My own 5-year old son Lyle recently expressed an interest in playing the violin. Having played violin and viola myself growing up, I was absolutely thrilled. I signed him up for some private lessons and rented violins for both of us. For a few weeks, I’ve been relearning to play some simple pieces of music and he has loved listening and learning the little things I can teach him while we waited for our class to begin.
His first lesson was last Monday, at a reputable music school here in Chicago. I sat in and observed. His teacher moved fast. She was intense. She wasn’t “mean”, but there was no small talk, no friendly chatter. She moved right into work on posture – holding the instrument properly – and told me that he wouldn’t pick up the bow for at least 2-3 weeks. She spent the full thirty minutes on a sequence of movements required to move from “concert rest position” to “playing position”. Each time Lyle moved his arm into a correct position he also accidentally moved one of his feet a step and had to start over from the beginning. It was a bit like boot camp and hard to watch, but I was impressed that he stuck with it and cooperated so beautifully.
However, the instant she told him he was finished, he rushed across the room, fell into my arms, and sobbed. She didn’t address this, simply let the next student into the room and pushed us quickly out the door, Lyle still crying. He cried all the way to the car, raging at me, saying he never wanted to take another lesson, never wanted to go back. He asked if he could keep his violin, but I told him we couldn’t keep the rental instrument if he didn’t take lessons. I assured him that we could find another teacher, however. Much to my shock, by the time we got home he told me determinedly that he would go back. I was simultaneously impressed and appalled.
All week I grappled with this. Was the teacher too harsh? – or is this the way you teach a young child a challenging instrument like the violin? I don’t remember starting out that way, but perhaps I’ve forgotten. A friend told me it reminded her of early ballet lessons, in which you must master the positions before you can dance. But shouldn’t she have established some sort of rapport with him first, made a connection with the child? – or was I applying what a good therapist does to a different situation, one that doesn’t necessarily require it? She was teaching him skills and he was capable of learning them with repetition, I saw that. But was it meaningful to him? No. Was he motivated to learn from her? No. So how could it be different from a negative therapeutic situation, then?
In fact, although he was determined to continue so that he could keep his beloved tiny violin, I watched my son struggle more and more as the week went on. His anxiety grew more with each day, and his behavior became extremely controlling and defiant. He wanted to be in charge of every conversation and everything anyone asked him to do. The closer we got to the second lesson, the less tolerable his behavior. On Saturday morning, we had to leave a Halloween festival we’d invited friends to because he was acting downright belligerent.
I could see it quite clearly. He was turning the tables on us, acting out exactly what he felt the teacher had done to him. She had controlled every move he made for thirty minutes straight. He’d never seen an adult act like that with a child. Each time I tried to discuss it with him, he waffled painfully; on one hand, he never wanted to go back to that teacher again. “I HATE violin,” he shouted at me angrily, at least once a day. On the other hand, he was asking to go back to her rather than another, unknown, teacher. He didn’t want to give up that violin.
And I still wondered: Can he do it? Should he do it? Is this how he needs to learn? Will he simply get used to her style? Should he? After all, we need to be able to learn from different kinds of teachers, don’t we? Do we pull the plug this fast, or give him one more week, especially since he says he’s actually willing to go back?
But I watched my son and saw how incredibly dysregulated he was becoming, and noted that it was worsening every day, and decided to cancel the lessons. I realized suddenly that this is exactly the kind of thing I talk about at work all the time with families. The violin teacher did all of the things I warn against in therapy: she was introduced to a brand new child and immediately started drilling discrete skills (e.g., posture and movement sequences) without establishing any rapport whatsoever, without placing those skills into a meaningful context (e.g., music), moving too fast, and talking too loudly (not adjusting pace and volume to a child’s developmental level and temperament). There wasn’t a word of praise. When he had a negative reaction to the session, she did not address or acknowledge it even for a moment. And, thanks to these missteps, my child’s behavior took a huge turn for the worse in a matter of only 5 days, even with me processing it with him every day. (Imagine a child with a classroom teacher, therapist, or aide who behaves this way towards him at school? Think about the “naughty” behavior we’d be seeing! What if a parent didn’t see it, and so didn’t know what accounted for his sudden change in behavior at home? All that I have described was observed after only a single 30-minute session with the wrong teacher.)
Maybe what my son’s violin teacher was doing is considered to be an optimal way to begin this particular instrument and some kids can learn that way, but my kid clearly isn’t one of them – and I simply cannot feel bad about that. A good teacher or therapist of any kind doing individual work is going to assess a student long enough to figure out who this child is and meet him right where he is developmentally in order to move forward. I don’t think that would’ve taken more than five minutes in this case. This is exactly why I always do a free initial session with a new client: to make certain that both the child and the adult are comfortable with each other. No therapist or teacher is going to be a good fit for every child.
Once Lyle knew he’d never see that teacher again, he was able to relax. His behavior was back to normal within 24 hours. I have a couple other violin teachers for us to meet with this week and he’s happy about that. Maybe one of them will be a better match and we’ll continue on this road, and maybe not. In the end, it doesn’t matter. But one thing is for certain: we are not going to suffer through 8 weeks of lessons with the wrong teacher. Lyle showed us very clearly how he felt about that.
Kids will tell us when they’re comfortable with an adult; it’s our job to listen to them. Their learning depends on it.