My 75 year old and her Critical Nature
Dena M., Iowa
I have a 75 year old private student. She is not patient about the pace of the lessons, how much she learns, etc. All that seems normal for an adult.
She complains a lot. So I asked her what her expectations were and they were “I don’t know how many more years I have to live and what in the world am I doing this for and why would I even think I could and I like organ so much better and my organ teacher was great”. So I naturally asked if these lessons were meeting her expectations, did she want to continue, no problem if she didn’t, but she said she wants to keep working on this. She is critical of herself, but sadly she is critical of most everyone.
Today she complained bitterly about her daughter-in-law on the way out (I will keep it short) and then of all things (and this is where it really hit me) she saw the nanny of one of my students who was in her granddaughter’s music class. She just LOVED this nanny and said that the new one, she couldn’t stand. It’s because the “good” nanny is thin and the “bad” nanny is fat. And she went on to say she hates fat people.
Now why does this bother me so much? This student and I are the same size, so it’s not a personal thing. Plus, the nanny is NOT obese, just not pencil thin like the first one. But it’s draining me, I keep the conversation steered towards the lesson, but there’s always something at the end, on the way out, that causes me to not want to see her the next week.
What is going on??? I’d like to get to the bottom of why it’s bothering me so much. Thanks! I’d appreciate any insight.
Cindy B., Illinois
I have a Mom – no I mean really – MY Mom – who is like this. In some ways I’m relieved that she lives in TX and I live in Illinois because it’s VERY tiring both emotionally and actually physically to be around people like this. There are several things I do to cope with this kind of person:
- I always remember that this person has been formed by hardship and doesn’t know any other way to relate to people – probably learning how to be this way because this is how she’s always been treated.
- It’s not personal
- I have no responsibility to correct her or show her a new way of being – but I do have the responsibility to continue to be kind and courteous. (read the book, Pollyana – the crabbiest, nastiest, most unpopular person in town was won by a child’s acceptance)
- When this lady complains things like… “I don’t know how many more years I have to live and what in the world am I doing this for and why would I even think I could and I like organ so much better and my organ teacher was great” some of my responses might be “Your organ teacher sounds like such a wonderful person – maybe you could introduce us?” or “maybe we could have the next recital somewhere where there is an organ where you could be included on that instrument” or something like that. Confirm her abilities, show her that you acknowledge her skills and are willing to let her express herself as much as possible in that way.
Another thing to consider is to move her into a shared lesson if it’s even remotely possible. It’s a ton easier to maintain your equilibrium when you’re in a group rather than a private setting.
Jan R., Colorado
I read a little book once called Balcony People, and it was about how some people lift your spirit ‘to the balcony’, and others bring you down ‘to the basement’. This woman is definitely a basement person, and no one needs that kind of drain her/his life. It is completely natural that what she says should bother you.
Unfortunately, you probably need to have a conversation with her that goes something like this: “I understand that things, or people, aren’t always up to your high standards, but that isn’t the kind of thing I want to hear. I have to ask you not to share these kinds of opinions/feeling with me, as it really makes me uncomfortable. If you have a specific issue with my teaching, or with the Simply Music method, I am happy to discuss it with you, but I can’t listen to negative comments about other people.”
This may totally put her off, and she may quit lessons, but so be it. Life is too short to be brought down in that way. Perhaps your telling her the truth could some how change her.
Just my opinion. I find it sad that a 75 year old is so unhappy.
Elaine F., South Carolina
I have a mom like this too! Keeping myself centered is the hard part. This sounds silly but it helps me: I pretend that I am from another planet and I am an anthropologist studying behavior of “earthlings”. My sister and I have developed this shorthand reminder to ourselves: “remember, alien anthropologist!” when we see each other getting too involved in mom’s behavior.
Karen T., Illinois
Constant negativity is certainly a draining thing, there is no doubt about that. The world would all be a much happier place if everyone would just express positive things all the time and remain upbeat and optimistic. But as we all well know, that isn’t the case, nor is it likely to ever be so.
Someone who is negative all the time is a very miserable person, very unhappy. Try to step back a little from this relationship, as teaching a private lesson tends to draw one into an intensely personal state. And another thing to remember is that some women just in general tend to naturally move toward intensity in any relationship. This is something that, as teachers, we need to be aware of, and guard against being drawn into.
Another thing to remember is that you can address this directly with her in some kind of way, at the right time and in the right way. I would be watching for a time to express some compassion and say to her, you seem like a very unhappy woman at times. Is your music helping you somewhat with that? I don’t know exactly what I would say, but you get the idea. Express some compassion while telling her the truth of how she is coming across. And who knows where it will go from there – it may blow up or it may blow over. That’s the chance we always take when we tell the truth or confront anyone with anything.
Lastly, something else I know for sure I would do is schedule someone’s lessons about 10 minutes before hers will be ending. I have an open door policy, where the next students will come in and wait during the end of the lesson prior to their own. When I have a situation like this, I tell them their lesson time, and make it 10 minutes before hers will end. I explain that I will be with a student but I want them to come in and be seated, ready and waiting to make the switch.
I have had students who love to dawdle, talk, complain, whatever – taking up valuable time after their lesson is over as well as draining me emotionally. Some people are very needy want attention, but I can’t meet everyone’s emotional needs. By putting their lesson right before someone else, and timing the others to come in before their lesson ends, I can then close the lesson in a very gracious manner, then immediately greet the new students and have them come over and get settled in while the first student is leaving. I usually say no more to the first student, letting them pack up and leave on their own.
Your solution will have to be personalized to fit your situation, and might be a combination of all these things above, or it might be that these things will cause you to think of something totally different that will fit the
bill. In any case, do let us know what worked so all of us will be able to learn from your experience also.
Sheri R., California
I don’t think it’s weird at all that this woman’s negativity bothers you so much. Negative people are not easy to be around. Perhaps because this is a paying student it’s harder to let go of than if she was a friend or acquaintance who you might just decide to limit your time with because of the “vibes.” If you don’t want to talk to her about it (could be too late to teach an old dog new tricks, or maybe you don’t want to risk hurting her feelings or losing her as a student) then the only thing I can think of is to accept her how she is without resentment, a herculean feat, so you don’t get stressed about it. If that’s too hard, which is completely understandable, then maybe it’s time to let her go.
Beth S., Tennessee
Since a negative person loves negative (misery loves company), then the opposite would starve her craving for negative. It seems to me that if you consistently, without exception said an extremely, almost overdone positive comment for everything negative she says, then she would eventually get tired of the whole routine and be quiet. After a while of this, you would make the point without ever having to address it. This sometimes works with my kids: i.e. for every negative comment they make, they must in turn make two positive, thankful comments. It’s the opposite of what they want and they hush.
Sue C., Australia
I have been thinking about this negative person for a while and just thought you could say something along these lines at every lesson: “I am so impressed with you, wow taking piano lessons at 75 years of age. You are a role model to other seniors and those much younger. Playing piano is so great for the brain, it will keep your brain active and also it will make you happy. I’m sure you will notice real soon the pleasure you gain from expressing yourself on the keys.. It helps you deal with any emotions you find hard to put in words. Soon you’ll laughing (or crying) your way through the levels. I’m going to ask you each week if you’ve noticed improvement in your enjoyment of life. Its bound to happen.” etc.
Joanne J., Western Australia
This sounds very much like this dear lady has had very little positive affirming in her life and her comments are a cry for reassurance that she in fact is not wasting her time, that she is making progress – good progress (any progress is GOOD!) and she is ‘OK’. People who constantly make negative comments about their situation or other people are only expressing the feelings they actually have about themselves and need, more than most, extra unconditional care and love. That she wishes to attend your studio, even though seemingly dissatisfied, is a testament to the fact that she feels nurtured in your environment and a great compliment.
How about making a sign for your studio that states this is a ‘negative free zone’ – just like the ‘smoke free’ signs we have come to appreciate so much? It will no doubt generate a great number of comments from all your students and a healthy positive dialogue that doesn’t single out this lady. If it is insisted upon by you for ALL comers about ALL comments at ALL times it will give her ‘time out’ from such a tedious occupation and be a gift for all your students. If my first premise is correct (that this lady doesn’t like herself very much) then starting to be kind about herself will eventually translate to being kind about others!
In writing this I am realizing how good this would be for my own teaching environment as so many waste precious time berating themselves for one thing or another (including myself at times). I am giving thanks already for the gift this unhappy 75 year old has given me from the other side of the world! Thank you Dena for sharing it with us.
BUT as others have suggested and Neil always reminds us, it is your territory and there is no requirement to put up with any student who insists on behavior that is unacceptable to you.