I need your advice.

I have a teenage student who has not responded positively to any approach, though he is progressing as well as anyone who has a pulse and thrashes away at the instrument a few times a week. Part of the problem is attitude: he thinks he’s too cool. I ask him to listen to Shostakovich and he gives me, “Yeah, I kind of stopped listening because I got it already.” I suggest transcribing a rock song and his eyes roll back in his head. I cannot imagine ever doing anything like that to an instructor, though I did have moments of youthful arrogance that were perhaps more covert in expression but just as cringe-worthy in their ugliness.

The Emily of Olde with 40 students and a waiting list would have already sent him down to the minor leagues to study with an instructor who just needs experience. He’s not on a path that has music at the end of it, and certainly no cello. Maybe in time he’ll find the humility to bow his head and open his ears, but for now, I’m wondering what I can do to invest in him while I have him under my wing. His mother (an insightful, compelling and cosmopolitan woman) says he doesn’t get this kind of attention from any other teacher.

The facts:

1. He’s smart.

So he does things like memorize quickly and carelessly while remaining a little weak on academics and does not like bumping into things that do not come naturally. He’s quick with excuses and has yet to ask a question.

2. He’s impatient.

We can only attack an issue so many times before it becomes intractable. His mother says he has ADD. If so, it’s pretty mild. It could be an inner struggle that he is good at muting.

3. He is disengaged.

This is the tough one for me. He doesn’t seem to care whether he trainwrecks his way through a piece or hits each note. It’s all a big blah for him and the only emotion he has ever shown is slight discomfort when I called him on ignoring the assignments and requiring me to spoon feed him passages like a student of lesser aptitude in order to get through the lesson.

4. He doesn’t seem to like the cello or cello music.

I didn’t always like the cello, either. But by the time I had enough experience to breed contempt, it was a part of my life that was difficult to detach from. Quitting was not a viable option without making a serious mess of things. I gave him the option to stop lessons without penalty or personal offense and he punted. I’m just going to assume that our lessons are a vehicle for something else constructive. The question is what.


So I turn to you. I’ve tried a whole lot of approaches, activities and pep talks. Any suggestions to bolster the experience would be appreciated. I’m giving it until the summer. I do not have unlimited time or energy to dump into the void, so keep the suggestions to things that can be applied in the lessons or during his own practice during the week.

Let’s see if we can make things better for this guy, even if the cello is only the façade for the process. Thank you for your input.





Unimpressed rainbow-cloud from undisclosedstudio.


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11 Responses

  1. I’m afraid that the only thing that will really get a normal teenage boy interested in working seriously at an instrument is if there is a social component to it. Some need romantic attractions (or attractors), others thrive on competition (i.e. being the best), and others want to have the approval of a respected peer. There is the rare case of a musically-driven male teenager, but those people tend not to need to be encouraged to do anything besides pay attention to what they are doing when they play and when they practice.

    1. I would have to agree with Elaine and possibly add the concept of competition (with you?) Also, if he seems “beyond needing the hard work” try throwing everything you have at him. My dad always said that men/boys/trucks drive straighter with a heavy load (I.e. lots of responsibility) I’m not a boy, nor do I think this approach is always appropriate, but it sounds like you’re willin to stretch into the unknown…?

  2. Hi, Emily –

    This guy does not need to play other people’s music. He needs to record his own. I think the cello is a great instrument for this – it can take the bass line, rhythm guitar, and solo. Even the percussion. If you want to wake him up, tell him that you want a recorded piece by next lesson. Teach chords on the cello. Or how to jam with a groove. If he has access to any kind of a Mac, he has Garageband, which is incredible.
    Maybe this Ernst Reijseger – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIMvM8u9C-o
    or this is very funny Apocalyptica clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OrnKcQs5TY
    or Trevor Exter has juice that a sixteen year old would connect to http://extervskimock.com/
    and an acoustic cello has more voices than you think – http://soundcloud.com/rex-westen/shredded-cello-2

    I asked my thirteen year old student to come back the following week with a melody – she was thrilled. And came back with this amazing minor pentatonic line. I had no idea. So now she is writing it out. I think though that we should have just recorded it and tried to improvise a counterpoint. OK, next week.

    I just read Corbin Keep’s essay on creating a cello group – brand new players can make real music if they are playing the bass or rhythm lines. You know, we study and study, and we forget to tell our students to make their own music. If somebody had Bach learning to play all the way through the hardest pieces and the greatest composers before they let him write, would he ever have composed? I love technique and great sound, but the point really isn’t playing somebody else’s music. I find playing Brahms irresistible, but I spend more time trying to learn to create something new. ( OK, so I am more passionate than accomplished, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.)

    In Bach’s day all musicians played, and composed, and improvised. I really hope we can get back to that. We might have fewer string prodigies, but we would have a lot more musicians that could sit in on any session group around, no matter what style.

    Sorry – I will get off the box…

  3. Very much agree with Elaine’s comments above. About the only other inspiration for a teenager is in the form of “hey this’ll REALLY tick off your parents,” an approach I do NOT recommend. Sheesh, this is a tough one, Em. If you’re determined to stay the course, I’d say just keep casting your pearls in front of him and hope that he lets his guard down at some point. Alternately, and I’d consult with the parental units first, you can play hardball and tell him he’s got x amount of time to prove that he’s not wasting both your and his time. Sticky situation. Bottom line: YOU obviously still care, so you’re ahead of the game and, knowing you, you’re gonna come up with the right solution. 🙂

  4. I was a stereotypical underachiever as a teen (and probably more than a little still today), and so was bothered by how much of myself I saw in what you had to say. So I can tell you from personal experience there were (are?) two ways to deal with me: first, call my bluff and either question my motives or come right out and tell me I couldn’t do it. Then I’d either be all fired up to prove anyone and everyone wrong, or would at least think about the why part more. Or second, call me out about my goal in the situation and get me to realize that either I didn’t really have one which I why I was half-assing it, or that I did and only putting in a pro forma effort wasn’t likely to get me to what I wanted.

    If he has neither motive nor goal and doesn’t care to, then that immediately explains why he also doesn’t care about effort, and walking away should be easier for all involved at that point. However, if he honestly has a motive and/or goal–even if he cannot fully articulate either–that at least gives you a leverage point from which to work.

    Instead of a simple transcription of a rock or pop song, perhaps ask him to deconstruct something, with the premise that deconstruction is more than just playing the minimal number of notes to get the point across. That deconstruction is about as much as what is left in (or added) as what is taken out. I suppose I am really saying to challenge him with something presumed impractical, if not impossible. Set the bar stupidly high and see if he protests or accepts.

  5. For whatever it’s worth, you never know when something is going to come in handy.
    My brother took violin lessons, didn’t like it and quit after a year or so. 20 years later, he was an account executive with an advertising agency attending the annual sales meeting of his client, Oscar Mayer. At the gala banquet, the CEO wanted the orchestra to play the Oscar Mayer wiener song (from the commercials) but nobody in the orchestra knew the tune. My brother stepped up, borrowed a violin, and played enough of the tune for the orchestra to pick it up.
    The CEO was happy. My brother’s boss took him aside and said: “I want you to phone your mother — right now — and thank her for making you take violin lessons.”

  6. My cello teacher, who used to teach mostly kids and transitioned to teaching mostly adults, started doing something to engage us more in our lessons: asking us to be in charge of both what we would do at today’s lesson and what we would prepare for the next one. Granted, as adults we’re paying for our lessons and are more motivated to get our money’s worth from them. But having a teacher sit back and say “What do YOU want to focus on today?” forces me to think big-picture. That is, why am I there? Maybe there’s a way you can turn the tables like that, and also catch a glimpse of why he keeps going to his lessons.

  7. Hi Emily. This sounds similar to my teenaged son when he was taking violin lessons. His teacher took me aside and told me that she thought he would do better with a male teacher, as she wasn’t getting through to him. Disengaged, as you put it, is exactly what he was. I took her advice and took him to “audition” 3 male teachers. One connected with him and he went onward and upward, minoring in music in college and still playing today. Maybe not the answer here, but it worked for me.

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