Controlling – or trusting?

Something happened to me a while ago, and it’s taken me a while to process. And I thought I’d write about it, as part of me wondering about it still….

I have been teaching the cello for a long time. I like to think that I’m a good teacher. Because I still love the cello, and the process of playing, I can transmit this love to others. I spend a lot of time thinking about each student. I respect the one-on-one teaching process, and what being an instrumental teacher is. I have had some fabulous instrumental teachers, and I’m constantly wondering how they would have solved a particular problem. Because I am still engaged with the process of playing and teaching, I like to think that I’m doing a pretty good job with each student.

I also enjoy teaching adults. I respect that they are doing something new, and I try and push them enough, give them enough technical stuff to think about – but not too much, so that they can make music too, whatever the level that they are at. I like to think that I’m good at this part of my teaching as well…

Not long ago I ‘inherited’ a student. They had been taught not-very-carefully. There were big holes in their technique – things that should have been covered a long while back. They were clever, and also good at another instrument, so had worked out ways to work around the lack of solid foundations they had on the cello. When they came to me, they told me that they were a particular AMEB grade, which in my opinion, they were most certainly not. They could be, in a while – but they weren’t there yet.

So, very gently, I started the process of telling them what they needed to know. And correcting them. With adults, physical things need to take time – things need to be unlearned, and then relearned. In my opinion, things were going well. This student was progressing, and holes were being fixed.

And then I got an email offering me some ‘feedback’. They wanted to play more pieces – of the standard that they thought they were. When I said I didn’t think they were ready, they then wanted me to submit a syllabus of what I would do with them when (which is actually impossible to do). And when I said I wouldn’t do that, they said they didn’t like being controlled. (They didn’t actually say it like that. There was a lack of politeness.) So I said it was better for us to part ways, thank you very much.

But then I got thinking, and spoke to a few other adults I know who have lessons. Did they felt controlled? Were instrumental teachers just people who liked other people doing what they said? Was I just a cello-teaching-dictator?

A sensible friend of mine wondered this with me. And then we agreed that as an adult you need to trust your teacher. You submitted to their experience, and their care. You, as a student, trusted that they would walk you down a path of learning at the right speed for you, and give you the tools you needed at the right time.

I am thankful to my adult students that they trust me. I am thankful to the parents of my little cello students that they trust me too. So I’ve become more grateful to my students. It’s funny how things that knock you around often make you better, isn’t it?