What to look for in a conservatory teacher

December 5, 2017, 6:37 PM · We already have a lengthy, profound, and ferociously enthusiastic discussion on selecting teachers hosted here at V.com. In interest to the hundreds if not thousands of young musicians who audition for conservatories and otherwise music degree programs every year, what should an aspiring professional musician look for when selecting a conservatory teacher?

Again, the information on conservatory teachers that is publicly available to the prospective student, especially the prospective undergrad, is primarily the name of the school at which the teacher has a faculty position. For instance, Juilliard may list 8-16 or so faculty names under each string instrument, but how many high school string players who audition each year can say that they know what each teacher's style and methodology are? I am guessing that it would be only students who have studied at Juilliard Pre-College, or perhaps another pre-college program in the region. There is the risk for students not in-the-know that they may choose their auditions for the name and reputation of the school rather than for the faculty, and many students could miss out on valuable experiences at lesser-known institutions this way.

So how do you think a young student should select the teacher who will guide their learning during four crucial and fertile years of his or her transition to professional performing? What skills, methodologies, and qualifications should talented high school students seek in a conservatory professor?

Replies (13)

Edited: December 5, 2017, 7:01 PM · If a student is studying with a teacher that routinely prepares students for conservatory auditions, they are often graduates of major conservatories themselves, and will generally have a network, and consequently some notion of what conservatories and teachers would be a good next step.

My two teachers from my teenage years were both well-networked (many of the violinists I've dealt with in subsequent years, across different areas of the country, knew one or both of them). Both were capable of making that sort of recommendation. Well-networked teachers are also capable of reaching out to their network to get a lowdown on other teachers they don't know personally.

Students should generally take a trial lesson from the faculty member with whom they wish to study, to see if there's a good fit.

Different students need different types of teachers. A student who needs significant technical rehab, for instance, is very different from a student who is competing at an international level and needs an artist-teacher of the highest caliber.

The teacher-recommendation route also works for students who are moving to a different city, or who want to keep taking lessons in college without majoring in music - not just for conservatory.

December 5, 2017, 10:35 PM · What Lydia said.

It's also important to avoid those teachers known to have a history of sexually harassing their students. I wish I were kidding. And no, I'm not going to name names.

Edited: December 6, 2017, 10:24 AM · I study at the Conservatoire in Paris, we have about a dozen or more violin teachers, and each has about 6 to 12 students.

The teachers have completely different personalities, and different areas of primary focus, and you can tell by their students.

The teacher who’s concertmaster of the local philharmonic orchestra, is very much obsessed with perfect technique, and there’s a terible sense of competition in his class. His students are great, but they have zero musical personality, because the teacher forces them to play like he does, he fixes their interpretation. It works wonderfully for some students, especially the Asian folks and the highly technical ones, but they are destined to be copies of his ‘I’m a virtuoso soloist’ style, and most likely won’t ever go any further than landing a prestigious job at some top-tier orchestra.

Another teacher is a touring soloist, he’s almost never there, and students often don’t have even one lesson per month, they are left alone to work with the assistant. And when he is there, it’s more like a masterclass, and he hardly ever speaks about technique, and you can see that most of his students are lacking in that department. He is a fine player, but as a teacher, he only fits the independent-type students, and these guys are mostly self-taught in their conservatoire years.

There’s also the Russian teacher who insists students adopt his violin technique, often needing for them to change their hands, and who has a very romantical way of viewing interpretation of the repertoire. Works for some, breaks others.

So I would say you should find a teacher that will orient you in directions you are willing to go in, and who is still flexible enough to adapt to your very own personal needs, and deliver on them.

But yes, trial lessons are definitely a must.

Mary, never heard about such a problem, at least here in France! I didn’t know it existed in the musical/violin-teaching sphere.

December 6, 2017, 8:44 AM · It could hurt your career if you publicly and under your full name criticize teachers at the conservatory where you're studying, in a way that allows anyone familiar to figure out who these teachers are.
Edited: December 6, 2017, 9:01 AM · One thing that might be helpful is if someone were to set up a forum, similar to Yelp, where current students and former students review their teachers, where screen name usage is encouraged so that the reviewers are as open as possible. I know that there are course evaluations and Rate My Professor, but the former are never seen outside of the music departments they are directed to, and the latter, while completely anonymous, and full of information on more academic professors, seems to be sorely lacking in the music teacher review department.

Roman, that issue exists everywhere. In fact, there is a special someone in the classical world who's accusations are currently all over the news (even some major outlets) if you've been paying attention.

December 6, 2017, 9:22 AM · For my frame of reference: how many one-to-one instrument-teaching hours do conservatory students typically get? And do students stay with one and the same teacher for four years?
Edited: December 6, 2017, 9:26 AM · "Here? In France?" Roman, you've got to be kidding. Sexual harassment is absolutely everywhere, in every walk of life, every industry, every profession. It's precisely those relationships that are more intense, more personal, more long-term, more stressful, and more power-imbalanced, that the soil for harassment is the most fertile. Athletic coaches, ministers, government leaders, etc.

My own experience with "Rate My Professors" is that the anonymity of the forum gives students free license to tell outright lies and spread flagrantly incorrect "facts" about their teachers.

Universities are turning increasingly toward peer evaluation of instruction. That's not the end-all either, but it's an important counterbalance to anonymous teaching evaluations. I suspect violin teachers (outside universities that have policies in place) very rarely sit in one another's lessons for the purpose of peer evaluation.

Edited: December 6, 2017, 9:39 AM · Roman, I would guess the definition of "sexual harassment " is different in France than in many Anglo-Saxon countries.
December 6, 2017, 9:40 AM · To some extent this is like choosing one's graduate advisor. How often will you get a lesson? Do they travel too much? Not enough? Do their students leave with jobs or at least solid opportunities? Do their students feel inspired to work hard?
December 6, 2017, 9:56 AM · Hey Roman, I second the poster who suggested you might want to reconsider such obvious reviews in a public, searchable forum.

Also, nice Prokofiev. :-)

Edited: December 6, 2017, 10:04 AM · Han I don’t really care. And besides I’m not criticizing anyone, just describing what is.
Where I study, it’s one hour with principal teacher+1 hour with assistant every week. Depends on the teacher though, sometimes it’s more sometimes less.
Here bachelor lasts 3 years, Master is 2 more years. Usually you study with the same teacher for the full duration of whatever you are pursuing. You can change, but it’s not so easy.

Paul, David and Lieschen, yeah I guess so, but as I am not a female myself and as this issue I have never seen or heard being discussed around me, it’s hard to become aware of the problem.

December 6, 2017, 10:14 AM · I second Paul’s last point, some teachers really compel their students to work harder, just by sheer inspiration rather than by forcing.
December 6, 2017, 9:25 PM · Roman, I strongly suggest you edit or delete your first comment. You may not care at the moment, but simply being a student puts you on the losing end of an unequal power structure. Classical music is a very, very small world.

My experience as a student was one hour per week with my professor, same professor for four years of undergrad, different school and professor for master's but I never changed professors within a school. Others did, though--some not by choice (retirement or resignation), some for musical or pedagogical reasons, some for personal reasons (yes, including harassment). And conversely, there were students who went with their professor when he or she changed schools.

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