Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Student

The problem with some people is that anything you could possibly say to describe them would only sound like an exaggeration.

Such is the case with D, the sixty-or-seventy-something year-old fellow who called me up five or six months ago looking for a violin teacher. "I've been playing around with violin for years," he explained, "and I've decided I ought to get serious about it before I die."

Well, okay, I thought. This could be fun. I imagined a grandfatherly gentleman coming for lessons each week, the two of us connecting and having a good time together. Of course, I knew his fingers wouldn't have the flexibility a child or young adult possesses, but I assumed that as an adult, his mental faculties would be at least par.

What I encountered instead was a unkempt, awkward old man with eyebrows that grow a full inch straight out over the rim of his glasses. And when he raises his bow to his strings and begins to play, the sounds that he draws forth from the violin are exactly the hellish sounds that made my dear Dad once say, "You're never playing the violin! It sounds like a dying cat!"

When my fourth grade students brush neighboring strings, play leading tones too low, and squeak over the bridge from time to time, I'm a wellspring of patience. But D's playing quite literally makes me sick to my stomach. And he doesn't improve. No superlative is strong enough to fully convey how horrible it sounds when he plays.

Before he begins, he has an odd ritual I can't help thinking of as 'winding up.' He plays a few slow bows on open strings, and then cranks his speed up faster and faster. After a minute of this, he nods to me, 'Ready.' He asks, 'Now, where were we?' This makes me fear that he hasn't practiced. I tell him we'll work on the Brahms Waltz (from Suzuki Book 2) again this week. He finds the B natural that begins the piece and 'winds up' on this note before beginning.

The rhythm we worked on for 30 minutes last week is still atrocious. The dotted quarter that begins the piece has become an eighth note indiscernable from the three eighth notes that follow it. Intonation is questionable at best, and more often painful. His fingers can't actually play half steps close enough or whole steps wide enough, so he equalizes all his intervals into 3/4 steps. His bow travels three inches or more up his fingerboard, squeaking and squawking as he saws away, usually brushing at least one extra string with each bow stroke. And perhaps most annoying of all, he cannot even begin to follow the marked bowings. The bowings are simple. They make perfect sense. They are clearly marked in the music. Two notes slurred on a down-bow, two notes slurred on an up-bow. D steamrolls through the piece, adding slurs wherever he pleases, clumsily separating in other places. It's illogical, it's un-musical; it's completely determined by the incorrect rhythm he insists on playing and by his very poor bow distribution. His bowings will never be the same twice. They are a product of blind chance.

I tell him the same things I told him last week and the week before that. Hold the dotted quarter for the full value. To do that, you've got to start at the frog. Save bow as you slur the first two beats. Spend bow on the one beat up-bow. Get back to the frog and do the same in the next measure. I attempt to help him correctly hear and execute this rhythm for ten minutes, all to no avail. He starts in the middle of the bow, his fingers holding the bow stiffly, awkwardly. He spends bow rapidly on the dotted quarter he plays as an eighth. The final eighth note in the measure he holds for the value of a half note, until he reaches the point in his bow where he feels ready to begin the next measure. I tell him the rhythm should determine how he distributes his bow rather than letting his bow randomly determine the rhythm. He looks confused. I explain several different ways before giving up. We move on.

I tell him to quiet his shoulder motion and use his elbow. His bow travels up the fingerboard rather than staying over the f-holes because his elbow is stiff and he bows from his shoulder. I demonstrate the difference. He peers at me through his glasses.
'Eh? Use the shoulder you say?'
'No, your shoulder should be relaxed and nearly un-involved. Open and close your elbow, like this.'
'Oh, the elbow, you say.'
The idea is new to him; he has no recollection that we discuss it every week. He attempts to execute this concept with little success.

I tell him to slow down. Before I can get the words out of my mouth, he is playing again, rushing, speeding through the piece and leaving out-of-tune notes scattered behind him like hit-and-run victims. He won't stop and listen. He'll never slow down. I tell him to please learn the bowings carefully in the following week. But he thinks he is already doing the bowings exactly as marked. He cannot tell the difference.

We usually end the lesson by spending a few minutes on his 'tunes,' the Scottish fiddle pieces he loves to play. He tells me he's not good at Brahms, but his 'tunes' are what he really excels at. He excels so much that when he begins to play, I cannot tell which of the three pieces on the page he is attempting. Rhythm, meter, key signature, and melody are all equally indiscernable. When he finishes, I demonstrate a hooked bowing for the dotted rhythms by playing the opening of the tune on my own violin. 'Wow, these tunes sound great on your fiddle!' he exclaims. I don't tell him that it's not just my instrument that makes the difference.

I'd like to quit teaching D, but what reasonable excuse can I offer? I can't tell him my teaching schedule is too full; he's retired and can come for a lesson at any time of the day. And I don't have the gumption to tell him the truth: hearing him play makes me want to scream and tear my hair out.

I guess I'll just have to wait for him to die. I'm thinking it might not be long. After all, he practices at home. If his wife has any ear at all, I wouldn't be surprised if she brings this dreadful situation to a final cadence.


  1. Love the last line.

    Think of it this way. Maybe he's actually really rich, and since you're giving his life new meaning, he'll leave his piles of gold to you in his will.

    Ok, far-fetched. But....

  2. Oh Sarah, what an excellent opportunity for you to practice patience and charity! He sounds adorable! Don't you just love him to pieces anyway? You should make him chocolate cake and tell him he's your favorite. He will probably never improve ever, ever, ever at all, but that's not what is important. Can I ever tell you how much I have wanted to learn to play the cello, but have always been too much of a pussy to even try? How brave of him to try! I was reading Purgatory today, and thinking about how important the music is - the penitents are always making music. I would be so sad if you turned him away! He would probably be crushed and never pick up the violin again. (which to you, might be a good thing:) but God loves his music, even if it's terrible.