Hands-On Learning?
5 Sep 2011
Inside the Classics

Since I just wrote a post about teaching, which isn’t actually something I spend a lot of time doing, I thought I’d follow up by writing about an aspect of teaching that I’ve struggled with from time to time, and that I know some full-time teachers have to confront every day. Namely: whether or not you should touch your students.

To be clear: I’m not talking about smacking them around. Whatever tales you may have heard about dictatorial music teachers from generations past, there’s just no way that any professional music teacher is getting away with physically abusing his/her students as a form of motivation in 21st century America. What I’m talking about is using your hands to physically guide a student’s motions when verbal cues don’t seem to be enough.

Playing a stringed instrument is, of course, a highly physical activity, and just as a figure skater needs to move exactly the right muscles at exactly the right moments to execute that triple lutz, a violist trying to play the opening run of Don Juan needs to have complete control over dozens (hundreds? I never took anatomy) of small muscles in her fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and back. Some of those muscles can be trained through sheer repetition, which is why we spend so many hours practicing, especially when we’re younger. But if you have a student who has almost, but not quite, figured out how and in what order those muscles need to move, you run the risk of the wrong kind of muscle memory becoming ingrained.

So sometimes, placing a hand under the elbow of a student’s bow arm briefly can help to keep that arm steady and the fingers curved the way they need to be on the bow. A tap on the shoulder can serve as a non-verbal reminder that shoulders need to stay low and relaxed. A hand placed against the small of the back can immediately straighten posture far more quickly and less disruptively than a verbal reminder.

For non-string players, physical contact with students can be even more important, but also more potentially invasive. Wind and brass players, as well as singers, must develop excellent breath control, and some teachers I know have told me that at times, there’s simply no way to know whether a student is breathing correctly without placing a hand on their diaphragm. Which is something we in 2011 would consider completely unacceptable from pretty much any other kind of teacher, right?

There’s also the issue of age. I can’t really imagine a teacher who specializes in starting 4 and 5-year-olds on their very first violin not having to touch them a fair amount just to keep them from dropping the instrument or putting the bow on the wrong side of the bridge. When you’re literally programming the motor coordination computer of a young kid for the first time, telling them where to move their arms and fingers probably isn’t gonna be nearly enough. But when that same kid is 15, an adult touching him in any way (especially when no one else is around, which is usually the case in a private lesson) becomes a much more potentially fraught situation.

Personally, my teaching style tends to depend mostly on verbal instruction and physical demonstration, so it’s relatively rare that I touch a student at all, and when I do, I always tell them what I’m about to do first, and reverse course if I see even the slightest flinch of discomfort in response. Part of that abundance of caution on my part is something I feel compelled to exercise because I’m male and openly gay, and let’s face facts: each of those can make a difference as to how my actions might be perceived by either a student or a parent. But I also don’t have a ton of students, and never teach beginners, so it’s less of an issue for me in general than it might be for a full-time teacher.

I know we have some music teachers who read this blog, so I’m curious to hear how you deal with this issue, if you deal with it at all. Do you have a hard-and-fast personal policy on touching students, or do you take different approaches to different kids? If you think occasional physical contact (with non-beginner students) is essential, tell me why, and how you insure that your students are comfortable with it. Does it make a difference if we’re talking about in-school instruction as opposed to lessons you give out of your home? Do you ever discuss this issue with the parents of your students, just to gauge their comfort level?

Or, and I recognize that this is an entirely real possibility: am I making a huge deal out of something that isn’t really a deal at all?

<February 2020>

Become a Fan

Become a fan of Sarah Hicks to hear about new music, videos, event info & special offers.