Adult Student Not Following Instructions
I have a student, age 62 but physically and mentally more like 82. I met her at a church women’s retreat in January. She found out I teach piano and was very excited. She’s always wanted to play piano and had recently purchased a piano at an estate sale. She signed on for private lessons right away as my third student.
Since she started lessons she has been diagnosed with diabetes & a heart condition. She has a pre-existing back problem from a car accident some years ago. And she broke her knee, which required a stay of about 3 weeks at a rehabilitation center and was non-weight bearing for 3 months. During that time, I went to her apartment to try to encourage her and keep her moving forward on her desire to play piano. However, she refuses to practice even 10 minutes a day. 10 minutes a week is more like it. She refuses to use the student home materials. I showed her how to use the videos remote control since she didn’t seem able to figure it out, but she still refuses to use the videos. In 20 weeks of lessons, she has not mastered any of the level one pieces. She says her brain is a sieve and she can’t remember anything. But she complains that she’s bored and wants to move on to more difficult pieces and she wants to skip the entire process and cut straight to reading music.
Obviously, I’ve not retained much territory with this student. At our last session when I again gently reminded her that she must practice if she wants to learn, she said she didn’t need a mother and she would rebel if I kept on her about practicing. I think the problem is that she is older than I am and a complete health basket case. I’ve given her lots of slack because she’s so pitiful. All my other students are doing well. I’m wondering if I should terminate lessons with her. She isn’t learning much and we are both getting frustrated.
Sheri R., California
I would imagine there are many teachers in your area that teach reading. Have you suggested she inquire about that? You have a ton of patience! It seems you really want to make a difference in this woman’s life. Doesn’t seem like she’s biting though. (I have had many adults who want to do their own thing but this one definitely takes the cake!) You can lead a horse to water and all that. . .
Since she refuses to follow your counsel she is creating her own failure with Simply Music and from what you’ve written here it seems that at this point the only other recourse you might have is to be ready to lose her as a student by telling her you would only continue to teach her if she were willing to follow your lead. With only 3 students I can understand that might not be a good option for you. But it seems the choices are pretty limited–either carry on or give her an ultimatum. In the end the only potential for a successful outcome is to lay it on the line. She may have depression piled on all these physical problems–she’s got to be willing though in spite of all of that or the frustration will only get worse. Have you asked her why she’s paying you good money to be her personal coach and then not letting you do what you’re hired to do?
Probably no magic bullet for something like this, but by doing something different, something will shift one way or another.
The only suggestion I myself would have for Carol, Jane, or anyone who has a problem adult student is this: I don’t really think that just because someone is a stubborn, refusing adult there’s basically nothing you can do. You can tell them the truth – that they did come to you to learn, and if they are deciding how that should be done, they will get less than satisfactory results.
Always explain the real reason piano lessons are so hard for an adult. It’s because in almost every other every of their life they are used to being fully functional, and they do not have to learn ‘how-to’ anymore. Therefore this is VERY unfamiliar territory to them. Some adults are very uncomfortable and self-conscious on the bench, most especially in a private lesson as seniors sometimes need to be. Not only do they not know how to play the piano, they also do not know how to be a student. So they immediately compensate for that discomfort without even thinking about it, by being in charge like they are used to doing everywhere else in their whole world. Tell them this.
You need to find a nice but firm way to tell them it makes no sense to pay you, and then proceed to teach themselves. Help them get used to that awful feeling of being in kindergarten at their adult age. And you need to keep finding ways to say it until they understand and get it.
Don’t give up, and don’t ever give in. You and your adult students can achieve great things with Simply Music, and sometimes you will face the greatest tempest with them right before they see the light. They really don’t understand, and this is part of our teaching. Getting them to ‘get it’.
Hilary C, Australia
Sounds like this lady has a lot on her plate at the moment and hence so have you! She threatens to rebel? – She already is by not putting in the time requested – have you pointed this out to her? It is possible that she is not centered enough to concentrate under the circumstances.
Have you spent time sounding her out as to why she puts these obstacles in her way so as to stop herself learning? What is she scared of – succeeding ? not succeeding? Is she in love with the romance of being able to read and play music and overlooks the effort? Is it attention-seeking behavior? I think we need to explore the ‘why’ not the ‘what’. Have you asked her what the worst thing is that can happen?
Have you gone through the relationship graph with her? and congratulated her on where-ever she is on it – I make a joke about it and shake their hand and say ‘welcome to the human race’ – we are all the same with our ups/downs; ons/offs – even the teacher, and I think students need to know that.
I always try to use language and analogy that students will understand and since you met her at a church retreat instead of using the ‘territory’ image with her you could use the idea about needing to become a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven – becoming a little child is about transcending the ego, in this case to accept instruction – the kingdom of heaven here is the goal of learning to play the piano. Functionally the same, just a different way of putting it. (I did this recently with a 30 something Mum who I knew went to church and who can be trying). The ‘little child’ wisdom came from a time when children were seen as of no account and mere chattels – it’s a subtle irony that you are her chronological junior!!! For some people, who for whatever reason have not had the life they thought they would and succeeded (whatever that means!!!) , the ascendancy of age is a fall-back position, not that I’m saying seniors shouldn’t be as respected as anybody else – and in the scheme of things she’s not old!!!!
I have heard depression described as anger turned inward and at her time of life, with health concerns, fears of all sorts and by the sound of it living on her own, she has every right to feel angry – and of course the upshot is she’s probably alienating anybody trying to help her because her behavior is downright off-putting.
You have choices – you can ditch her; you can be upfront with her as much as you feel you can and to some degree work through her junk with her – just be careful to make reasonable demands and not ‘rescue’ her – when you can find yourself rewarding behavior you’re trying to change. If you are in a small community your reputation could be impacted by how you handle this, and that is scary.
One of the ‘problems’ with SM is that it’s about personal development (for all) as much as it is about piano playing. It means having to reassess how you understand yourself. Her lessons might have brought up a whole load of things she has either been unaware of or denying – who knows? And they have certainly brought up issues for you.
I know I just love it when my adult students get that sparkle in their eye that says they are starting to believe they can do this – their whole demeanor changes. And yes, I am a bit older than the average and I guess that gives me some confidence when dealing with these issues, and hey, I don’t always get it right (sorry to disappoint you!!!!).
Postscript from Jane R.
I want to thank every one who sent in advice about my problem student. I wrote a while ago about an older woman with serious health problems who wouldn’t practice, wouldn’t use the student home materials, and said she was bored with the easy songs. She wanted me to teach her to read music. I thought I’d share the wisdom I gained from the situation.
I tried my very best to motivate her and work with her, showing loving compassion and firmness. Finally, I woke up and realized I’d started dreading her piano day. I also realized that just as Neil says you can’t teach someone who believes they aren’t musical–that they will work to prove to you that they are not musical–you also can’t teach someone who believes they can’t remember anything.
From the first encounter with this woman, she warned me that she could not remember anything. then she set about proving to me that she could not remember anything. I could see that this was not true. She did remember lots of things. But she was determined that she could not remember anything about her piano lesson and refused to use any of the helps provided by this wonderful method. So I ended the teacher/student relationship and felt a huge relief. I was really glad to finally make sense of the situation. I’ve been successful with everybody else. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t be successful with this person. I am so grateful for the philosophical wisdom that undergirds Simply Music.