Friday, September 24, 2010

My "Big Job"

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.


  1. Life is messier, indeed! ugh. :)

    I am right there with you, Karen. Last year was my 'epiphany' year when I discovered my new mantra... "Don't let fear drive our homeschool". Or really anything, for that matter. I am afraid that I haven't been following that very well the last few weeks and just this morning have spent a good deal of time praying about just that.

    You always have such insightful posts! You are able to communicate so well what you are feeling. I love reading your blog. :)

  2. Thank you so much, Laura! Actually, I think it was when you shared your epiphany with me that I realized what was at the root of what I was struggling with. So, double-thanks for your counsel. I really do not know what I would do without friends like you! if only I could remember all these insights from moment to moment! :)

  3. Outstanding post! I think we all do this. And can I just say I had to giggle at "how is this child going to stay out of jail/get a job/find a spouse" b/c I've had those same thoughts and figured I was the only one!!! :) Great tips, think I'm going to have to apply!

  4. You know, Shonya, part of my panicking is thinking I'm the only one! :) I love that I have friends who are willing to get real with me. Knowing that we ALL have things to work on, and that I'm not insane, tends to bring me down a few notches closer to calm.


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