More than once I have thought about the similarities between being a parent and being a teacher. Parents and teachers both share the role of motivating children to do their best and cultivating a desire to learn.
My son, Theo, is starting his sophomore year in college. Theo was a good, but uninspired, student in high school. He did what was expected, made the grades that he needed (to keep his iPhone) and did what was required to get into the college he wanted. Whenever I pressed for a bit more performance from him, though, it typically resulted in an argument with no better results forthcoming.
But since he has been at college, something has shifted and he is digging into school and studies with enthusiasm and joy. Curious as a parent AND a teacher, I simply asked “What is the difference between high school and college for you?” Theo didn’t even have to think about it. “I’m hungry to learn now.” And we talked at length about that inspiration and the fact that it hits everyone at different times in life.
Not all students get hungry to learn at the same time. It is fair to say that only 25% of my violin students are hungry to learn at any given moment. But, all my students get hungry eventually. I have come to believe that my job is to keep a student playing and enjoying music until the hunger kicks in. Like biking up a hill, as long as you don’t stop, you can always choose to push harder when you have energy. But once you stop, it is really hard to get going again.
Learning the violin involves many skills—developing technique, understanding theory, playing scales and arpeggios. Not to mention learning songs. For my hungry kids, they tackle all of it without hesitation. But for the majority, I know that too much material will cause them to feel totally overwhelmed, leading them to avoid practicing and begin that fast downward spiral that ends in them quitting. Fortunately, there is so much fun music in the fiddling world that it is not difficult to keep even uninspired students moving forward. At some point they will see a performer, attend a camp, or encounter some other source of inspiration that will make them hungry to learn. And then they’ll learn faster than you ever thought possible.
Both teaching and parenting are squishy, uncertain, confounding, and creative jobs with few no-fail rules. But one strategy that I embrace as a universal constant is that when kids are moving forward, no matter how slowly, they are better positioned to take off in their music when they get hungry than kids who gave up before the hunger kicked in.