Case Study: Violin Pedagogy
and the Adolescent Student

C.M. Sunday © 2014

Background Information
S.B., who is the subject of this paper, is a seventeen-year-old adolescent woman of South American ancestry (her parents are from Lima, Peru), who is currently a high school senior. She is a straight A student in the honors program in her school, involved in many community activities, and taking the hard sciences and math courses (she wants to go to med school), in addition to her responsibilities vis a vis her violin lessons, orchestra and string quartet rehearsals, and concerts. She participates in All-City, All-State, and private music festivals, and performs with her quartet for public events.

S.B. has studied the violin with me for about 18 months. During that time, she has progressed in her violin studies from the later books of the Suzuki method to pre-college level, professional repertoire. After a recent round of auditions and applications, several universities sent her offers of acceptance. She has won a President's Scholarship at a prominent university in the eastern part of the country. She won this through a combination of her good grades, good SAT scores, and extracurricular activities, among which is the music.

Reasons for Studying Adolescent Development
It is important for music teachers to understand their adolescent students in order to help guide their careers, if they're headed for careers in music, and what strategies to use to promote their highest level of development, whatever their goals may be. Due to the hardships and uncertainties involved in the artistic life, the majority of individuals who study music do so for a sense of personal enrichment and because of the way music study heightens the sensibilities. One of the most important precepts of Suzuki training is that the intent is not to produce professional musicians, but to produce "happy children."

Thus, there must be separate standards of evaluation for students headed toward artistic careers and those who probably are not. S.B. enjoys playing the violin and says that she could never give it up. She wants to play in the orchestra at her university and this experience will probably be very meaningful and pleasurable for her. What I would not say to her--because it might hurt her or discourage her--is the quite unnecessary observation (since she has no plans for a professional career in music), that people simply have varied levels of natural talent. While this is by no means always the case, sometimes the formal cognitive intellectual capacity is better than the raw musical talent in terms of tone production, phrasing, and especially intonation. Often, in fact, intellectual ability and musical talent may be askew, and very talented musicians will have no corresponding great abilities in other areas, while very able thinkers cannot produce a passable tone, no matter how hard they try or how very much they want to. These exquisite sensibilities are gifts; the ability to hear intervalic relationships or phrase in a meaningful way on a stringed instrument can only be taught up to a point; why some children have these gifts in abundance, while others are less gifted in this respect, is mostly unknown and mysterious.

This particular student has grades and standardized test scores indicating she is in the "gifted" range, which is sometimes defined by an IQ score of 120 or over. Her behavior and attitudes are characteristic of that group. She is very much in the category of other students who work with an intensity teachers really appreciate because so much may be accomplished. With this category of student, there is an underlying assumption that hard work will be the norm, and there is no rude or merely rebellious questioning of the teacher's authority. I think this underlying respect for the educational process is probably a result of matching parents' attitudes.

Historical Perspective
All of the changes which have occurred in society over the past several hundred years (the rise of the middle class, the emancipation of women, the developments in technology) affect the study of music among adolescents. One primary change is that women have more and more been allowed to pursue their studies seriously, given the necessary talent and opportunities. Hopes and expectations for daughters are now far less different than for sons: S.B.'s parents feel that she can succeed in medical school, and she gets plenty of emotional and financial support from them. There are really no operational beliefs that she can't do something because she is female, and this is a relatively new development. It was not so very long ago that women were not even allowed to read, and only the daughters of wealthy men were given the benefits of a classical education, though music has been one of the accomplishments a young lady might pursue, to a point. Having a professional career, however, requires years of arduous study beginning long before and progressing through adolescence.

The notion that biologically-based sexual instincts drive the personality would be fairly hard to dispute when one watches the psychosexual development of a young woman; it is a blossoming that is beautiful to observe. In terms of universal stages, S.B. is at a normal stage of development for someone her age, which Freud delineated as around ages 12-18, and called the genital stage. My own reservations with respect to the anti-female bias in Freud's theory makes me shudder to think that S.B. would ever be involved in any serious psychoanalytic investigation. I perceive her as being healthy and not in need of this method.

In terms of dating, I do think that S.B.'s parents, because of their culture, may be more strict with her than perhaps other parents are with their children. I know she goes to dances, because I see the stamps on the back of her hand. I asked her if she is getting ready to go to the prom, and she told me that she and a friend of hers - "they're just friends" - another violinist, are going to the prom together. It was at this point that she told me that she feels the most comfortable with other musicians or artists and perhaps this was because they have the most in common. Music study enculturates or socializes students to think in certain paradigmatic ways, and this is what she is referring to. Thus, this enculturation becomes an additional gatekeeping device for adolescent sexual impulses, through group identification.

Psychological social conflicts as delineated by Erickson's eight stages--versus Freud's drive theory--can also be observed in this student. I would judge that S.B. is leaving the epigenetic "Identity vs. Role Confusion" stage and entering the "Intimacy vs. Isolation" stage. She is about to leave home for the first time in order to go to college; her mother told me in private, when S.B was in another room that she (S.B.'s mother) is experiencing some anxiety: S.B. has never been away from her--what if she gets sick? But there is in S.B. a strong sense of family, and of who she is, and I basically am not worried about her and I think her mother is not, either. S.B. on the other hand, is happy, excited, proud, and looking forward to living on her own for the first time.

The multicultural and social influences upon which Erikson based his theories can be traced in this student at that juncture between the "Identity vs. Role Confusion" stage and the "Intimacy vs. Isolation" stage. Over the last 18 months, I have observed S.B. moving between these two stages, and enduring the crisis attendant upon that development. I think she has handled it well. Perhaps because of the richness of her environment and the strength of family nurturing, S.B. has no problem with negative identity; the options she has are acceptable and achievable ones. She is able to preserve a consistency of self across time.

This theory, with the four stages of cognitive development, has as its final level of development the period of formal operations -- and S.B. is definitely at that level and has been for several years. There is a clear observable affect of this student's stretching her mental faculties to take into account environmentally imposed data --sociological, intellectual, and artistic. Her ability to think in the abstract is ubiquitous and well developed. She is well able to see others' point of view and has moved away from an egoistic purview.

There was both assimilation, where new experiences are incorporated into existing knowledge, and accommodation, where there is an adjustment to new knowledge. S.B. assimilated a higher level of performance practice with respect to her instrument, and she took in, or accommodated to, a great deal of brand new information, much of which contradicted the old assumptions she had as a less mature player. In order to incorporate this new information she had to change, and change educates the learner.

In terms of other characteristics of adolescents, S.B. is idealistic in the expected and normal ways that adolescents tend to be. (This notion of "is" versus "ought.") She saw "Shindler's List," for example, and she is now very clear that anti-Semitism is a horror. She feels very passionately about a number of people, things, ideas. She loves jazz, loves a number of specific musicians, love certain pieces--all with a youthful passion. There is a slight edge of hypercritically, but it is not extreme; she is mature enough to take her own passions with a grain of salt, I sense. And while she is still egocentric and self-conscious--she is very careful about her physical presentation--she does think about thinking. Above all, her approach to her schoolwork is systematic and purposeful. She does some divergent thinking: I would estimate her convergent/divergent ratio is 70/30. (Of course this is just a subjective guess on my part, unsubstantiated by any test or data).

Observable, quantitative, cause-affect schemata are clearly observable in this student: the better she does at her lessons, the more musical experiences she enjoys in the company of other students, the more she performs in public--the more an enculturation or socialization toward the life of the mind becomes attractive. And this has occurred to the point that S.B. is wanting to "hang out" with student musicians or artists because, as mentioned above, she feels she has more in common with them. This is a huge benefit because she is going to want to stay in the company of the smartest and usually best behaved kids. You don't get into much trouble on a Friday night if you have rehearsals to attend on Saturday morning, and difficult music to prepare for your lesson. So her environmentally rich experiences in music reinforce the higher achievement goals; she is learning, based on the consequences of her behavior.

This student responds to learning enhancement techniques such as positive reinforcement and aversive cues. She is your basic "good student" and she wants to please me. Therefore, she is very sensitive to any slight criticism or less than happy remark (aversive cues), and conversely, does better the more she is rewarded with positive comments, e.g. "good" and "not bad." This "not bad" is something that is very rewarding to a student when a piece is particularly frustrating at the beginning. It gives hope and reinforces the notion that improvement is possible.

"That is a very difficult piece, and you have made a major effort." "I appreciate what you're trying to do here." "Every time I hear this, it sounds better." "Good work!" These remarks all improve the likelihood that positive efforts will be repeated. The paired association can be the teacher's smile and a positive comment. The teacher, following Skinner's precepts, must strive to be consistent, fair, regular in terms of frequency, and genuine. Thus, unwanted behaviors (not practicing, not being prepared, not playing the proscribed bowing, fingering, phrasing, etc.) can be extinguished and useful behaviors can be shaped into positive habits. These positive habits include a commitment to the work ethic, following directions and always being professional in the sense of being on time and prepared. These are strong, positive values, regardless of career path.

This theorist's ecological view of human development is based on a taxonomy of the environment, with ever widening circles of influences with the child at the center. The macro/micro dichotomy between those influences close to home and those in the wider world are demonstrable, in the case of this student, by observing her ventures out into, and speculation about, the larger worlds of college and professional life. She demonstrates a healthy balance between home and this larger world, and is looking forward to her life with joy and confidence.

In terms of these levels of moral development, I would credit S.B. with a very high level, certainly Level II, Stage 4, and verging on Level III, Stage 5. The notion of "horizontal decollage" is appropriate to site at this point since a variety of behaviors cross categorical boundaries. I think S.B. cares about "the greatest good for the greatest number," and has feelings about "the way things ought to be," but she also still has a basic, age-appropriate, self-centeredness. It is typical of musicians and artistic people in general to take lofty concepts seriously, and she does this. However, I feel that she is more conformist, less given to storm and stress, than many, and also is more of a scientific, left-brain sort of person, than most right-brain types--the consequence of which is that she is more practical and down to earth than many artists and therefore more stable. She is not, however, a rigid conformist, and she understands that some rules may need to be broken.

There is probably still some Level I behavior with respect to her desire to please her parents and her fear of not doing so. In some respects she is probably a selfish actor (this doesn't imply self-ishness, but an academic term); her parents have to be careful with finances and yet she wears very beautiful clothes all of the time. I think that she probably insists on this, and may get her way by the "deal is a deal" paradigm; if I make good grades an behave well, I must get nice clothes.

This theorist postulates the notion of the self-actualized person and S.B. is moving in that direction. She has a set of high goals for herself, that of being a physician, and her development will take some time if she is to integrate all her different interests and aptitudes. As illustrated, below, each of the basic levels, moving from top to bottom, needs to be accomplished or fulfilled before the development of the next. S.B. has a solid base upon which to build her future life, since her physiological, safety, belonging and self-esteem needs are well taken care of. What remains is this long career development and ongoing development of personal maturity. Again, because of parental support and richness of environment, she has a chance to reach the highest level.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Family Values
S.B.'s family is Peruvian, but she grew up in the US and considers herself from here. I think that the relationship between S.B. and her mother is close; "daddy" is also an important figure in their conversation. S.B. gets a lot of nurturing, and emotional and financial support. She is able to relate to others because her emotional needs are being met at home. Her mother adores her, to put it mildly. She can thus turn outward without fear and face the world with confidence. (Erikson). She is the only child, as her mother had to have a hysterectomy after S.B. was born. They attend church regularly and it appears to be important to them. Occasionally S.B. plays in church. Her faith appears to inform her moral choices.

On-time and Off-time
This is the notion of Bernice Neugarten's "social clock," which measures an adolescent�' physical maturation in terms of the norm. I did not feel comfortable asking S.B. about when she started menses, but I feel that she is probably normal in this respect. She is rather thin, but not unhealthily so, or at least I hope not. I don't feel that there are any problems here.

School, Peer Group Influences, Friendship
Since S.B. goes to an optional school where good grades are the norm, she is not suffering from negative peer group pressure or the fear of being a "braniac," which is the pejorative term used for intellectual peers in schools. On the contrary, she seems to have carved out for herself a peer group of friends who are the best students, the most distinguished musicians, and the sorts of influences that best support her own interest in high achievement.

I substituted at S.B.'s school and met her two best friends; both are quite extraordinary musicians, one a violinist and one an oboist. They are both beautiful young women who get high grades and have adult level performance responsibilities in the community. They are both mature, likable persons. Her very best friend, Kara, is clearly loyal to her, cares about her and is very close to S.B. and her family. S.B. is no loner but is liked and admired by many people.

James Marcia, an Erikson researcher, developed a status theory of identity which relates to achievement through crisis and commitment. Some examples of crisis, or points of decision making in S.B.'s history include: (1) When she was deciding how important music is to her; (2) when she was deciding what her college major might be; and (3) when she was deciding which schools to apply for and which one to accept. She has consistently stayed in the "Identity Achievement" stage, in that both crisis and commitment have been evident.

Activity I
S.B.'s quartet from the Youth Symphony performed at a local museum; S.B. played second violin very responsibly and seemed to enjoy herself. It was a very elegant concert and the quartet did well. S.B. is very proud to be in this group, and has worked hard on the music, which was rather difficult. She is gaining more and more self-confidence every time she performs. There was also a camaraderie among the young players and a sense of group unity which helped them perform at a higher level.

In terms of physical and cognitive changes, S.B. has changed from a scared insecure player who never wanted to be noticed and hid behind her instrument with her head down, to a calm and self-confident player who presents well, as well as sounds well. There is maturity and humor in her playing and overall presentation, rather than fear and an effort to hide.

Activity II
The local Youth Symphony performed with the local professional Symphony last week: S.B. worked very hard on the difficult contemporary piece that was performed by the two (united) orchestras. She was very excited about this concert and proud to be there in the hall with the other musicians, her friends, and her family. This experience seemed to have a profound affect on her cognitive processes; it was a step upward in terms of self-esteem and maturity.

In terms of development, the self-confident young woman I saw on stage this evening, sitting with professional players, was not the same scared little girl that played in the second violin section just a year ago. There was a look of elegance, a sense of humor, a confidence there. This was developed through many hundreds of hours of private lessons, group performances, travel and the up and downs of being involved in the musical life.


April 6, 1994
S.B. has three more lessons scheduled before the end of the term. She and her mother let me know last week that they valued and appreciated the work that we have done together. As a present, I gave her some music which is a computer generated print-out of the embellishments to a Corelli sonata which can be used to help students discover their improvisational abilities. This is kind of like baroque jazz, and S.B. loves jazz. We also are doing some pieces for fun, like the Bach E Major Sonata with it's wild bariolage that students love so much. It is sad, her mother said, that these are our last lessons. I don't feel that sadness (though I may later) so much as the excitement of looking toward new things to do and new challenges to take on. I'm also used to students coming and going, and I try to maintain an objective, professional perspective. I think this is healthier for the student, too.

S.B. has a lot to look forward to. Her development during these last two years of high school has been extraordinary. I will not be surprised if she continues with her medical studies and achieves her goal of becoming a physician. Whether or not she does this, or decides to go in a different direction, she is not afraid of risk and the prognosis of her finding her path in life is, I think, quite good.


S.B. had her final lesson with me last week and we took an hour to discuss her plans for the summer, her preparation for her audition when school starts (for chairs in the university orchestra), and some general topics. She and her mother hugged me when they left, and it was an emotional moment.

Ethnicity and Discrimination
One thing that S.B. shared with me is that she felt she had experienced discrimination because of her Latin America heritage and olive skin. She and her mother thanked me for working so hard with her these past two years, as if her being a minority were a consideration! I thought it was strange but apparently it is a big issue with them. It never occurred to me to think anything of that, since it has nothing to do with musical gifts. But S.B. and her mother apparently have suffered some rejection or discrimination because of their Hispanic ethnicity, which saddens (and angers) me.

It is generally thought that family loyalty, with the father as undisputed head, and religious beliefs (usually Catholic) play a large role in Hispanic culture. While the role of "daddy" seemed important, I did not discover if S.B. has a large extended family, as no mention of others was ever made. Their religion is important to them, though they are Protestants, which is something of an anomaly. They never elaborated about this to me.

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