Teaching credentials?

November 27, 2017, 5:44 AM · Does a teacher "have" to have or "have had" the skill level at which they are teaching or higher?

I tend to say yes...but I also know of exceptions in other areas...boxing, baseball, football...and I'm sure many other areas which have those individuals that never "made it" or never even competed at all that become excellent teachers at very high level.

If a teacher becomes great at teaching at a high level without being at that level themselves how do they do that? Or is that in fact ubiquitous?

I thought this would make an interesting discussion and I am interested in everyone's thoughts on this!

Replies (39)

Edited: November 27, 2017, 2:41 PM · Many teachers know how to do something (e.g. the right technique that it takes), they just haven't practiced enough/regressed to the point where they can't physically do it.

I prefer a teacher who can demonstrate to me, instead of saying, how I should play but I know a few great instructors who almost never takes their violin out of the case. Doesn't make them worse teachers, they are just able to put the technique into words and make it understandable.

Edit: spelling error

November 27, 2017, 6:23 AM · In my day it was mandatory in the highly technical sport of Olympic weightlifting that a coach should be able to demonstrate a competitive level technique as and when required. I don't know whether that is still the rule.

I think a violin teacher should be able to demonstrate and/or explain the basics of a technique even if their performing days are long gone.

Edited: November 27, 2017, 7:36 AM · Neither Dorothy Delay nor Ivan Galamian could play anywher near the level of Michael Rabin, Perlman, Midori, Sarah Chang, etc. They rarely demonstrated.
November 27, 2017, 7:58 AM · Yes, but those teachers were getting mostly already-highly-accomplished students. They were "apple-polishers." And they probably did have the technique at one point, even if they realized they didn't wish to be on stage.

But I think yes, one must have figured out how to actually DO something to able to effectively teach it. It doesn't mean you need to be able to flawlessly play whatever the students concerto. But you should have had to struggle with fingerlings and bowing for most of the standard teaching repertoire, or at least to the level you're teaching.

Howeve, as we know, it is an unregulated industry...

November 27, 2017, 9:17 AM · Delay and Galamian had students with much more raw talent than they themselves had; however, those students still needed to be taught musical conventions, technique, etc. Once past the beginner/intermediate phase, it's a transfer of knowledge.

My own experience: one of my students came in with a weird excerpt for an audition that I had never seen- I couldn't have played it without a couple of hours practice to save my life, but I could tell him which bowings and fingerings to use and how to interpret it musically. That's all stuff I learned in college.

The absolute worst teacher I ever had also happened to be the best musician of all my teachers.

November 27, 2017, 9:17 AM · It's also important to recognize the distinction between teaching a skill and the ability to execute a skill.

For example, Roger Federer, arguably one of the greatest tennis players of all time, still has a coaching staff that works with him on specific technique. Just because he can easily crush almost any other player one-on-one on the international stage (even today at age 36, making him one of the older players on the tour), doesn't imply that he doesn't have the capacity to learn new things, nor that teachers don't have the ability to teach him new things.

November 27, 2017, 11:39 AM · I was thinking what Bruce said.

It's important to note, however, that a Galamian teaching a Perlman is a very different situation from a half-trained violinist trying to teach Bruch concerto to a student who is at or above the "teacher's" own level. Galamian may not have been able to produce the sound, but he had all the knowledge.

November 27, 2017, 1:10 PM · Often one hears "teaching" and "coaching" described as different skills. To teach you need the "hard skill" you are teaching, and to be able to break it down in a way that can be digested by the student. There is a "right answer" or at least a narrow range of acceptable answers.

Coaching, by contrast, is about helping someone find their own answers to questions they pose themselves. In principle anyone can coach any skill. Though elite coaches also have a wide repertoire of subject-specific techniques to help this process!

I think it's fairly normal for the "learning" stages of any subject to be mainly about teaching and the "advanced" stages to be mainly about coaching (very broadly speaking...)

November 27, 2017, 2:24 PM · Chris, I'm a teacher and wouldn't say that's an accurate description of what I do. There are some things that are entirely a transfer of knowledge- notes on the staff, definitions of musical terms, etc. and others that are what you described as 'coaching.' Good teachers incorporate both, even at the very beginning stages. For example, instead of telling my beginner kids to play closer to the bridge, I have them test different sounding points and determine for themselves which sounds best.

I see more untrained people teaching beginners than advanced students, but I live in a town with a weak orchestra program. There are more symphony members here willing to teach at higher levels than there are students.

November 27, 2017, 3:07 PM · Yes, definitely - most teachers of any skill (whether their principal role is teaching or not) use both "teaching" and "coaching" styles but the balance is particularly different at different levels.
Edited: November 27, 2017, 5:30 PM · Could most people learn chemistry from a teacher who knows little of it? No unless you count self taught. There's a reason for teaching degrees and performance certificates.

For most people your teacher has got to be able to play above you; playing the violin is very skill oriented and individually based unlike coaching football in which a team based concept plays a major role. Boxing is a better analogy and I suspect boxing coaches had the skill and knowledge but maybe not the raw talent. You can't learn to be tall or quick or have long arms or whatever.

I recall that Galamian did win some competitions and soloed a bit before he became a full time teacher. He had the chops. And don't forget Delay was his student at Julliard so she had chops too and did in fact tour with her sister.

My opinion is that I suspect for most cases a teacher's skill level is required and only when you get at a really high level does it not matter as much: as Scott had mentioned you are just getting 'polished'.

With respect to OP's second part -there's certainly examples to the contrary but even then if you look close enough I suspect that skill and experience was there in the coach all along, they had additional coaching by others or the trainee already was at an elite level and can self learn.

Take a look at it this way: how many famous violinisrs do you know who were taught by an 'unknown'? In their biographies they almost always write who they studied under and most likely their teachers were themselves great players.

On another note, how about those autodidacts who learned on their own? Do they even exist? They are the exceptions, the geniuses and prodigies, and maybe some of them who truly succeeded without a skilled teacher succeeded because it didn't matter who taught them.

Edited: November 27, 2017, 5:37 PM · "Yes, definitely - most teachers of any skill (whether their principal role is teaching or not) use both "teaching" and "coaching" styles but the balance is particularly different at different levels."

As a teacher, I'm telling you no. That's not the way it works. (My particular pet peeve is non teachers explaining how 'teaching' works, in case you couldn't tell :)

November 27, 2017, 5:47 PM · What a coincidence, Julie! That is my pet peeve as well!
November 28, 2017, 3:26 AM · Julie - I don't follow.

Earlier you said: " There are some things that are entirely a transfer of knowledge- notes on the staff, definitions of musical terms, etc. and others that are what you described as 'coaching.' "

I responded by saying "Yes, teachers use both "teaching" and "coaching" styles". Which I thought was a pretty identical statement to what you had just said.

What is it that we are disagreeing about?

November 28, 2017, 6:32 AM · "how many famous violinisrs do you know who were taught by an 'unknown'? In their biographies they almost always write who they studied under and most likely their teachers were themselves great players."
Don't forget though that most players' bios don't list their first teacher(s), generally the teachers listed are those who they studied with when they were already advanced players, with only a very few exceptions, (I think I've seen the name of Hilary Hahn's first Suzuki teacher somewhere, for example), it is the "name" teacher that makes it into the bio. My professional resume/bio only lists the teachers I studied with in college and grad school, and the same is true for the majority of my colleagues, never mind the fact that the first 3-4 teachers I studied with, arguably had at least an equal influence on my musical and development as the college professors.
Edited: November 28, 2017, 9:55 AM · Well said, Ingrid! As a teacher and former professional performer, I feel I owe recognition of my first teachers a mention on my resumé, out of respect for their valuable work. Although I believe my own innate musical intelligence and later experience also had, and has, a role in the quality of my teaching skills, I use their knoweledge daily in my current teaching. I wouldn't be who I am as a musician today, if it weren't for them,even though most of them are unknown today.
November 28, 2017, 11:42 AM · "apple-polisher" I like that. Quotes from Leopold Auer's book. p. 6 :
"Our schedules were more than irregular. We had to be ready..at any hour of the day. We hardly ever played any scales or etudes...Anything which had to do with the technique of the two hands we were supposed to attend to at home. Joachim (!) very rarely entered into technical details, and never made technical suggestions..." I have often thought that the true heroes in this profession are the unknown beginning and intermediate level teachers that teach the fundamental techniques.
November 28, 2017, 2:34 PM · "I have often thought that the true heroes in this profession are the unknown beginning and intermediate level teachers that teach the fundamental techniques. "
I completely agree!
Look at Vengerov or all the other talents, who later in their youth went to a big name (in his case Zakhar Bron) to make the breakthrough. They all had amazing teachers in their youth laying the technical foundation. They are not really unknown, but mostly in the shadow behind the big names, who enable the concert careers.

Even Leopold Auer was one of that kind. Oistrakh and Milstein for example came from Odessa where they learned from Stoljarski, for me as a teacher a much more interesting persona, since he really brought out some wonderful violinists.

Milstein wrote in his Biography, that Auer not often played in the lesson and if he did, it was kind of cringy. Of course he was old by that time. But Milstein himself was a good violinist until laaate in his life.
Teaching has a lot to do with psychology. if a student has a good knowledge of how to read scores a teacher must only show him the path and motivate him.

My respect goes to teachers who teach the technical solid stuff 24/7 and not letting anything else but 100% quality pass their ears, before they let the student advance in the repertoire. Disregarding the age of the student. It is hard to be that one. My old teacher was like that and she always dealt with complaining students. But she was the only teacher, where the students got better month after month. Even the big names on my university "lost" some students to her, because she was standing for hard work and clear instructions. I am so sad she is in New York now, I can not be with any other teacher anymore, since it feels like a waste of time.

I think that for small children to build the foundation you have to know 100% what you are doing, if you want to do it right. With older students, the methodical faults doesn't show right away, so that makes it more comfortable for a teacher.
To be 100 % strict in terms of quality to a older student requires a strong musical persona, much knowledge and a very good and sharp ear. The ear of a good teacher can be the compass for an receptive student and influence their hearing abilities. It is not necessary to demonstrate that on a violin as a teacher.

November 28, 2017, 4:19 PM · "My respect goes to teachers who teach the technical solid stuff 24/7 and not letting anything else but 100% quality pass their ears, before they let the student advance in the repertoire."

Simon, in some ways here I have to disagree with what you're saying. You personally benefited from a teacher that was 100% strict with your sound from the outset (and many others have), but that doesn't mean everyone will. I think the level of strictness needs to be customized depending on the specific attitude/temperament/maturity of the student, and this is more art than science. I feel that proper teaching is about balancing compromises, in order to always have forward progress despite the naturally imperfect nature of learning.

Let's take an example of a somewhat unusual (but frighteningly common) student:

a) This student has fairly bad undiagnosed ADD and is not medicated. Their parents think he is just energetic, and they haven't taken steps to help the child learn to focus. Thus, if something is talked about for more than 20-30 seconds, the child loses interest and their gaze starts wandering around the room. Since it often takes more than 30 seconds for the teacher to properly describe WHAT intonation actually is and how to achieve it, intonation can't be held to the same standard that it could in a more focused child. Also, if the teacher tries to command the child to focus, the child quickly breaks down and cries. If they don't get a result very quickly, they also break down. They haven't been taught to properly deal with the feeling of frustration so along with their ADD, they also break down emotionally very quickly. Also, talking to the parents has been fruitless, and despite them pretending to care, they don't actually make changes at home to help with the emotional development of the child.

In this case, I would rely on "osmosis learning" rather than "explanation-based learning" and have them stay within a very simple range of repertoire with lots of variety. I wouldn't immediately "demand" perfect intonation in order for them to move to the next song, because they would very quickly become bored, and then quit. So, I need to keep them interested long enough - years, in some cases - for the "osmosis learning" to take effect. Osmosis learning is generally much slower than explanation-based learned, but WILL work if given enough time. So with this ADD student, I would try to keep them playing very simple tunes and scales for a long time with some degree of perceived progression, with lots of demonstrations, and they would eventually get to the point where they would inherently understand intonation, without it ever being described or explained. As they grow older, I can eventually explain WHAT they are hearing when a note is wrong or right.

I would also allow them to progress - repertoire-wise - if other things besides their intonation demanded it. For example, if I know I can't get their intonation 100% yet due to their ADD, but I can work on different bow strokes or rhythms while I wait for the "osmosis learning" to fix their intonation, then this allows me to improve other aspects of their playing while I wait for them to mature enough to bother with perfect intonation.

So in this instance, if I was 100% strict right from the outset with this child, then they would get frustrated and quit. Or, they might not quit, but all the other skills involved in playing - besides intonation - would stagnate while we held back only for the sole purpose of intonation. Instead, by allowing them to play somewhat freely for several years, with very small steps towards achieving a better sound and developing the other accessory skills in playing, it's very possible that they will "grow into" the ability to have excellent intonation, but also have developed many other skills along the way. But the main factor here is TIME, and I don't have that time if I'm too strict from the outset. I NEED to compromise in order for the child to stay interested long enough for them to ~eventually~ get all the important stuff.


"Balancing compromises" is the best attitude I've developed in teaching, because it allows a much more flexible approach with a very wide range of students. Any time we say "100% this" or "100% that", I feel we are limiting ourselves with idealism.


LASTLY: an example. Check out this video of this young girl's progress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUgLb6THC9U

You'll notice that she's quite far in the repertoire before her intonation actually meets a high standard. But, eventually she "grows into" intonation, and meanwhile she's progressed very far in all other aspects of playing! (You should also see where she is beyond the 2 year mark, in other videos). I don't feel this girl would have benefited from an overly conformist approach to learning.

DISCLAIMER: yes, intonation is very, very, very important. And in those students whom you can actually expect intonation from on day 1, it should be prioritized. I'm just saying that's not every student.

November 29, 2017, 1:38 AM · I don't see how someone could teach something without having done it themselves. It's like a high school history teacher who never went to high school, only worse, because violin can't be read out of a book.
November 29, 2017, 4:44 AM · I know what point you are coming from Eric. But I said that from my personal perspective as a violinist. I have been with lots of teachers and the thing I disliked in some was, that they always adjust their expectations based on the students abilities. When you want to be a professional and learn the violin as best as possible, there is nothing more worthy than a teacher, that can give you high quality listening to details and listening to you, like you are a professional violinist already. Of course that is nothing for amateurs or children, who just want to have fun with music. But I still respect those teachers, because also in university they encounter the problem that some people are just not serious about music or cannot jump their ego and except some elemental corrections.
Edited: November 29, 2017, 5:00 AM · If you wait until a six-year-old student can play "Minuet No. 2" just as well as Vengerov or Hahn, you're going to wait an awfully long time. So I guess it really depends on how you define "100% quality." It's when students reach a certain point -- 90%? 95%? -- and go and work on more challenging things, that they build the skill that will enable them to come back to their earlier pieces and move the "percentage" to a higher value.

Likewise I think if you're going to hold a student at "Twinkle" for seven or eight months, then you should have the guts to stop taking the parents' money and tell them to maybe come back in a few years when the student has the maturity to do the things necessary to improve.

November 29, 2017, 8:51 AM · Of course that strict type of teaching and wanting quality is only for a small percentage of students who are serious. My old teacher knew that and kicked out students who had other priorities on a regular basis. I don't say everyone should teach like that. I myself are totally different. But as soon as a student is serious, this is the best teacher you can get.
November 29, 2017, 11:03 AM · At the end of the day, ones students are the best credentials for a teacher. There will be outliers, of course- a bad teacher with one or two good students, or a good teacher with one or two bad ones- but generally, good teachers at whatever level they teach have successful students.

*to qualify what I mean by successful students, I'm not saying getting into Julliard precollege or concert master of an all state orchestra are the only measures of success. I mean that the teacher talks with the students and parents about goals and makes sure the student gets there, whether that's making the first violin section of a school orchestra or preparing for college auditions.

November 29, 2017, 6:11 PM · The OP asked a very question that I always wonder too:

"If a teacher becomes great at teaching at a high level without being at that level themselves how do they do that?" I'm not talking about the teacher once played at a high level but for whatever reason no long can; but rather, those who have never reached beyond intermediate level but are supposedly able to teach advanced students.

Can some violin teacher enlighten us on this particular question?

November 29, 2017, 7:05 PM · I think it's possible to study at a high level even if one never attains the ability to perform at a high level. I don't know of a teacher who can teach advanced students without having themselves studied at that level, even if they themselves never played as well as their own students.
November 29, 2017, 9:30 PM · I do believe that a teacher can, at best, bring a student to only 90% of their own skill level. "Skill," in this context, meaning the ability to understand precisely how to do something (which usually requires having done it themselves).

A bad teacher might be able to bring a student to only 30% of their own skill level. So in some cases, an intermediate good teacher might still be more effective, overall, than a bad advanced teacher, since the net effect will still be higher. As a quantitative example: 90% of 100 is still higher than 30% of 200.

Of course, the ideal teacher is very advanced and also very intuitive with teaching (which really just means knowing the steps to getting from beginner to intermediate to advanced to expert).

And of course, the worst teacher is the one that makes the student quit, regardless of their level.

November 29, 2017, 10:43 PM · I have never heard of a teacher who never surpassed intermediate level themselves being able to teach advanced students. I don't believe it is possible.

On the other thread, where I was arguing that it was possible for an intermediate-to-early-advanced player to be an effective teacher for beginners, I included in my criteria the ability to recognize their own limits and pass students on to more advanced teachers when the time came.

November 29, 2017, 11:28 PM · Thanks Mary Ellen, Jeewon and Erik for answering my burning question. The consensus from you is reassuring in some sense. During one of the summer music camps that I went in Western Canada a few years ago, I met a violin teacher who was playing at beginner's level, yet some of her students there were playing at a higher level than she was. The teacher brought students to the camp each year so I guess she must be trusted and loved by her students and their parents. Nevertheless I've got this nagging feeling how she did all that, and whether it is ethical for her to keep doing this, given the fact she really couldn't make a decent sound like a beginner. The only hope I had was that I might be wrong and that it is possible that one doesn't need to be a player to teach kids to play the violin, as some campers had argued.
Edited: November 29, 2017, 11:51 PM · I wonder if some of those students were getting significant extra coaching from someone else. For instance, in a Suzuki program, there are often frequent group lessons that might come from another teacher, and that teacher might be addressing some deficiencies that the student's primary teacher isn't. Or the student might also be getting lessons in a public-school strings program, or the like, in addition to their private instruction.
Edited: November 30, 2017, 4:18 AM · It is possible but that is under special circumstances and the exception rather than the rule.

If you can accept the analogy that chess playing is like playing the violin then you should know that there are certainly world chess champions whose coaches were definitely below their playing ability and chess rating. Chess is a good tool here because your level can be so definitively measured and objectively gauged as well as being a specialized skill like playing the violin.

These champions are the exceptions where they self study on their own through books and their own games. The prodigies and geniuses.

But I claim that everyone of us 'mortals" can and do self studying with all the books, online videos, resources like this website, and our own knowledge and therefore I suppose it is possible to 'surpass' your teacher's skill. This 'inversion' occurs more often at the higher levels rather than the beginning levels where solid fundamentals and the peculiarities of violin playing must be guided and shown directly.

I'm not claiming that one should do this in lieu of good instruction. In fact, I believe nothing beats a good private teacher's wisdom, experience and skill. It is the exception rather than the rule. And then anyway what usually happens next is a new teacher with a higher skill set!

November 30, 2017, 4:20 AM · Wow...some very interesting ideas here. One question that has not been addressed much is some up in what Mary Ellen said "Galamian may not have been able to produce the sound, but he had all the knowledge". How did he get the knowledge to teach at that high level without having been there himself?

Is there a level of skill one can reach which is not the top level but which, if you have talent for teaching, will allow a sort of glimpse into what it takes to get to the top level without actually going there yourself?

November 30, 2017, 5:34 AM · Getting a good sound out of an instrument is an ongoing process and if you don't practice it it will fade away. That is what probably happened to Galamian after he turned to full time teaching. Same with many other teachers, who have a tight teaching schedule.
As a teacher you do not have to play everything perfectly all the time, but you have to know how to get there. You can learn that by experience, by studying and by observing good players and listening.
Teaching is not so much about playing, but more about listening and knowing the tools. It can't hurt to be in good form technically though.
A sculptor for example also needs some time to carve out a beautiful sculpture. We musicians and teachers also need time for practice. Those who claim that they have all the repertoire "ready" just have their standards lowered. I like it more when teachers admit, that they can't play a place in the lesson better than the student, but that doesn't mean the student can|t learn from him.

In the end even an professional Oboist or Pianist can be a great intermediate to advanced violin teacher through listening. I personally learned a lot of key things from collegues from different instruments as they commented my playing.

November 30, 2017, 10:08 AM · I had a teacher/professor in college who wasn't proficient with the subject she was attempting to teach. It was a miserable class.
November 30, 2017, 11:37 AM · Lydia, it's possible her students might also be getting lessons elsewhere. Or some students are capable of self-teaching and progress beyond their teacher even at an earlier stage. I actually know a couple of very talented kids in Canada and now they are both international concertizing soloists, one in her late teens and the other early 20s.

Simon, I agree that we can certainly learn a lot from good non-violin musicians, such as in masterclasses, chamber music coaching, or what have you.

November 30, 2017, 12:35 PM · In order to teach a particular technique, one must be proficient at that technique. At a high enough level, though, a teacher is conveying artistry, not technique. Also remember that Dorothy Delay, for instance, had teaching assistants whose job it was to teach students technique.

November 30, 2017, 12:46 PM · If I were sending a hypothetical child for music lessons, I would probably need to know that the teacher could play well. I bet a really good player takes a longer-term view and may insist on technique that won't have to be continuously remodeled at different stages when the kid faces new challenges.

But I've heard pretty good playing kids come out of teachers' studios whose playing I don't know much about, which doesn't say much either way.

Edited: November 30, 2017, 1:37 PM · With some kids, it is a bit of mystery how they learn to play so well. One is my friend Alice Lee, who is now studying with Vengerov and doing solo performances around the world at the age of 17. When I first met her, she was about 9 and between teachers. She played Charles de Beriot's "Scene de Ballet" with unbelievable musical and technical maturity for her age, teacherless at the time! A number of teachers at the community conservatory attended her performance and later worked with her all said that she didn't need teacher. Of course, later she did have a few wonderful teachers, including Victor Danchenko and now Vengerov. Another one is Kerson Leong, the First Prize winner of Menuhin Competition 2010. He was between teachers for a while when he won that first prize.

My guess is, Kerson was already at a professional level when he was wining the completion. Alice was not at a very advanced level when she was between teachers, but she must have some innate extraordinary sensitivity to music and knew how to practice, among other qualities.

November 30, 2017, 1:56 PM · Jessy, people say Galamian was a soloist when he was young. I don't know if any recordings exist, though, to prove it.

Christian, there are also some self taught geniuses (or close) geniuses who can play paganini, so talent is talent to a certain degree. But maybe those kids you mentioned would be even better if they had had a better teacher. Or, maybe they would have been just as good anyway.

But, for someone like me who frequently does it the wrong way first, having a teacher who can play is helpful.


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