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Fiddle Trek

The Wilbert Fiasco

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I had lessons with Wilbert from October 2013 until the following summer. Fiddle Guru was going on tour with English Touring Opera and I faced 3 months without a teacher - & I'd always felt miffed at having to give up my plans for taking music exams.

Wilbert had been recommended to me by a colleague, & I sent him an email. He rang up and we discussed what I hoped to achieve; he told me he was good at preparing people for exams and going through techniques methodically, and he was. He turned out to be an 'old school' teacher, the sort I'd grown up with. In fact, up until the time I took my grade 3, in April, I was pleased with his teaching, & under his tutelage I got a distinction.

I'd become irritated with Fiddle Guru's lack of method, and our lessons together were either wonderful, inspirational and anarchic, or painful, depressing and anarchic. I knew where I was with Wilbert; he'd tell me I'd got the time wrong here, or make me practise bowing fortissimo, or correct me on a scale. I felt I was making progress, which I was. After my exam, I realised that I was more confident. I didn't enjoy my weekly half-hour with Wilbert, but it was constructive & at one point I thought that if given a choice between the Guru and Wilbert, I'd choose the latter.

But - looking back - I had problems with Wilbert from the word go. For the first few lessons I was so nervous that as soon as I got to his house, I had to dive to his loo - then I found a supermarket en route with a loo that I could use. Wilbert didn't do chat, and seemed to want to preserve a distance between us. The closest I came to him was once, after a good lesson, I said: 'You are a teacher, sir!' & he said wistfully, 'But I didn't want to be. Like everyone else, I wanted to be a performer.'

What caused the problems was my nervousness. He'd ask me to play & I'd be shaking, or make a mistake, and to cover up, I'd start prattling, or mumble that I couldn't do what he asked. Wilbert couldn't cope with that - he couldn't cope with any sort of feedback at all, I discovered.

I was playing with a three quarter size bow because I find it much wieldier. I had an expensive full size bow but it was heavy. Wilbert never noticed. Straight after the exam, I happened to mention it & at once he insisted that I use a full size bow. I asked why, & he was stumped, but mumbled something about the extra two inches being necessary on some pieces.

Every lesson after that, he asked about the bow, even saying that he'd lain awake at night thinking about it, & he'd reiterate his reasons for wanting me to use a full-size bow. It was as if he was rattled by another adult asking a simple question. I used the heavy bow for a while, & then ordered a full-size bow in the same series as my three-quarter bow. It took weeks to come, & Wilbert asked me about it every week.

He was constantly trying to make me play the exam pieces the way he wanted, rather than the way I wanted (which was also the way that they were written in the Board's Exam Music). He wanted me to play La Rotta more slowly, and Carolan's Air much faster, but I disagreed on artistic grounds. He also wanted me to include ornaments in Carolan's Air. I liked the simple lyrical sound but I did introduce a few twiddles after he told me that he lay awake at night planning what I should put in.

Things moved up a gear when we went on to practising the Aural Tests. I found that I was useless at deciding whether the taped music was in duple or quadruple rhythm, or major or minor. I asked if I could sit down while I listened, & Wilbert agreed, but acted as if it was an unprecedented request. He did give me a lot of valuable coaching on the Aural Tests, but it was a painful experience & I became even more nervous & voluble.

To cope with my nerves, Wilbert started making a joke of it. When I played something for him, or answered a question right, he'd start taking me off, going 'Ohhh!' with an effete sigh. He'd stand at the door to let me in, unsmiling & standing in a daunting manner - he is muscular, but short, so the effect was very Bob Hoskins. I played up to it, as I had to, but in fact I didn't particularly enjoy being made fun of, & it didn't help my nervousness.

Post-exam, we moved on to a repertoire book which I found difficult. This was the problem. Wilbert set a new piece every week - I'd struggle through it, playing it badly because of nerves & because I hadn't had time to pick up the new technique - he'd tell me that it was all right, when I knew that it sounded even direr than it did in practice - and we'd move on. I never got the chance to play the piece well in his presence. I never felt that I sounded nice. I tried to ask if we could spend more time on pieces, but he wanted me to accept his pedagogy & trust him to know what was best for me. I don't think that's a good approach with any adult, let alone a retired teacher with a lot of self-knowledge.

One day he said that after Young Violinist Book 3, he wanted me to go on to Young Violinist Book 4, and then we'd go straight in for the Grade 5 exam, skipping Grade 4. I demurred, saying that my confidence would be better if we did it in stages, & I wanted to learn the scales for Grade 4. He listened, but never referred to it again, & again I got the feeling that I wasn't allowed to question his plans for me.

Wilbert sometimes made remarks about his school pupils, giving the impression that he didn't enjoy teaching & was amazed by their inability to cope with simple things. After the exam he began cancelling our lessons at short notice, not always for terribly good reasons.

I also came to see that I didn't like the classical pieces I was playing - many were horribly arch musical jokes, or if they were nice medieval tunes, one had to ruin them with a funny rhythm or unnecessary shifts of position. But I wanted to do at least one more grade - I was grateful to Wilbert for my grade 3 distinction - & I liked him & didn't want to let him down. So though I thought often about discontinuing the lessons, I decided to soldier on for at least another 6 months.

Then one evening, in the middle of the summer holidays, I went to Wilbert's house to find him in a strange bullying mood. I played my piece, badly, & he put me on to the new piece, a Mozart duet. Usually he'd play the new piece through for me & let me take it away. This time he said I had to sight-read it, while playing a duet with him for the first time. I said I didn't think it was a good idea for me to cope with so many new things at once, but he gave this short shrift.

Not only that, but every time we started to play the piece together, he'd stop me to say that something was wrong - I hadn't signalled to him when to start, I was playing too timidly, I'd got the time wrong - whatever. He simply steamrollered all my nervous objections & forced me to play it through.

Then he said, 'There - I told you that you could do it!'

I said, 'But I didn't do it very well!'

He retorted, with edge: 'Did I say that you would do it well?'

What possible response to that is there but 'No!'

But as soon as I'd said it, he snapped my music book shut & stomped off to a corner of the room. I couldn't work out what was happening - there was still ten minutes left of the half hour - so I said, 'Are you finishing the lesson early because you're cross with me?'

He snapped back, 'You are just so negative. I cannot work with you.'

I felt angry & dismayed, but I didn't want a row. So I said nothing & went to put my violin away. He came & stood right behind me, louring over me as I packed away, saying nothing.

I wondered then - as I do now, sometimes - whether he'd engineered the row on purpose. As I stood up with my case, he stepped into my line of sight. I waited & said nothing.

Then he said - and this takes the biscuit! - 'Aren't you going to give me a smile?'

I said, 'How can I, when you've given me my comeuppance? It would be cheeky. What I want to know is, do you want me to come back next week?'

He replied that he did!

I sat down & we had a little discussion about the lessons. I said I didn't like being made to move on so quickly, & he said that he didn't know why I couldn't just trust him if he said that my progress was OK. Twice he said, 'Come next week; we can get through this.'

But he didn't apologise for losing his temper & lopping one third off my lesson. If he had just said sorry, I'd have forgiven him at once, & we could have made a new start.

As I sat there, I wanted to make peace & say how hurt I was, but I saw that he was a person you just couldn't talk to. As I drove home, I veered between turning round a roundabout & going back to 'have it out with him' - emailing to say that the lessons were over - or phoning him. I felt that the lessons couldn't go on unless the issue of adult-talking-to-adult were resolved, & I knew that he couldn't do this.

When I got home, I told John what had happened. He said, 'It isn't your fault!' This was such a relief (I'm always saying sorry & blaming myself) & for once I realised that it was true. I couldn't live with waiting so I phoned Wilbert. When I said who I was, he gave an exasperated sigh. I said we had a personality clash & I wanted to finish the lessons. He said he was sorry to hear that - but was that true?

It had a terrible effect on me - I hate confrontation - & caused many sleepless nights.

At least it made me appreciate Fiddle Guru, who is someone I can be honest with.

It takes a special person to teach music - and an even more special person to teach music to adults.
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Updated Jun-01-2016 at 19:37 by Ingélou

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  1. Ingélou's Avatar
    Wilbert is not his real name.
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    Updated Apr-25-2015 at 12:19 by Ingélou