Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013
When we first grow plants for our outdoor garden, there is a point when we need to prepare the plants for the conditions that the plants will face outside: wind, sun, rain, and temperature. In the beginning, we baby our plants to get them growing. Then we begin to expose the plants to outdoor conditions a little bit at a time. This exposure period will toughen the plants up so that they can better withstand the outdoor conditions that the plants will later face.
When raising baby chicks, there is a similar process. In the first week, chicks cannot regulate their body temperature because they do not have feathers at this point. We provide a heat source, such as a heat lamp or other light bulb, hanging over the brooder to provide warmth as the chicks grow. In weeks two and three, the feathers begin to grow in, and the chicks can regulate their own body temperature. At this point, we raise the heat lamp a few inches to lower the temperature in the brooder a few degrees, and the chicks learn to adjust to the slightly chillier space. This slight change of temperature will help the pin-feathers to form and the little chick bodies to grow healthier.
So too, there is a hardening process that a student needs to experience with a teacher. In the university setting, my applied violin students experience this hardening off period in the fourth semester, when a student prepares for the upper level review. The upper level exam at my university is a juried performance at the end of the sophomore year, when the string area faculty will determine whether the student has attained the level necessary to handle upper level courses. The upper level review also includes a look at the student's course work to determine whether the student is still on track to graduate on time. If a student is repeatedly flunking the first theory course, for example, then a student is not likely to pass the upper level review process. We cannot have seniors still working on freshman level coursework.
The upper level review is the first big hurdle that a music student faces, and there will be other hurdles that the student will encounter before finally completing the requirements for a university degree. At this point, I have worked with my student through four semesters. If all goes according to plan, I have corrected any technical issues: bow holds, left hand posture, intonation, and vibrato. If there are other important issues to address, such as rhythmic challenges or musicality, then I address those as well. Along with these corrections, I have added progressively more difficult challenges to grow the student's technical and musical ability.
I find that I need to work closely with my freshman and sophomore students to teach them how to be musicians. I address issues of how to practice productively and adequately. Some students need help getting up to an alarm clock or managing time for studying. Some students need stronger boots to the posterior to turn in homework on time or to show up to class. Each student presents a different set of challenges, and I look at my job as the teacher to come alongside the student and guide them through the minefield that is the university educational system.
In the fourth semester, however, it is time to harden off my students. At this point, the student needs to learn how to handle things without my close, personal involvement. I have led my student to this point, and now the student must show that the student has reached the level of maturity to handle the next step. I cannot do this step for them.
This is a difficult process for students. I have taken a few steps back in order to let the student experience the process without me. I am there, of course, to give advice and to make corrections, but mostly I am reflecting questions and discussions back to the student so that they learn how to make decisions and judgments without me.
This can be a difficult process for many students. Many students experience a sense of being abandoned, although that is far from the truth. I simply cannot offer those close, mothering type of platitudes any longer. I still offer words of wisdom, positive suggestions, new options or avenues of thought, and always questions and more questions. My students have reached the point of needing to reflect for themselves, consider the options and answers before them, and then to factor in the consequences of decisions. All of this takes place before making a decision.
Some students have a difficult time making decisions. These students wallow in the twilight zone that exists between posing the question "What do I want to do with my life?" and the answer "I want to be a teacher/performer/artist." When the sophomore year begins to be a bit difficult, compounded by the fact that the student is still on the uphill side of the degree path (there are at least 2 or more years left to go before graduation), these students find it difficult to complete the first step of setting a goal and then mapping out the steps to reach it. These students tend to escape the necessary lesson that comes from making decisions and following through on plans by flirting with a change in majors. Some of these students will change majors more than once in an effort to find that one career path where things will remain fun and easy to do. I try to advise these students to merely make a decision and stick with it. Sometimes the act of making a decision will reveal the students' real desire. I find that it is the fact that a decision needs to be made and is not being made that is most of the unsettling feeling that students experience. Just make a decision, and the real decision will usually reveal itself rather quickly.
Some students experience fear about the future. These students look ahead to the end of their university stint and wonder at how they will ever be able to actually go out in the world. These students cannot wrap their minds around the fact that they will be on their own, teaching in a public school, playing in a symphony orchestra, or performing whatever career path these students have chosen. I remind them that at this point they are not ready for that, but when they reach their senior year, they will be chomping at the bit to get out there and begin their lives.
Some students despair of ever reaching the end of the road and graduating. The road stretches so far. I recall this experience myself. As I looked ahead at where I was headed, the road seemed so long and tedious. I found it difficult to imagine myself ever reaching the end of it. This is a time when students may stop working hard. Practice routines suffer, other activities or interests attract students' attention, and perhaps a romance or two interferes with the students' work ethic. I monitor my students closely for signs of these problems, but I also recognize that sometimes students get pulled in these many directions as a means to escape the tedium of buckling down to finish the task at hand.
Mostly, the students are tired. The sophomore year is a hard one, when the students experience some of their busiest semesters of coursework. I seem to have more trouble finding lesson times for my sophomore students than for any other level of student. When students are tired, they tend to make poor decisions. They make poor choices.
This is a difficult process for students, but it is a necessary step toward maturity and adulthood. These same situations will occur when these students are part of the adult world. Students will feel alone at times in their adult lives. They will have difficulty making decisions. They will fear what the future might bring. Reaching some goals will take a long time (raising children, buying a house, paying off the credit card debt or house mortgage). And students will experience the exhaustion that comes from a busy, demanding adult life.
The time to learn how to dig deep and handle these lessons is best done during the pre-adult years, such as those in the university setting. I steer my students through this tough time with a hardening process. Similar to what my mama dogs did when raising their little pups, I wean my students from their dependence on me and teach them the life skills to be independent (or interdependent) and to make fruitful decisions.
As teachers, our role in our students' lives can be so much more than teaching our students how to play a musical instrument. We have opportunities to teach life skills that will serve our students for their entire lives. I urge teachers and parents to consider the value of the hardening off process.