You never know the impact you have in the world. Occasionally people come to us later and we find out how something we said stuck and I’m always surprised at what did. I think we accidentally hurt others more often than we realize. But sometimes we help or inspire and can be just as oblivious of that, too.
I’ve been teaching violin for many years. At my peak I had a studio of about 40 students which wore me out. Currently I only have one, but with three kids and a store and more things to juggle than I can handle most days, she sometimes wears me out too. I like getting to know other people and I like music and I like passing on things I’ve learned. For many students I think I was a pretty good teacher. For some I know I wasn’t right but hope I did okay. And then there are a few I still wonder about with no sense of how I did at all. When one of those pops up again it kind of rocks my world.
(window at the conservatory I teach for)
Being a music teacher often feels like being a counselor. Part of that is simply having one on one time with a student apart from parents and friends. Students confide because they want to and they can. Sometimes it’s merely practical to listen and talk because lesson time is valuable and if a student is preoccupied with an emotional issue it’s hard to get any real work done until they get it out. I know when I was in college I couldn’t play two notes on my viola without my teacher being able to diagnose my emotional state. Music is expressive, and I was unable to separate my feelings from my playing. I would start to dive into Bach or Telemann and the next thing I knew my teacher was saying, “Oh no, why are you so sad today?” Then I would talk, and he would listen and nod, and eventually we’d get some real work accomplished.
I’ve been a sounding board for kids who are upset about dating troubles or their parents fighting or problems with siblings or school or who are freaked out about the future. I listen, I nod, I try not to overstep my bounds, and I get them to clear their heads enough to concentrate on music before our time is up.
Most people in a position to take violin lessons come from fairly stable situations and their troubles when they crop up are things I can relate to. But I’ve had some students with hard lives and problems I don’t always know how to address. I tell them what I can, hope it has any bearing, and worry that in my efforts to help I’m not inadvertently being insensitive or making things worse. You never know.
Recently a student I hadn’t seen in more than a decade resurfaced. This was a student I have thought on and off about for years. I’d never had a student who had been bounced around to more foster homes, and I was worried that this person when released from the system would lack direction and end up with a bad crowd. I was honestly concerned that this student could be taken advantage of and wind up dead. So when this person appeared in my violin store I was relieved, to say the least.
I never knew if anything I did in violin lessons had an impact on this student. This person’s life was complicated, and I was never sure where violin fit in. I played it by ear (so to speak) and did what I could and hoped for the best. But now I know my presence in this person’s life did matter, even if at the time I wasn’t sure. When you make assignments and they are ignored week after week, and someone doesn’t follow your instructions or is distracted when you try to explain something, it can feel like talking to a wall.
However, I think being there, being consistent, not letting down my expectations or giving in to ways this student pushed me, made an impact. I was there at a time as other people came and went. And not only did this student remember me, but retained a love for violin.
This person came by just to say hello, but I had learned a few days before from a fellow teacher who taught this person with me that our former student, due to difficult circumstances, no longer had an instrument. So I fixed that.
Every once in a while I’ll get a donated instrument that should go to someone special. I’ve had a particular violin hanging behind my bench for some time waiting for the right person. I decided my former student would be a good match. It’s not a valuable instrument from a market point of view, but it was dearly loved, and will now be treasured again.
My former student is still on a hard road, but doesn’t act like it. This person is trying to address life and the world with a sensitivity that I find humbling. Now this person can do it armed with a violin. I watched my former student leave, smiling, cradling that violin as if it were the key to something grand and hopeful. Which is exactly what music is.
With a little luck some of those lessons I taught all those years ago will go to good use. That makes me happy, and it makes me proud.