One of the most valuable things I’ve learned about teaching violin is to try to make each lesson about one main thing. Of course, we may cover a variety of material and techniques, but I’m trying to follow the wise council someone gave me a long time ago that it’s more helpful to send a student away with one big job to work on than an exhaustive list of everything that needs fixing. The idea is that they will be able to focus in on one thing—ideally the thing that will most improve their playing at the moment—and work towards mastery. Other things that need work can be added in when the first issue is resolved. It’s a focused, orderly approach, and, in my opinion, a gentle and effective way of working.
I’m still working on applying this in lessons, and there is definitely room for improvement. But through that process I discovered a “big job” for myself that applies to my teaching, my parenting, and my life in general. That big job? Don’t panic. I hate to admit it, but there it is. I’m seeing more and more that it is a weak spot. When I’m teaching and a student is struggling or hasn’t practiced, I find that I can remain calm and reassuring: This is normal. We’ll just work on this bit by bit. Why don’t we try it this way? We can work through this. But in other aspects of my life, the default narrative in my head is more like this: What are we going to do? How are we going to get this all done? How is this child ever going to get a job/stay out of jail/find a spouse? Are we normal? I’m such a failure/loser/bad mom/dumpy wife/rotten friend! And this shrillness that starts in my head refuses to stay there; it invariably leaks out and makes a lovely mess of things. Oh, if only I could approach everything in my life the way I do in a contained half-hour violin lesson! (But there—do you detect that rising pitch in my voice?)
Approaching problems in real life can be something like approaching problems with violin. Step back, identify the problem, think, break things down, work slowly but steadily, keep positive, repeat, repeat again, and above all don’t panic. I’ve spent many hours doing this in a practice room, and I feel pretty comfortable working through the process with students. But life is messier, and the stakes are bigger, and it has taken me a lot longer to apply the concepts in a broader way. But there—I’ve identified the problem, and it’s time to start plugging away at it. I think I’ve got some ideas about how to start working. Don’t panic.