Other people’s words can either crush your dreams or help to bring them to life. Liz Bury shares her experience of being a tutor for adult learners.

We all know how powerful words can be and how they have affected us in different ways at different times in our lives. I’m sure some of us can remember an experience from childhood where another person’s words upset us and changed the way we thought about ourselves or our abilities. One such instance for me was when my efforts were labelled as ‘useless’ in a PE class at school – mortifying at the time! Although my adult brain understands that things can and do change, the upshot is that, deep down, a small part of me still believes it. Fortunately, my ambitions didn’t involve sport.

How does this relate to tutoring?

In my spare time, I’m lucky enough to be in the position to be a violin tutor to adult students. During the 10 or so years that I’ve been doing it, I’ve been interested, yet saddened, that a surprising number of my students are still harbouring hurts from negative – often throwaway – comments from childhood about their musical abilities. Just a few cutting words have meant that their musical journeys have been delayed for years until, as an adult, they found the courage to enlist the help of a tutor to get them back on track.

I applaud them for doing so (especially as so many people think that learning an instrument is ‘just for kids’ – it is not) and it’s an absolute privilege to have their dream placed in my hands and be trusted to help them finally fulfil their ambitions. No pressure then!

The psychology bit

So, as a tutor, what’s my approach? It may be a bit of an unconventional one compared to school-based educators, but thankfully, the feedback from my students, along with their results and progress, indicates that it works for them. I like to think that a tutor is a bit like a tour guide going on a voyage of exploration with their student – sometimes in an imparting knowledge role, and at other times in a collaborative one – where together, we find the right path to where they want to go.

Alongside the violin playing chops, psychology is an essential element of my sessions. That’s where lots of the writing I do in my day job also has its foundations, so I’m aware of the benefit of careful word choices, how they are delivered, and the consequences they can have. Much of learning an instrument as an adult is about building confidence, especially if that was damaged early on. And, as a tutor, it’s about helping a student to dismantle the idea that a single negative comment was a prophecy and instead help them to prove to themselves that they can do it – then, reinforce that new belief over and over as evidence of their growing ability. Proving wrong the person who made that comment, no matter how many years later, is extremely satisfying!

Sharing the task

All teachers know how powerful praising effort and persistence is. That’s vital here because learning to play any bowed instrument is a hugely complex undertaking and success may not be as instant as some might like.

Additionally, because of the initial steep learning curve, it’s also critical to normalise failure and ensure students don’t write themselves off when they can’t do something straight away.

This idea is particularly challenging for some who are high achievers in their day jobs or those with perfectionist-type personalities. Nobody in the world ever picked up a violin and played it perfectly the first time, so not getting things right on the first try is completely normal – especially when you consider that at least a dozen processes are going on simultaneously when you play! 1 Managing it positively by turning learning into a joint venture and sharing their burden works well. Saying, for example, “Ok, this time, let’s try doing X and I’ll help by looking out for Y” can make all the difference. That subtle shift takes some of the pressure off the student and helps them not be so hard on themselves.

Self-esteem and self-confidence are tightly intertwined and, even for some students who have good levels of self-esteem, getting things wrong (in their eyes) can be quite humbling. As I see it, when we’re younger, we are more used to being in a learner’s role and making mistakes to then learn from them doesn’t grate so much. Some adults are generally a little more removed from that so, when things don’t go to plan, it sometimes stings a little more.

Sharing other students’ experiences to put a learning struggle into context is helpful, especially in a one-to-one session. It  helps students to know they’re not the only ones to find something a challenge and how others have overcome it.

In some ways, tutoring is all about balance – balancing expectations with experience, old self-perception with newfound abilities, effort with enjoyment – and doing it all with sensitivity, encouragement and kindness. After all, these are dreams we are fulfilling here, so we need to have fun while we’re doing it!


  1. TEDEd – Collins, A. ‘How playing an instrument benefits your brain.’ Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0vddzzOjV0


  • Liz Bury

    Liz is Group Editorial Manager at NetSupport by day and, by night, a musician and violin tutor for adult learners. A self-confessed word nerd, she is interested in psychology and what makes people tick, as well as being a champion of the contribution that music and the arts make to everyone’s wellbeing.
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