Eloise Hellyer isn’t your ordinary violin teacher. With a unique teaching approach that centers on the student rather than on accepted measures of progress, Eloise started Violin Teachers Blog, where she regularly shares her teaching insights and tips.
In our first interview with Eloise, she shared a goldmine of information about the importance of listening skills for the violin, and divulged some of her secrets for teaching students to listen to the music they are making.
Here, we delve deeper into Eloise’s teaching experience and philosophy. She discusses what makes a good teacher, how she gets reluctant students to pick up their instrument and practice, and a brilliant revelation about an unexpected side benefit of music lessons…
Q: Welcome back to Musical U, Eloise! Last time, we talked about the importance of listening skills for violinists, and a little bit about how to cultivate these skills in your students.
Let’s talk more about pedagogy. What is your personal teaching philosophy?
That’s a complex question – I have been writing about this for three and a half years on my blog and am just getting started!
First of all, it depends on how you define a good teacher. (Here I am not referring to professional schools whose job is to turn out professional musicians.)
Some people think the only important thing is that the students play at the highest level, becoming pros and winning as many competitions as possible.
I don’t agree with this. Teaching should not involve just giving information without taking the hopes, desires, capabilities, ambitions, psychology, and emotions of the student into consideration.
The vast majority of music students do not intend to pursue a career in music but would like to partake in the joys and discipline that the study of music can give.
So I have several “philosophies.” One is: do no harm. There is a lot in that little phrase. How do you avoid doing harm? One of the desires that a teacher has to have is that students feel good about themselves. This doesn’t mean you should build up their self-esteem by telling them how great they are, but that you critique and correct what they do. It does mean that all your criticisms are made with the idea of helping the student do better. That you teach the student and not the instrument.
You help students achieve what they want. Teachers shouldn’t invest themselves in the outcome of their students’ careers, or they will wind up doing what is right for the instrument, the parents, music in general, or even themselves – anybody but the student.
I am equally happy when I hear that some of my ex-students get a band together and play wedding gigs for the fun of it as I am when I hear of others that have successful professional careers. What matters to me is the love of music, and the knowledge that I, the teacher, didn’t quash that, but nourished it and gave the possibility to play music to many who would not otherwise have done so.
”Teaching is constant, everyday soul searching. It involves continual reflection on our own motives.”
Music – like talking, communicating, writing and even cooking – is really mostly for the amateurs among us. We sometimes forget this.
Another of my philosophies: never give up. I don’t feel I have the right to decide who plays and who doesn’t. So I continue as long as the parents want to bring me their child, and as long as the child seems to have enthusiasm for playing.
Teachers give up on students sometimes because they have moral scruples about taking money for what they feel are scarce results. I have learned to never worry about that. In this case parents aren’t paying for the results, but for the child’s contact with you as a teacher.
At the very beginning of my career many years ago, I told the parents of two students who never practiced and got no help from their parents that they were wasting their time and money (in much nicer words). They admired me for my honesty, their children stopped lessons and I still feel awful about it years later. I had no right to do that – I was thinking about the parents’ money and, in hindsight, my comfort, and I did a disservice to two kids.
I wish I could make a list of qualities that a teacher must have, but as in a blog post I recently wrote, there is no right personality. There are only the right motivations and the right attitude.
I am the most impatient person I know – and all my students know it, yet I am considered to be quite effective and lots of people still bring me their children for many years. I am impatient with myself – if a child doesn’t get something, I break my neck to help him, racking my brain to think of new approaches before the student starts to think something is wrong with himself.
Being patient is not always a virtue, you see. If I wait until a student “gets” it, either I didn’t pick the right thing to teach him, or I am just being lazy. In any case, why you do what you do is extremely important and having the right attitude is just as important.
The most important thing, however, is to be aware. Teaching is constant, everyday soul searching. It involves continual reflection on our own motives. Awareness is everything. If you are aware of what you are doing, you may still do it, but at least you know why and aren’t fooling yourself or anyone else.
That openness to other people, empathy – the capacity to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and the desire to have an exchange with your students – is incredibly important if you love music and want your students to love it, too.
If you are only impersonally giving information, that’s a one way street – something a student can get on the internet. When you are teaching, you are exchanging energy and ideas!
At the beginning, a lot of teachers worry about doing this and how to do it, but if you relax, let go, concentrate on your student and let your intuition take over, you’ll be fine.
That is an excellent question. The answer is as varied as my students are. I think the important thing is that the parents see music education to be as important as reading and writing. Parents don’t see themselves as forcing their children to go to school. They just go to school. They don’t force them to speak their native tongue or go adhere to a certain religion either. It’s just done.
But when we get to music lessons, there’s a lot of angst out there about whether “forcing” music lessons and practicing on a child is a good idea. The day we all decide as a culture that playing a musical instrument is an essential part of anyone’s education, then practicing will get a lot easier for everyone. It’s part of homework. It gets done. Period.
One of the most important things that music education gives you is discipline. And the children who need it the most are often the hardest to give it to. In any case, I have all kinds of tactics, including asking a student to practice for only 10 minutes a day – not much for a nine year old, say. They are so relieved that they will practice longer.
I will have students send me text messages every time they practice. I will ask for practice logs on occasion. I have even had them sign little “contracts” that I write out in their music book. Some of my ex-students still laugh about that 20 years later.
Sometimes, teachers have to resign themselves to the fact that the student just isn’t going to practice, and wait for things to get better. They often do. I still say though that the most important thing is to convince the parents of the importance of music education and that it should not be considered as optional.
The secret is the parents.
Another thing for teachers to keep in mind, as a sort of silver lining: sometimes practicing is not the only important thing. This might be an odd thing to say, but not all students take music lessons to learn to play an instrument. That’s sort of a by-product. What they are getting is intense personal attention from an adult who is not emotionally involved with them.
The one-on-one nature of the music lessons promotes this and it can be quite important for a young person to have an adult in his life that he can trust, someone who is not judging him or giving him a grade. Don’t underestimate the value of this.
I have had numerous students who were not great at practicing consistently but told me that they got something important from studying from me: “life lessons.” I don’t know what they are talking about specifically, as I was just trying to teach him how to play the violin, but him and his parents saw value in what we were doing and continued it even though, musically speaking, the results weren’t impressive.
Musicians and teachers cannot always know the effect that they have on people when they exercise their art. Sometimes it is much greater than we could ever imagine. There are violinists who, unbeknownst to them, have changed people’s lives with their music. The same thing for teachers. This is why it’s important to keep right motivation and right attitude always in mind. You just never know!
I didn’t learn the art of transmission. I just became aware I was doing it. The good news is that most musicians know how to do this. They just have to consciously apply it to their teaching.
I think most people tend to have the idea that they can think what they please and not transmit it. But don’t you have a good idea of someone’s opinion of you even if they never say a word? Don’t you know when someone likes you or doesn’t? Don’t you even seem to know if someone is happy or not?
”What matters to me is the love of music, and the knowledge that I, the teacher, didn’t quash that, but nourished it and gave the possibility to play music to many who would not otherwise have done so.”
We all transmit whether or not we are aware of it. So no human being has to learn to transmit, just to be aware that we do it and learn to control it.
How? Watch what you think. If you have a poor opinion of a student, you will transmit it on some level, which is not conducive to teaching or learning. How can you help your feelings? When we are concentrated on the task at hand, like and dislike are out of the picture. I know lots of musicians who don’t like to play, say, Brahms – yet when they play it you would never know this. In that moment, they don’t know they don’t like it either, as they are concentrated on the music instead of themselves.
So if you remember to concentrate on teaching, and understand that your feelings and opinions about someone are not important and maybe even wrong, then you’ll be on the right track towards becoming a teacher who truly has their students’ progress and best interests at heart.
If you can play a musical instrument, does this mean you know how to teach it? Not necessarily. That’s why there are all sorts of didactic courses and methods available to music teachers. But while these can be very helpful, even they don’t guarantee good teaching.
So what makes a good teacher? Indeed, what is teaching anyway? It’s certainly a lot more than just giving information. It is ineffable, important and powerful. It can either do great good, an effect that can be felt for generations, or great harm, if done improperly.
Thank you so much for sharing your teaching wisdom today! We’re incredibly excited to learn more about your take on teaching in your upcoming book. Please keep us up-to-date on all that you are doing to improve the experience and learning of students and teachers alike.
Inspire your own teaching wisdom
Eloise overflows with wisdom for teachers, students, and parents alike. Her upcoming book, Inspired Teaching, explores what teaching is, its responsibilities, how to approach it, and its pitfalls. It also includes sections for children’s parents to help them choose a teacher and cope with practice problems. In addition, there are valuable interviews with famous musicians and teachers, Ruggiero Ricci, Robert Mann and Gil Shaham among them.
An optimistic and student-centric approach is an effective tool in ensuring that both the teacher and student are happy with the lessons and the results. Take a page out of Eloise’s book by dreaming up new ways of ensuring your students are getting the most out of their lessons with you!
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