to do anything cerebral or clever to make huge strides on the cello. You need to practice the things you are not good at, routinely. The brain injured are some of my favorite students for this reason. They illustrate in no uncertain terms how a moment by moment approach finds its way into your fingers. I know enough about neuroscience to understand that this practice doesn’t bypass the brain altogether, but instead has to wiggle its way into long term memory and the more automated side of things. Studying unusual brains informs us about the way other brains work, and this knowledge shapes the way I teach. Each lesson is a series of assessments and results in a customized curriculum designed to plug the holes detected by the assessments. After a year of painstakingly crafting prescriptions for success, I just couldn’t keep throwing good energy after bad with this guy. Realize that even very good lessons leave me drained. I’m actually something of a closet introvert, if you can believe it. You can just hear the swirling siphon of energy during a lesson after weeks of no real practice. I come upstairs, muster some cheer as I watch them drive off and then collapse on the couch with Futurama and bourbon, Bulleit, if it’s handy.

Students like this are a killer for me. It’s like playing catch with someone who doesn’t ever throw the ball back, but is obsessed with winning the game. The idea of being good at the cello is appealing, but there is no way they are willing to do what it takes to actually get there.

I’ve been considering drastically reducing my studio of late. I’m so tired of flogging clients for payment and dealing with people who think this is some hobby I’ve picked up for spending money. It’s hard to look for jobs after more than 10 years of self employment. My resume is….idiosyncratic. I will always be a cellist, and always a teacher. But to tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s a viable way to make a living any more. Same goes for teaching at the community college. We tell every student that education is the key to success, but pay adjuncts (who do the lion’s share of teaching) poverty-line wages while encouraging terminal degrees so graduates can…get positions as adjuncts. It’s true that my master’s from Hopkins got me my adjunct positions. To repay the tuition and subsequent loan debt accrued, I would have to teach nearly full time for 9 years (with no expenses) at the rate I am currently being paid. I say nearly because teaching full time is not something that adjuncts are allowed to do. We are expendable, interchangeable.

If I am expendable and interchangeable, I have to find some kind of employment that has a different system of reward for effort. Even saying this sounds like urban legend to me. When I hear about friends with paid vacations and snow days- employers that fund enrichment courses, reimburse travel charges, pay for health plans and set aside 401k investments, it boggles my mind. Their job stops when they leave. They get severance pay! Pensions! Rewards for finding other people to work for their companies! My employer wants to go on a ski holiday and I don’t get to work. My employer says I have to grade 1800 pages (2 classes) of writing over a 4 month period but I don’t get benefits or a guarantee of employment next semester. My employer terminates me with no notice.

When I lived in a town comprised of freelancers, the sheer number of clients insulated me from too much harm. In DC, a town of contractors and people on three-year stints, things are more stark. I am suspect because I do not play in the symphony. Inferior because I am not at a conservatory. A threat to those who would otherwise be colleagues. So I consider what I find enjoyable, what I might contribute to an employer, how best to minimize the damage to my soul. I am doing the best I can to avoid making this an identity crisis, but instead an extended stressful event in an otherwise pleasant and fortunate life. I think if I am successful in this, the few students I do teach may benefit from the kind of outlook the person who originally began this blog held dear: someone who loves every moment with the cello and cannot believe their luck to have had the majority of their life spent immersed in matters transcendental, wonderful, almost too tender to even bear.




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5 Responses

  1. I’m sorry you’re feeling discouraged. Regardless of what you decide to do about teaching, I hope you know you are tremendously gifted at it. I have been so encouraged by your blog and your book. I have never had enough skill to follow my dream of playing cello in a symphony, but I’ve been reminded by things you’ve said over the years that that DOESN’T mean I’m not a real cellist or that I should be ashamed of how I play. You’ve really helped me hang on to the joy of this instrument despite personal career disappointments. You are a gem!

  2. Your posts often make me consider topics in a new light, and I have enjoyed your writing, but this one caused me actually to gasp in recognition.

    I have some of those students – the nice, northern-Virginia middle-class children of U.S. government employees who have been brought up to believe we’re the hired help and that our subjects (orchestra and music history, in my case) are not academic or “real.” My students want to play well (and some are beyond wonderful), but for many, it’s lip-service only; they want it until it comes to having to spend time on the instrument. If we can’t cover it in class, it won’t ever be practiced at home. They’re difficult to inspire.

    I love the analogy of playing catch. That’s just perfect. I wish I had thought of it.

  3. What about teaching in the public schools? You are too passionate a teacher to lose. The schools would provide health insurance and a steady income which can be augmented with private students and gigs. String programs have teacher shortages, from the data I found.

    1. I am not in the business of teaching in the public schools- and I mean that with reverence for those who are. I don’t conduct (I can stand up front and beat time like a giant metronome, that’s about it) or have a license to teach in the system, and I would be entry level in terms of pay grade and benefits- a lateral move in terms of income. After the past few years, I really don’t want to throw any more energy into the void. When this school year ends, I will maintain a small studio of reliable students and low-key gigs, but for the time being, I am done with this part of my career as the prime source of income. You gotta know when to fold ’em, right?

  4. You know, I just “fired” a student for the first time recently. Similar situation. I doubt he’ll find luck with any other teacher as I gave the kid (and his mother!) a bunch of chances.

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