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Why we need both a teacher and prunes.

May 20, 2008 at 11:40 PM

An interesting topic has been recurring of late, primarily within the context of whether or not one can learn the violin without a teacher: the notion of bad habits. Two statements in recent threads have given me some pause. The first was the suggestion that when teachers are actually challenged about the bad habits that will accrue in their absence they are unwilling to specify what they are and the second reads ``As for all the "bad habits", I've been at it for 5 years and I don't have any because I've researched what they are !`
First of all, I would have to say that I remain adamant a teacher is necessary and this opinion is based purely on a lifetime of seeing self taught learners struggle with playing when they do not need to struggle, not to mention the difficulties of eradicating unnecessary problems.
However, some things have changed over recent years and I do feel it is now a great deal easier to get good basic lessons on the violin from a variety of sources that were simply not available ten years ago. This includes things like well constructed DVDs and this web site among others. If an adult makes intelligent and thoughtful use of these things then I do believe a much better shot can be made at producing a beginner with fewer self inflicted problems who can derive a great deal more pleasure from learning the violin.
An non-teacher learner (NTL) might then point out that they have seen supposedly taught players who actually have appalling habits and limited skills given the effort they have expended. This is a fair comment but it does not in itself justify the claim that one of the hardest integrated skills humankind has come up with can be mastered on one’s own. Rather, it is a direct challenge to teachers to wake up and do a better job; to research not only the mechanics of the craft but also physiology, psychology, educational psychology, nutrition and just about every other topic under then sun that will constantly improve and upgrade the way we teach.
As teachers, if we cannot `make public` what we are doing at a given moment and why, of we cannot explain well why trying to go it alone wastes time, creates problems which are either glaring or so subtle they simply remain in the background as a weight holding back the student from their true potential then we probably don’t deserve the title.
As a possible trigger for debate rather than a definitive list here are a few of the issues which might be classified as `Technical, psychological musical and logistic bad habits` that a good teacher will strive to bypass:
1) Standing in a way that makes bad `use of the body.`
2) Failing to prepare for each practice session emotionally/mentally and physically.
3) Failing to prepare an appropriate space to work in.
4) Improper care of the instrument.
5) Not understanding that the mind and inner ear precede anything produced on the instrument.
6) Not understanding that daily listening work to great players is vital.
7) Not Recognizing that in the early stages less is infinitely better than more. Practicing for an hour or so one day , nothing the next and so on instead of perhaps ten minutes –everyday-
8) Learning to stretch during practice.
9) Not knowing what to listen for at a given moment.
10) Not understanding the principle of follow through in many of the actions involved n playing.
11) Not repeating simple actions such as putting the violin up enough. Believing the violin is heavy. Which is connected to the problem of not putting the violin up fast enough. Collapsing the head back onto the top of the spine as violin goes up. Putting the violin up in an unergonmic position in relation to physique. Not having the arm in a neutral position when up. Having the violin too low or high. Gripping the violin and collapsing the left wrist of hooking it out. Bringing the violin and bow up using the arms instead of the back muscles using a counterweight principle. Not having enough space under the left armpit. Dropping the violin every time a shift is made or the music becomes louder.
12) Holding the bow without taking into account structure of hand and arm. Since when has a DVD given `options` for a bow hold. Collapsing the thumb and little finger. Practicing exercises that supposedly correct the latter which actually cause damage in the right forearm such as the windscreen wiper. Not keeping a constant bow speed. Not planning division of bow.
13) Using the muscles of the left forearm instead of throwing the finger from the base joint. Pressing the strings too hard. Not releasing finger pressure after note has began. Not adjusting the height of the index finger on the fingerboard in relation to the string being played.
14) Tensing up every time more sound is wanted. Relaxing more for piano.
15) Not dropping finger in blocks. Not sustaining legato in the left hand while string crossing.
16) Believing that downward pressure produces more sound rather than understanding the concept of pushing and pulling the bow.

I have to stop here. This list took me about 2 minutes to write without any strenuous thought whatsoever and rather than just continue ad nauseam I have to ask what are the implications of this?
For me the meaning is simple. A smart and diligent NTL can avoid a lot of these problems. If they are very gifted, have had a lot of experience on another instrument and understand a lot about the use of the body (very rare indeed this latter as Alexander Lessons soon reveal) then they may avoid a lot of these problems but there is no way they are going to avoid or even be aware of these things when they are going wrong because of one fundamental principle we cannot escape from: WE CAN ONLY PAY ATTENTION TO ONE THING AT A TIME and it is the role of the teacher to structure an individuals path in such a way that nothing is missed out, nothing is learnt badly and that the information is presented in such a way that it can be systematically built upon and integrated. This often means making decisions about things that need correcting but may be best ignored at this time. On the whole, experience teaches that best to teachers.
I hope this does present a basic case for getting a teacher. My final word (for now;)) on the subject is to note that the greatest violinists of all time often went back to their teachers after touring or whenever they felt/feel the need for help in progressing or dealing with a problem they feel has surfaced. It is never possible to completely avoid doing something less than 100 percent efficiently but the degree of pleasure one can get from the violin depends on how close we get to this ideal and to not make use of a guide and friend in this process seems rather odd to me.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on May 20, 2008 at 11:46 PM
If I was new to the violin and encountered this site, I think I could eventually put together for myself what to do. The most beneficial thing I ever learned about music performing I learned from a short exchange with a conservatory professor on this site.

For me, website discussion with someone like that counts for way more than most things a middle-of-his-class average conservatory graduate would be able to present you with, even in person.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 1:32 AM
Jim, I can well believe you feel you get a lot more from a site. I think you had some inital training?
However, I can`t help feeling you are simply restating the argument which I am trying to suggets is not as valid as NTLs would like to belive: that they can a) organize and evaluate the most effective route to learning and b) the actually can be conscious of deeper level mechanical deficiencies. In the latter case these may be noted at a later date rather than having a teacher `nip them in the bud` which makes them all the harder to deal with.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 2:06 AM
Yes, just a little initial training ;)

What I am saying is that I think I could eventually figure out "what to do" from this site as well as I could be taught by the teachers I had, which were probably not untypical.

Regarding problems being nipped in the bud, rather than at a later date, I'm aware that you spend time trying to undo some of those problems. I think it's possible those problems would have arisen under any circumstances, otherwise you would expect a product of one of those teachers to be problem-free. Unless you're going to say you're talking about certain species of problems, which is way to esoteric for me.

In my own personal experience, fixing problems at a latter date isn't a problem. The problem is running out of lifetime before the fix is presented ;) Just as you will run out of lifetime before you learn some things you might have learned. This is why I said something in another thread about a desirable trait for a teacher being efficiency, to be able to fix things fast, and for real. This not what I had in teachers, but have awareness of through master classes mainly.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 2:56 AM
>I think I could eventually figure out "what to do" from this site as well as I could be taught by the teachers I had, which were probably not untypical.
I’m not sure if this site would be enough (not visual enough) but I agree with what you are saying. It goes back to what I said about teacher competency. I would hazard a guess that almost all beginner teachers are rather bad and muddle along for quite a while. In the process they ruin a lot of promising beginners of all ages. The only solution is better Conservatory education on teaching and professional development taking place independent of students as well as in the studio.
>Regarding problems being nipped in the bud, rather than at a later date, I'm aware that you spend time trying to undo some of those problems. I think it's possible those problems would have arisen under any circumstances, otherwise you would expect a product of one of those teachers to be problem-free.
I think the potential for all the standard problems will always be there so they arise for everyone, all the time. I would expect the students of a good teacher to be pretty much problem free at the level they were at. The reason behind this is that a teacher can judge when to feed certain aspects of technique to a student. Part of the art of teaching is not assigning students works of the level or type that will trigger problems beyond the students capabilities of understanding and dealing with. An example might be vibrato. One of the main criteria for introducing vibrato is stable intonation. Students have to be taught to be incredibly self critical of intonation from the word go (in a constructive and enjoyable way…). However, the desire to vibrate is very strong in most beginners and even applying all the information from this site and DVDs it will, I think be experimented with way to soon without any realization of the implications of doing things in that order. Sorting out the problems caused then becomes not just a discrete fix but a major juggling act with mental concept of intonation, tension and lack of control.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 2:50 AM
This is an interesting list. As a teacher, I have to wrestle with #6 far too many times. With all the glories of the youtube, cheap ipod download thingies, inexpensive used CDs, radio on the internets, etc, I am utterly dismayed that some of my students don't listen to classical music. It is so frustrating...

Also, I still take lessons myself. It has been a most humbling experience to have a gifted communicator point out what I have missed. That is the whole point of teachers, yes? To catch what students are blind to? (For me, constantly shaking Pride off my back has been enormously beneficial). Anyhoo, I feel so great after a good lesson that I don't even need chocolate for the drive home!

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 3:25 AM
Problem-free for the level they're at sounds like a bit of a cop-out to me, since to me level is defined by the problems present, of all kinds.

Good point about the teacher can hold them back and insist on this or that better than a website. Although this website can be pretty insistent! Keep up the good work.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 3:40 AM
Teacher and prunes are both necessary and addictive. Like Anne said, teacher tells me what I missed that I had no clue the problem even existed, and after each lesson I feel great. On this site, I’ve learned tons of things that my teacher hasn’t got a chance to mention, but these are the things that happen to have caught my attention because they are already within my awareness, otherwise I will simply not know what people are talking about.

Even with a teacher, we are self-teaching between lessons, during which we need additional immediate support and this site provides this. But more importantly, this site keeps one’s mind working on violin and violin related matters. That’s what true learning is about!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 4:48 AM
Buri, I think you are so right about the art of knowing when a student is ready for a certain skill or piece, and when to let something wait for a later day.

It's very difficult to see in one's self. I'd even argue that it's almost impossible for students, especially beginning students, to see where they are, and which specific skills they need to work on now in order to create progress down the road. I was thinking about that at my son's piano lesson today. He is just learning to read music, and his teacher suddenly started going hard and heavy on the intervals. She explained how a 5-1 sounds like (and she sang) "The-end, 5-1" and then proceeded to show him all the endings of many songs he's played, to show him how you have five fingers, and look, it's a fifth, etc., etc. "Just intervals intervals intervals this week," she said to me.

Sure, I know you have to learn intervals in piano playing (in any playing), and that it helps to know them when reading music. But she knew, from 40 years of teaching, that the time is exactly now to drill heavy on this particular skill, which will set us up for the next step and the next progression.

That is the power of having a teacher. And also of not second-guessing the teacher. We'll just DO IT. I know she is taking him somewhere, and she's telling us what he needs to go there.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 4:56 AM
>Problem-free for the level they're at sounds like a bit of a cop-out to me, since to me level is defined by the problems present, of all kinds.
I can`t think of a more negative way of defining level than this;)
There is no cop out. I have a seven yera old student who started with me two years ago. He is a long way into Adventures in Violin land. I ocassionally have to remind him to waqtch where the bow is or not hook the left wrist out, but there are no flaws in the way he holds he violin, bows or utilizes the tehcniques learnt so far. He is not ready to start vibrato but that isn`t a problem or bad habit, Its simpy the stage he is at.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 5:24 AM
I agree. Level is not so much as a sum of problems as a totality of lacking. I know I’m lacking something at this stage, as I find the Viotti concerto is not as hard as some Mozart or Shubert sonatas are. Specific problems can be pointed out and to be worked on, but when I’m not ready to tackle certain technically not so difficult pieces, both me and my teacher know that I haven’t reached at that level yet, for lack of a better word.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 5:22 AM
Problem-free would imply problem-free. I don't think it's particularly helpful to force a beginning student to play a beginning piece with the same kind of tone, perfection of position, etc., etc., of an advanced player, though many teachers kill, absolutely kill, the student's motivation by demanding perfection of EVERYTHING before allowing progress. It's very frustrating to see people teach this way. I think the teacher who can define "problem-free for the level they are at" is a teacher with perspective and wisdom. You have to know when it's time to bring what skill up to a certain level. And then, it varies from student-to-student, but there is a frame for it that applies more or less to all students.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 1:21 PM
I love my teacher. And, I basically agree with everything written here about why we students, even advanced students, need teachers.

But I haven't loved all my teachers all the time, and sometimes it was for a good reason. I'm only concerned about the tone that the advice to "get a teacher" can sometimes take, not just in this forum but elsewhere.

There may also be situations when playing and learning by yourself is beneficial. In my opinion these situations are somewhat specialized and probably limited in both time and scope. They might relate to getting through a financial or personal crisis or recovering from a bad or harmful teaching experience. Or a learning style that needs to make its own mistakes in order for an important lesson to really sink in helpfully.

I think if students approach self-study from that point of view: with certain limited personal goals and objectives, and with knowing that the self-study period will be limited, they can benefit, and even possibly get more out of the teacher they eventually find than they would have otherwise. Know thyself. And don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

From Marianne Hansen
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 4:38 PM
I think it's extremely beneficial to have a teacher - and one who suits your needs and learning style. I trust my teacher, and when I say to her, "I just noticed while looking at a video that Thus-and-So does thus-and-such a thing with holding the bow. Is that something I need to be working on?" if she says "Not right now," I take her word for it.

Now, as you see, I am looking around beyond my instructor for information, and I use YouTube and this site, and a succession of books I see recommended. But I don't think you could get everything you need without some face to face instruction. In particular, I think Jim is not exactly correct that you could learn everything you needed from this site. A major problem with doing that is one that many of you will simply not have - and it is understanding what people are saying. I am well-educated, highly motivated, and good at figuring out what is going on in written texts in languages I have minimal experience of. But I not infrequently cannot tell what someone is talking about on this site. There is a specialized vocabulary which belongs to experienced violinists which many folks on this site use without a second thought. And then there is a shared language which the online group has developed which includes abbreviations, acronyms, in-jokes, offhand slang references, and so on. This is a natural situation for a community - but you really cannot learn some of things you need because the way they are presented is utterly opaque if you lack the background of the folks doing the presenting.

For example, I do not think I have understood a single thing I have read on this site about scales. I am currently doing the (one-, sometimes two- octave) scales my teacher suggests, but there does not seem to be any overlap between that exercise and what folks mean when they talk about scales here. There is a blog on technique written by a poster whom I understand to be expert and who is often singled out for praise by other v.commers - I have yet to know what he means beyond the second paragraph of any posting. I'm sure it's reasonable and useful info - I just can't tell what he's saying.

I truly do not think that someone coming new to the site could figure out enough that a teacher would not be a good idea. It's a welcoming enough community and free with a lot of advice - it's just that the technical advice is written for people who already know what they need to do, not for complete novices.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 8:18 PM
Buri, I agree superfically it has a negative ring to it. Obviously there's more to it than that. But if you don't use my criterium, level is free-floating and everyone is fine "for their level."

If someone is fine but isn't using (isn't ready for) vibrato yet, his problem is he isn't ready for vibrato yet. If another guy can't play in tune yet his problem is he can't play in tune yet. Or some interpretation or mindset. And all are liable to discover the solution to their problem in various ways I think. Hopefully, he's very very lucky, and it won't take 50 years, or never :)

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 10:47 PM
>Buri, I agree superfically it has a negative ring to it. Obviously there's more to it than that. But if you don't use my criterium, level is free-floating and everyone is fine "for their level."

That`s fair. But level, for me, has a much broader meaning than your literla interpreratation. No reaosn why you should know that...
When I use the term I am looking at aspects such as length of study and current repertoire and maybe some other stuff I can`t articulate right now. I know roughly where someone should be after one yera of regular practice for example, and if they are not there becaued they have managed to acquire many bad habits then they are not playing at an appropriate level for their talent.

>If someone is fine but isn't using (isn't ready for) vibrato yet, his problem is he isn't ready for vibrato yet.

It`s not a problem. There is no error. Nothing is badly leanred.

>If another guy can't play in tune yet his problem is he can't play in tune yet.

We may have to beg to differ on this. If someone cnanot play in tune it is because they are either without a teacher or the teacher is no good. As you pointed out earlier there are problems with a lot of teachers. One cannot just say this is lack of a teacher. However, this is a completley differnet issue to the timing of vibrato introduction.


From Jim W. Miller
Posted on May 21, 2008 at 11:47 PM
So poor learning is a problem, while lack of learning isn't.

I think it's a unfortunate if somebody does something wrong for some time, but I don't think it's an insurmountable thing. But the task of becoming aware of that thing or finding the information or person that can actually fix it may be insurmountable, though. Same whether someone suffers from lack of learning or poor learning.

From Allan Speers
Posted on May 22, 2008 at 12:04 AM

I certainly agree strongly with everything you wrote, but a few caveats:

1: One has to take into account the level any given NTL (is that now an official term?) wants to reach.

It is likely impossible to be self-taught for the first 3-5 years, then go on (with lessons or no) to becom a top soloist. However, take my case as an example:

All I want / need to do is play simple, flowing lines, with excellent pitch & vibrato. Granted, that still takes lots of work and self-scrutiny, but I assure you, I accomplished this goal in less than two years.

I will never Play Paganini, and I will never do all those fancy bow thingies (I don't even know what they're called) and I don't care. I will be even better in a few years, because I'm very self critical, and I keep using the modern resources you mention. I also know enough to be aware of any physical pains, balnce problems, etc.

Having a strong backround in cello, voice, Yoga, & physiology probably didn't hurt, either. -And I think I've studied "The Art Of Violin" about 2,000 times.

2: A teacher is certainly important, but so is finding the RIGHT teacher, and that's not always easy. Besides the existence of a plethora of teachers who are just plain BAD, there is also the problem of different schools. Bow holds, shifting methods, and Lord knows the SR thing!
i can just imagine where I'd be right now if I continued with my first (one whole lesson) teacher who insisted I use a shoulder rest, -Or the second one who thought my bow hold was scandalous, even though it works great, and I know know it's just like Heifetz.

You see my point.

-But a great topic and a very fair look at the modern situation. I would never ever ever ever suggest to ANYONE to do it my way, (the NTL way) but it is absolutely working for me.

From Ray Randall
Posted on May 22, 2008 at 12:56 AM
Interesting thread. My teacher, the assistant CM of a major world-class orchestra, told me just yesterday that the learning never stops, that she and her colleagues constantly critique each other as orchestra playing tends to deminish your skills.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 22, 2008 at 1:21 AM
it`s interesting. Some people might be better off with an Alexander Teacher and a good DVD rather than a bad teacher;)
Ray, the neologism you greated using `diminish` and `demonic` is very apt.

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