En Pointe? En garde!

I have a problem. It might just be an attitude problem, though. I have a studio full of bright, engaged, hard-working students. They’re so smart! They blow me away. And as smart kids do, they have multiple interests. They dance, they play sports, they’re on the robotics team and there are several of them who are deeply involved in musicals and plays. What’s the problem, you ask?

Well…music takes time. Proficiency, deep understanding and true mastery of tone and technique are not things that can be accomplished only during the off season. The problem is that I can’t always find the right way to say to my students, “OK. You need to take April off to be in a musical? That’s fine, but just know that you probably won’t be able to audition into that higher band chair you’ve been eyeing if you take an entire month off from practice, as well.”

Last fall, I had a tense moment with a wonderful student, one who I can count on to practice and to maintain her schedule and her obligations and her common sense. It was the second or third lesson in a row where she hadn’t made much progress on a competition program that needed to be recorded a few weeks after that lesson. We talked, she cried, and I finally thought to ask the vital question. I said, “How many days a week are you dancing right now?” She hung her head and sighed and said, “Six. I told the teacher I needed to do less, but she didn’t listen.” And my sweet student didn’t push back then, although she did this semester. 

Part time jobs can be part of the problem, too. Another high schooler recently had to cancel a lesson because her manager at Sonic started scheduling her for Thursdays, even though she’d told him she had a lesson on that day and she couldn’t work. I remember from my own retail days that a job like that will work you as hard as you let them, but this girl is young and sweet and hasn’t yet found her standing-up-to-the-manager backbone. This same girl had told me not 24 hours before that she is starting to think music may be her calling in life, but that hasn’t yet led to the idea that the calling may require some sacrifice.

As a teacher, what is the right thing to do in this situation? I could be stern and insist that they’ve booked my time and they must show up or pay for it anyway. That’s the prevailing wisdom, but the people giving us that advice are not the people who are in relationship with these families—I am, and I find it more profitable, literally and figuratively, to try to be flexible and understanding. And yes, I’m teaching these girls how to play the flute, but I’m also teaching them how to manage their time, stand up for themselves, and decide what’s really worth their effort. If that turns out to be dancing en pointe instead of All-State Orchestra, so be it.

So much of what our students do must happen on their own time—they spend 30 to 60 minutes per week with me, and (hopefully!) five times that practicing on their own. When a student does sports, dance class or a play, it’s truly a team effort. They’re together a lot, and each person is necessary to bring the final project to life. I think that it’s easy to underestimate the time that music study truly requires, because such a large portion of it is solitary.

Back to the main question: what to do? For now, I’m going for a sympathetic and understanding nature. When the musical is over and dance competition season ends, they will come back to me, and I’ll just start teaching them all the things they’ve forgotten all over again. Because it really might be an attitude problem (mine) and what needs to be adjusted is my expectation. There are plenty of other students who are completely dedicated to music and who study and practice year round—and they don’t all have to do it exactly the same way for music to be worthy of their time and for their lessons to be worthy of my time.

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