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teaching

what’s wrong with students these days?

It’s pretty amazing, really. I’ve been looking at the Facebook pages of my friends who teach. They teach regular school classes in public and private schools. They teach music classes in university settings. They teach music lessons privately in their own homes, at all different levels of student advancement. And they’re all complaining about their students. The common themes are inattentiveness, a sense of self-entitlement, lack of focus, no will power, no setting of goals for one’s self, lack of humility, and not studying/practicing. For sure, these problems were endemic from the days that Plato first set quill to papyrus, but there seems to be a growing chorus about the poor quality of people that are comprising these up and coming generations. So it was nice to read this quote from an interview with the hot cellist-of-the-moment Alisa Weilerstein:

“Of course like any kid I had many days when I didn’t feel like practicing. But what (my parents) told me was, ‘Well, this is what you want to do, you’re only hurting yourself if you don’t practice.’ In a way I made it easy for them because I was absolutely sure from the very beginning that I wanted to be a musician. I never wavered from that, not even in my teenage years at all, I was completely sure. So I knew deep down that even on days that I didn’t want to practice that I really was only hurting myself.”

Don’t kids these days want anything? Besides looking like and/or owning stuff like the evil and insufferable Kardashian spawn? When I set out to play something (and this goes way back to when I was first studying the violin, back in the dark ages), I want to sound good. I want to at least not make a fool out of myself and be humiliated in public. That’s the bare minimum. On top of that, I love music, and want to honor the work of the composer and present it as close to her conception of the piece as is possible given my current level of skill and expertise.

I know that I’m better than some violists, and I also know that there are many others who are far better than I am. That’s where humility comes in. I play in a very good orchestra. There are other orchestras that are quite a bit better on a regular basis – and I need to be cognizant of that fact. I’m not God’s gift to the viola, and my orchestra isn’t the Berlin Philharmonic. I (and we) are just doing the best we can and always striving to do better.

Got any thoughts on your students and what their attitudes are towards studying?

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

14 replies on “what’s wrong with students these days?”

PYP is clearly a group of self-starters – that goes almost without saying. I would say that the vast number of students that I’m distressed about don’t get anywhere near the parental support that they’d need to thrive in a group of the PYP’s level. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t visit sometime!

Sounds like a typical teenager to me. I was one of those and ended up quitting viola because it wasn’t “cool”. 25 years later, I finally realized that I loved it and missed it. It took time for me to discover who I was and develop the discipline necessary to get serious about learning again.

I have noticed several things in my students. They are much busier than I was as a child. I was involved in music and volleyball when I was in middle school. I gave that up in high school to focus on music. My students tend to be involved in many more extra-curricular activities, so have a lot more competing for what little time there is in the day.

The second thing is that when I was a child only my father worked, so I was able to go home after school, play some, and then get to work on practicing and homework. Now, in most families, both parents work, so families are trying to fit a meal, homework, extra activities and practice into the short time between 6pm and bed time.

I do at times get frustrated, but find that not wanting to embarrass themselves in public is a great motivator for my students. I try to offer them the opportunity to perform in public as often as possible. I find it hard to keep them focused when there is not that immediate pressure.

I suppose it’s every generation’s job to look with some disdain and incomprehension at the ones that follow, but I’ve had this conversation so often with friends and colleagues that clearly there is something to it. However, I’m not sure how much of it is the students’ fault.

Maybe some of it is that we’re now seeing the students whose parents read books that told them the best way to parent is to give your child the idea that they can do no wrong, that everything he/she does is just great and fantastic. Also, higher education seems more like a for-profit business now than ever before. If the parent shells out ten$ of thou$and$ per year for their kid to go to X music school, then the desire to get your money’s worth can easily lead to “What are you going to teach me today?” instead of “What can I do to learn from you?”

The internet, as we know, makes everything less formal, and teacher-student boundaries are easily blurred if the teacher isn’t careful to set them. While communication is supposedly much more convenient with texts and e-mail, I had a student tell me just yesterday that the reason she had forgotten to respond to a timely e-mail was that she read it on her phone. She wanted to wait until she actually sat down at a Real Computer to respond, and then the mail disappeared down the endless chain of things in her inbox.

20 years ago, when I was in college, it would never have crossed my mind to address my teachers the way some students now address theirs, including me. If I needed to call one of my teachers at home to request a change in lesson time or something else, my heart would be pounding in my throat at the idea of potentially disturbing them in the middle of dinner.

Luckily, I am in a position where I don’t have to teach anyone I don’t want to, and I teach entirely college-level music performance majors. The fact that my students are trying to do (either generally or exactly) the same thing I already do for a career makes it easier to nip attitude problems in the bud. The trump card: “In the ridiculously competitive business of music performance, you simply must be able to do certain things. I have the experience to know what they are. I am willing to teach them to you, but it’s your choice whether to learn them from me. You can’t learn to play the cello from a book or the internet. A lackadaisical attitude is nothing short of deadly in the career path you have chosen. My life path isn’t on the line if you aren’t able to do what you need to be able to do. And you will have wasted your time and your parents’ money. Your choice.”

When did “tough love” go out of fashion?

You do need to put Alisa’s parents comment into perspective. She knew from a young age that she would have a career if she was good enough to have one. Most of today’s students don’t have the luxury of being insiders in the profession. Most young people aiming for any kind of success in the arts or even the humanities don’t have a reasonable path set in front of them. Anyone teaching college music majors,knows that even the best and most motivated students are bound to face far more disappointment (professional) than their teachers ever did, and their teachers faced a lot. Opportunities for musicians are more a matter of self motivation these days. It used to be far easier to make a living as a musician while maintaining the profile of a social introvert. The pressures to get yourself “out there” are multiplied with media, social media, and a world all around that doesn’t value live music in proportion to the people eager to provide it.

Alisa’s parents, both who are great musicians, had the wisdom to see to it that their daughter get a real college education before embarking in her solo career. They had the example of Midori who thirsted for intellectual stimulation in her adulthood, and began college as a not-so-young adult. Not every kid, even kids of musicians, are the products of such sound advice and such real support. Alisa and her brother, who is now a professional conductor, had to work very hard, but they both knew that they would have a part in the family business if they did.

Not too many teachers can offer that kind of support.

True, Elaine. But – as parents, they provided superior support to her. That’s what I think is lacking in a lot of cases these days (and in the past, and most likely, in the future). Sure, parents aren’t all going to be seasoned professional musicians at the top of their field, but it is possible with relatively little in the way of resources, to provide an environment which provides for intellectual growth and inspires kids to aspire to be more than what popular cultures says they should be.

Hi Charles – interesting topic. I am thinking about your last paragraph re: humility. Humility, of course, is a lovely quality and we should all have it, but I’m finding myself troubled about the great hierarchy of Violists: From Better to Worse and Orchestras: A Ranking From Better to Worse. I think there’s too much emphasis on rank in our profession when there are so many more ineffable qualities that could move a listener. Like presence in the moment, devotion to the creation of beauty, honesty…you name it. Too often, I see arts groups trying to market themselves through claims of how “world class” they are. That they’re the best in their field, or in this country, or in this region. And the listening public doesn’t care any more. The old guard who supported the creation of orchestras all over the US is fading away, along with the values they represented: namely, a fixation on the prestige that classical music conferred on a city and its denizens.
Does that mean the music we play should be shelved? Absolutely not – there’s nothing wrong or dated with the canon of classical music, but I think all too often professional musicians, through the stress of both training and the rigors of professional life, get separated from their original roots of why they fell in love with music in the first place, and audiences perceive it. Audiences are sophisticated that way, I’ve noticed.
Which leads me to the student issue. Music belongs to all of us. Some of us are privileged enough to have grown up in the right place or time with the crazy amazing parental support to haul us around to lessons, pay for them plus instruments, music camp, youth orchestra, conservatory…so that we’re qualified to even consider going into music school. But mostly, people aren’t in this category. Maybe they had quirky teachers who set them up weirdly, or had no lessons, or have funny mind/body connections that prevent them from really absorbing technique 100%, or they have little learning disabilities that make it hard for them to read music quickly…the list goes on. But those students deserve to have musical training as much as the super-quick, super-talented ones. It’s just that important to people – they’ll keep plugging away at it even if it’s really hard for them.
I have students who are all over the map as far as A) all the things I listed above and B) what their goals are in studying the violin or viola. I feel that my job is to honor their desire to play their instrument and best figure out how to guide them toward the skills they need to achieve their goals. But if I start inserting my own personal goals about the viola or violin, that’s when I get in trouble, teaching-wise. It’s not about me, it’s about them. So if I have a student who’s not practicing, I see it as my job to figure out what might motivate them to practice more, or how to be more clear about my expectations for their lesson prep, or even talk to them about their schedule. I recently figured out that two of my middle school students (who are loaded up with extra-curriculars and homework) are just fine with getting up early and practicing from 6 – 7 am. I would never have done that!!
I’ve got a bunch of them preparing for juries through the Carnegie Hall Achievement Program, and the “all laid out in front of them” nature of the curriculum seems to be just what they need to organize their practicing and work toward a goal.
It’s really counter-intuitive to me, because I was definitely in your camp, Charles, of being terrified of sounding bad, even for a moment, but I think we need to always be reminding ourselves that this generation is NOT US. They have their unique challenges and talents. They’re Net-natives, which means their brains are literally wired differently from ours…and I’m not yet sure what that means, but I can say with certainty that they have a way huger frame of reference about the world than I did, especially when it comes to music. They’ve listened to every kind of music imaginable! They also seem to learn faster and more easily than I and my peers did. Kind of like once the first guy broke the 4 minute mile barrier, suddenly all kinds of people could do it. Only Paganini could play those caprices at first; now motivated 12 year olds learn them routinely. And it’s much harder to get into the college of your choice now, so having free time in the afternoons is not an option many students/parents feel they have.
I don’t know what it all means, but I do know that there’s only one direction to move in: forward. I find it much more interesting to try to tap into what a student is passionate about than to try to show them my way of being involved with music – though more times than not, they find themselves extremely curious about what I’m doing – but mostly because they’re trying to do something of their own.
This is all about pre-college stuff: if I were a collegiate level teacher, I’m sure I’d have a different story to tell. Students need to be prepared for the tough world out there, but I know it’s a complicated picture with recruiting and retention requirements that music departments have. You want to be a challenging professor, but you want to hang on to your students. I don’t envy that.
Thanks for writing the great blog, Charles!
Best, Heather

As a junior majoring in violin performance, I’d like to think that most of the things talked about in this post don’t apply to me. Yes, I am a part of the internet generation, yes I am a fan of some trashy reality television, and yes there are days when I don’t want to practice but I do anyway. There are times (today it was whilst in the shower) when I do realize that the reason I’m away from my family is because of the instrument in the case that seems to never leave my side. That instrument is the reason I fret and worry and stress about if I’m practicing efficiently or if I’ll find enough time to practice. That instrument is the reason I dream about difficult passages that I practice over and over again to make sure it’s solid. I am blessed to be studying with an extremely patient teacher who reads the long emails I send updating her about how my practicing is going. I too, in Charles’s words am no gift to my instrument or anything of the sort. I’m dedicated, I work hard, I want to do well. But sometimes, I need my days off!

As far as students in general are concerned, I think that this is the worst of times as well as the best of times. We just have more extremes. Of the few music appreciation students I have left in my community college class, one is, perhaps the most eloquent and hardest working students I have EVER had, another is not quite as gifted, but she works just as hard as her perfectionist classmate. Other students I have in this handful are people who are, after a semester of learning, possible “lifers.” The other extreme that I have in this population are students who are so ill-equipped to be in college, so distracted by social media and television, and so confused by a culture that offers them EVERYTHING, that they don’t understand how to organize their time. How they graduated from high school is a mystery.

Thank goodness for students like Michael.

“How they graduated from high school is a mystery.”

Teachers are forced to pass them, year after year. Bad grades no longer earn children punishment; the parents punish the teacher instead. Administrators place great pressure upon teachers to NOT give failing grades, often simply to avoid having to deal with the parents.

Parents, instead of asking “why are you failing my child,” the teacher should be asking the parents “why is your child failing him/herself?” One of those questions is much easier to ask.

Regarding distraction: unfortunately it seems as though while it’s nearly impossible to teach a child to focus, the parent(s) are even worse. It’s very hard to teach focus when there are literally no examples for the student to follow, coupled with societal pressure glorify multitaskers.

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