April 24, 2015
By Ekta R. Garg
Recently we switched violin teachers for Eight…again. She started taking violin lessons in January of 2014. We just started lessons with her third teacher.
The first teacher, Mr. J., left the music school to pursue opportunities in the public school system. Then a new teacher joined the school, and Eight started lessons with her. Ms. R. seemed nice enough, but the fact that she specialized in the viola and is still a student herself—at the graduate school level—meant that she didn’t have as much experience with kids.
I make it a point to sit in on the kids music lessons every week. Because Six and Eight have their lessons at the same time, I switch. One week I attend Six’s guitar lesson; the next week I watch Eight work on the violin for that half-hour. On Ms. R.’s first day with Eight, I sat in that lesson to get a sense of her teaching style.
In the course of that lesson she told us that Eight was one of her first students. I nodded and smiled, but I wondered whether this would work. Still, because I’m first and foremost an optimist, my mind switched immediately to “give her a chance” mode.
My husband had the opportunity to sit in a couple of Eight’s lessons last year when he got off work early, and after the first time he watched Ms. R. he had made his assessment of her capabilities as a teacher.
“I don’t think she really knows what she’s doing,” he said.
I urged him to be patient; let’s give it some time, I said. Maybe she’d get up to speed soon.
After several months we could see that Ms. R., as sweet and patient as she was with Eight, needed more experience as a teacher.
In the fall the owner of the music school called me. She was calling all of the parents of the students at the school as a courtesy to find out whether the music school needed any improvements, whether the families were happy with the teachers, and if there was anything else she personally could do to make the entire experience of music lessons even better.
I started by raving about Mr. B., the kids’ guitar teacher. This gentleman has taught for years, and his experience shines. The kids enjoy their lessons with him so much that I don’t think they notice the easy transitions he makes between idle chatter and demonstrating a new note or chord.
Then I talked about Ms. R. I pointed out her positive traits—considering her age and the fact that she doesn’t have any kids of her own, she demonstrates an incredible amount of gentleness with her students. She never got frustrated with Eight or discouraged her when she made mistakes, and she always complimented Eight when she did well.
I hesitated then but knew I had to go on. So I added the “but”. Ms. R.’s lack of experience also showed. She didn’t seem that confident at times. And occasionally it felt like she was improvising her way through the lesson.
Right after that I added another “but” and emphasized in my closing comments all the good things about Ms. R. The music school owner thanked me for my time and hinted that she’d gotten similar feedback from other parents.
Several weeks later the school’s lesson coordinator emailed me and told me that the school was in the process of hiring a new violin teacher. Would we be interested in signing up for lessons with him?
I emailed back yes, even though it meant switching lesson days and making an adjustment in our routine for the week.
I told Eight about the new teacher, and she seemed to accept the information. Three weeks ago she had her first lesson with the new teacher, whose name ironically also starts with an R. Even though our unwritten schedule dictated that I had to sit in on Six’s guitar lesson that week, I went to Eight’s lesson.
The new teacher regarded her thoughtfully, listened to her play, made some suggestions, even gave her a small plastic piece to attach to her bow to help her put her pinky finger in the right place. He didn’t exactly frown, but he didn’t smile too widely either.
Eight didn’t say much during the lesson, but that didn’t surprise me. When we got into the car, though, that changed.
“How did you feel about Mr. R.?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said. I looked at her in the rearview mirror, and her expression added a little more to the story.
“It might take you a few lessons to get used to him, and that’s okay,” I said. “And after that time if you still feel like you’re not comfortable with him, we can go back to Ms. R.”
“You didn’t come to my lesson!” Six interjected.
“I wanted to sit in Di-Di’s lesson,” I explained, trying to stay patient. It’s not fun dealing with two children in bad moods at the same time. “I’ll come to yours next week, I promise.”
“But I don’t understand why I had to change teachers,” Eight said, picking up our conversation.
“Because Ms. R. was very nice and she was always very patient with you, but Daddy and I think maybe she just needs a little bit more experience in teaching kids,” I said, trying to make that sound as nice as possible.
“Not to be rude or talk back, but what about her makes you say she didn’t have much experience with kids?”
I heard it in her voice: indignation. She really liked Ms.R., but she also saw this as a matter of right and wrong. And she wanted an answer.
“[Eight], I know you really like Ms. R., and like I said she’s really nice, but she’s still a student too, right?”
“So that means she’s still learning a lot of things, and in a few years she’ll probably be a great teacher. But she just needs to work on the things she’s learning.”
She seemed to accept that, and I breathed a little sigh of relief.
I didn’t sit in on her second lesson last Monday with Mr. R. last week—Six made sure of that—but after the lesson I checked in with the teacher. At the end of the week Eight had an audition for the all-school talent show, and the new violin teacher wanted her to focus on a couple of basic things for the audition. Once she got through that, he said, he’d go back to some basic technique, in effect helping her to reorder some of the building blocks her previous two teachers had given her.
Eight still felt a little frustrated. We did another lesson breakdown in the car.
“It’s hard because every teacher is telling me something different,” she said.
“I know,” I told her. “Just hang in there. It’ll get better.”
The day before the audition, Mr. R. sent Eight a note to my email address. In it he reminded her of the techniques they’d discussed and ended the email with the exhortation to “smile and have fun!”
His email really made an impression on me, and I’m sure it made one on Eight. He’d only interacted with her twice, and already he had made the extra effort to help her outside of class.
This week when I attended her third lesson with her new teacher, Eight looked more relaxed. She even piped up a couple of times when Mr. R. asked her questions about her practice routine, not hesitating at all as she explained her own personal approach to her music.
I hope that Eight learns and understands, through this whole thing, not to settle. If something doesn’t work, I want her to feel comfortable to speak up and ask for something different. Also, I want her to learn and experience that asking for that something different can yield positive results, something that will benefit her in the long term.
The entire situation has definitely posed a challenge for us, but we’re hoping that the third time’s the charm. That Mr. R. becomes the teacher we endorse with excitement and enthusiasm the next time the music school owner makes those courtesy calls.