The million dollar lesson is designed to help young students learn what is and is not appropriate lesson behaviour. In my experience teaching, I have found that most young children eventually decide to “test the water” of lesson behaviour to see exactly what they can get away with. When this happens, the parent and teacher have the opportunity to teach the child that it is alright to manipulate the lesson, wasting everyone’s valuable time, and the parent’s money, or we can teach the child that inappropriate lesson behaviour is unacceptable.
First let’s define inappropriate lesson behaviour. Hiding under a desk, in the corner or under the piano is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Clinging to mother’s skirt with a thumb stuck in the mouth is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Acting bratty, and refusing to cooperate with the teacher is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Having an all out temper tantrum in the middle of the studio because you don’t want to play Lightly Row is inappropriate lesson behaviour.If we allow this type of activity to go on in our studios, the child will learn that he or she is able to control the lesson. I have had several who whined for 25 minutes until the next student showed up, then threw a temper tantrum because it was time to go and they couldn’t have a lesson. This type of thing never happens in my studio anymore. Years ago, I learned from my mentor, Jeanne Luedke, that we need to address this situation even before it happens. With every new parent that enters my studio, part of the parent education is to discuss exactly how we will handle any situation dealing with appropriate lesson behaviour. Our goal is to train the child quickly and easily to have a productive lesson. I tell the parent that eventually, the child will come to the lesson and be tired, or fussy, or just decide that today is the day to test the perimeters of my patience, and pull something that is inappropriate. When that happens, the parent and I have a plan. First the parent is asked to take the child outside of the studio and have a talk. See if perhaps they need a drink, bathroom break, or whatever, to try to get it together. If this does not work, we agree that the parent will remove the child from the studio immediately, with no discussion. I usually say something like, “looks like today is the day” with a smile. The effectiveness of this lesson is lost if there is discussion or delay. The child needs to experience that hiding under the desk this minute produces the result of being in the car on the way home the next minute. The important part about having this plan set up in advance with the parent is that there is no anger on the part of the teacher, and no embarrassment on the part of the parent. We are simply going through the motions together of a necessary routine which will bring about a very positive change in the child’s behaviour.
I would say that almost every child I have taught has had the million dollar lesson once. A few have had it twice, and if a child needs to have it a third time. I usually suggest to the parent that the child is not quite ready for formal instruction, and perhaps a break period of 3 to 6 months might be advised.
Incidentally, I call this the million dollar lesson, because one time as the mother was taking her screaming child out the door, she asked over her shoulder if there would be a makeup, or a refund for the lesson. Without thinking, I replied, “Oh no, you are definitely getting your money’s worth this week. This is the MILLION DOLLAR LESSON.”
And you know what? That girl played Bruch Violin Concerto on the solo recital last Sunday.
At his first recital, 5 year old Jimmy was to perform a piece that he had been polishing for weeks. When it was his turn to play, much to his dad’s dismay, Jimmy ran to the back of the hall and hid in the corner, crying. We went on to the next student, and later in the recital I invited Jimmy to try again. This time he made it to the stage, but he didn’t want to play his piece – just took a bow from the edge of the stage. At the next recital he and his dad again practiced his performance; practicing walking on stage, taking a bow, then playing his piece. Again he didn’t want to play when it was his turn, but after listening to more of the other students’ performances he finally came up and played his piece beautifully. Jimmy continued studying violin for many years, performing regularly in festivals and recitals, each time in front of an audience feeling easier and more comfortable. In high school he became fascinated with the technical side of the theatre, and was involved in running sound and lights for many student productions. Now most of his performing is behind the scenes.
Kayla started playing the recorder when she was 2. After a couple of years, she could play a two note song. When she finished Kindergarten, she could play short Mozart melodies. At a Kindergarten concert, she was to play some Mozart, but after hearing all the other children play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, she played Twinkle too, because that was all she could remember when it was her turn after hearing all the others. When she was 8, she was recommended to the Provincial level of the Music Festival for woodwinds 16 and under. The other teenage students at that event fussed over her, patting her on the head and telling her not to be too nervous. She played a movement of the Sammartini Concerto and a Handel Sonata, and won the class and the scholarship. Now a teenager herself, she is including Suzuki Recorder Teacher Training courses and an ARCT recorder exam in her plans for university studies in theatre and visual arts.
Betty had always wanted to play the flute. As a doctor’s wife, she had been a patron of the arts and had always loved music, but she never actually played an instrument herself. When she retired, she started taking flute lessons. After a couple of years, her teacher said “That’s as much as you will be able to learn because you started when you were so old.” Being a doctor’s wife, she sought a second opinion. That is when she came to me for lessons. After a few more years of study, she was playing Handel sonatas at the level of the RCM syllabus grades 6 to 8, and enjoying herself immensely.
Brittany turned to me the other day and said, “When I have kids I am going to make sure they take music lessons. It is so important for them.” Brittany was finishing her undergraduate engineering degree when she said this. As a teenager, she was living with her single mother when various personal issues caused her to leave home and move in with her grandmother. Her grandmother thanked me many times for the stability that I offered Brittany by having her come to my home for her recorder lessons for many years. She learned to play very well.
Luke and his parents started violin with me when he was 4. Every time his mom or I helped Luke get ready to play he would collapse on the floor and roll around under the furniture giggling. Mom or I would catch him and start again with rest position, playing feet, violin position, bow hand, bow on the highway – and again he would fall to the floor just as he was ready to play the first note. Luke is now a teenager and playing very well. I looked at him and him mom in his last lesson and said: “You don’t fall down on the floor anymore!” and all three of us had a good laugh.