The Patience Threshold

For those who are not as familiar with violin repertoire, there is a book of etudes for beginners written by Franz Wohlfahrt.  These are quite famous in the string world, although some students might consider them infamous.  I had been resistant to use them when I first started teaching since most students I assigned them to wouldn't practice them anyways.  I have recently started to be more insistent that they spend time with them, to the point where we may spend half a lesson on just a Wohlfahrt etude.  A colleague of mine who teaches piano has a similar set of etudes that he uses, and which many students may peg in the "infamous" category:  the Hanon book (etudes by Charles-Louise Hanon).
As I mentioned in the discussion on acquiring new skills and my Skill Acquisition Hierarchy, technique - the "how you do it" of any skill - is the foundation you build upon before you can become a true artist or even just get better at anything.  Since this is the case, things like scales, exercises, studies, etudes, etc. are absolutely critical for building the skills.

In college, my thought was that if I could play every possible scale and master every technical aspect of the bow and of fingering, etc. that I would be able to play any music ever written that was possible to play.  Yet, I'm beginning to see how essential etudes are as I have encouraged more and more students to spend time with them.  The technical leap from being able to play a scale and use a specific bowing technique is pretty big when being faced with a piece with that bowing technique.  Hence, the purpose of etudes: to make the leap from technique to playing a piece and to lock that technique into place by putting it in a difficult setting.

While this is all well and good to teach students, helping them understand the importance, it doesn't change the fact that many of my students hate Wohlfahrt.  Yet, not all of them do, and I began to see patterns among the differing attitudes.  Most students who either didn't mind Wohlfahrt or actually enjoyed it were those who were much more patient, who are willing to work on nitty, gritty piece work, playing three notes 50 times together to make sure they sound awesome.
Those who were more resistant to etude were those who, when working through a rough section, would do one of several things.  They would get frustrated and start complaining; they would stop participating and would move on to a different part of the piece (or sometimes a whole different piece); or they would either go off subject and try and derail me with tangents and questions about music history, theory, or other topics.

I feel that there is a certain breaking point with students, a point at which if you push them too far and too hard they will either start to shut down in lessons, become more defiant, or will stop taking lessons from you all together.
I felt this was true with swimming lessons for me when I was younger.  We used to take swimming lessons every summer, and I really enjoyed it.  My twin brother and I were always in the same class, but my brother has always been more athletically inclined than I have.  About our third year of lessons, I was beginning to have a hard time continuing to keep up with the class, and by the end of summer I was asked to retake that year of swimming lessons.  I was crushed, and I chose not to continue.  For me, I was pushed too hard and chose not to continue.

So what is it that makes one student persevere and continue even when things might seem boring or difficult?  I feel the answer lies in the virtue of patience.  It takes patience to sacrifice and dedicate time to practice, more patience to work on those essential building block elements of scales, etc. and even more to play effective but highly repetitive and sometimes downright boring etudes.  Some students have the patience to do those things and some don't.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It becomes critical for me to help students begin to build the patience to work through those essential things that they might consider boring or unpleasant.  At the same time, it is equally important for me to watch the level of frustration that they are experiencing and to make sure that I am not pushing them so hard that they will snap, but to push them only a little further and further outside of their comfort zone, their current patience level.  This is both to help gain the fundamental skills, but it is also to help them to build the patience to be able to do everything necessary to become a great musician.
In addition, in a similar way to Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning, that patience is not something that happens all at once, but in stages.  I can't get a student to have not patience one week, and then the patience the next week to do 40 minutes of scales and etudes everyday.  My job is to gradually do so, to carefully guide them to start seeing the benefits and to be okay with playing something that may not seem quite as "fun" as other things.

The flip side of this whole problem, however is due to the dual nature of virtues.  As Aristotle discussed, morals are not just one sided.  Any virtue, taken to extremes, can become a vice.  It's great to be passionate about something, and this can be a virtue.  But if you are so passionate that you neglect other important things, it has become a vice.  Being frugal is a good thing, but if you refuse to pay for lunch when out with friends, steal pennies from the penny jar, etc. in an effort to save money, you have pushed the virtue of frugality into the realm of stinginess.  On the flip side, being willing to spend money to help friends is good, but when you do this so much that you are always in debt, it has now become a vice.

Even patience can be taken to extremes.  If you have such patience and determination that you only work on scales and basic warm-up exercises that you don't work etudes or pieces, you are still not going to progress as fast.
I find this most often with students who leans more towards perfectionism, and it ends up being like the young education student who has studied teaching philosophy, educational psychology, classroom motivation and management, etc. but who has not yet had to get in front of the class and teach.  There is a huge curve from the knowledge to the application of it, and this is true from scales to pieces also.
There comes a point at which, even if you are working on all the fundamental technique, you need to start applying it.  It is at this crucial point that we want to help students get to:  that they are consistently working on improving their technical abilities alongside working on and performing pieces that utilize these techniques.  Once this point has been reached, you and the student have successfully breached the patience threshold.


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