V.com weekend vote: Should a teacher tell a student if his/her goals are out of reach?

June 1, 2018, 4:29 PM · One of the top questions we frequently get here on Violinist.com goes something like this: "I just started violin and I'm 23, can I become a professional violinist?"

For most people, this seems like an ambitious -- possibly over-ambitious -- goal. Yet there are always exceptions. Strangers who don't know the details may not be able to answer that question adequately. The answer could be quite different for a beginning violinist who also is a champion guitar player who has been playing the piano since age four, than it would be for a beginning violinist who has never played an instrument, never looked at a sheet of music and doesn't sing.

Whether a student begins at four or at 23, their goals sometimes can come into question. Should you take the youth orchestra audition? Should you try for the concerto competition? Should you major in violin in college? Should you take that orchestra audition? Should you try for a life as a soloist?

One person who may be in a position to assess a student's potential for success is his or her teacher.

But should a teacher be in the business of judging a student's potential? On one hand, a teacher is a human who by nature can't predict the future. A teacher can misjudge, a teacher can be wrong. Sometimes a student who shows little promise on Day 1 winds up having so much drive and work ethic that he or she far surpasses the teacher's initial expectations.

On the other hand, many teachers have a great deal of experience and expertise, and they can tell that the student is simply not meeting the benchmarks that will lead to success. Does it make sense for this student to continue pounding his or her head against the wall, trying to meet a goal that even the teacher does not believe that student will meet?

Violin x

What are your thoughts and experiences about this matter? I'm interested in both the student viewpoint and the teacher viewpoint. Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts in the comments.

You might also like:


June 1, 2018 at 09:38 PM · I think yes, but after much thought and consideration. The prediction can sometimes be a difficult one to make, even for the most experienced teachers.

June 1, 2018 at 10:51 PM · Age old question for sure but as few of us are clairvoyant....and having taught for over 40 years there have been remarkable transitions and nirvana(s) that while unexplained serve as positive reinforcement to the Never-Give-Up theory.

June 1, 2018 at 11:08 PM · Teachers have responsibility to help students to set realistic *short term* goals, and find best ways to achieve them. However, rather than just telling a student how far he/she can go, good teachers would prepare a serious student to do some reality check at each stage of learning, including regular performances and competitions. Students have to walk their own path and to reach their own conclusion which way they should proceed in life.

June 1, 2018 at 11:32 PM · My first impulse was to say "no" but after considering the way Laurie wrote her "yes" description, I realized it was a chance for the teacher to open a dialog with the student and then each could see the other's point of view.

June 2, 2018 at 12:08 AM · I was a teacher for 37 years. Goals, good or bad, are part of self-discovery. Telling someone their goals are not worth the quest is a fools errand. It is up to the individual to make that decision. To shortchange that necessary conclusion is, quite frankly, cruel. I taught writers. I taught actors. I could tell almost immediately whether they had "it" or not. However, the action to tell them to quit was not mine. It was theirs. I could point out the struggles people have in those careers, but in the end, it is an individual decision. It is a very difficult decision, and to tell them they aren't right for the path is not your choice. So, while it's frustrating as a teacher to work with a student who will most likely go nowhere, while it's time consuming and while it feels futile, that's the way it goes. Plus, for all you know - or in some cases don't know - they could be amazing. Life has funny ways of twisting itself. The Beatles were told by Decca records that music groups were a thing of the past, and subsequently rejected. The Beatles, to their credit, kept looking for someone who believed in their work, and we are all grateful for their persistence. You, my friend, are the teacher, and not the fortune teller. Feel free to assess their ability, and be honest about what you see, however, in the end it's their choice. The decision continue is theirs and not yours.

June 2, 2018 at 01:04 AM · I don't think it's inappropriate to say their goals are highly unlikely. But I think saying "never" is almost always wrong, unless it also involves a blatantly unrealistic timeframe, e.g. a beginner wanting to get into a professional orchestra in two years. And an unrealistic goal is never an appropriate reason to turn down a student.

June 2, 2018 at 02:45 AM · Teachers are supposed to have enough experience to be able to judge a student potential. Beginners are often driven by a strong ambition without the necessary information on the required skills and prerequisites to achieve their goals. Therefore, I believe it is important that teachers give their opinion and explain why they believe the student goals are unrealistic. This does not mean that they should not help the student on the pursuit of these goals if the student decided to pursue them in the end.

June 2, 2018 at 07:26 AM · The nub is the word "unlikely". This is not "yes" or "no". You can tell a student that it's a very difficult path and the chances are low, without telling them they'll never do it.

June 2, 2018 at 11:32 AM · Bill Ford

After love God gave us music. All teachers should encourage their students to reach for their highest level.Anyone can achieve whatever they desire with encouragement of not only their teachers but their parents. I did that with that kind off encouragement. Performing with the London Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Florida Symphony, and Wheeling Symphony, and Opera workshop. Plus I sang all over the world and conducted many famous works.

June 2, 2018 at 12:32 PM · There is a 3rd option. Continue to support the student's goals while clearly outlining what they would need to do to accomplish them. This can be done in a positive way and combines being supportive with being frank and realistic about what is needed.

Usually, this works on some level. The student will either step up their game and start meeting the goals, or they will fall behind and realize their overzealousness.

Now, if you're talking about a 23 year old that wants to become a concert soloist and plans to do so after 1 year of lessons, that may be a different conversation :-)

June 2, 2018 at 12:55 PM · "On one hand, a teacher is a human who by nature can't predict the future. "

Humans predict the future constantly. What you mean is that humans can't predict the future with 100% accuracy. However, the more experienced the teacher, the more accurately they can assess the student, especially if they've seen the student evolve over time. New students often display a "honeymoon" attitude that dissipates after a few weeks into lassitude and carelessness. Others may come to a teacher as a "one-trick pony" that plays a concerto really well, but only because they worked on it for 2 years, and they actually have poor reading skills.

I've been on the receiving end of such predictions, and they varied wildly. When I decided to apply to conservatories in my last year of college, my original teacher said sure, I'd get into places like Indiana or Michigan. The Chair of my college's tiny music department said I'd never get in (I did get into one). During my studies, I was told by one big-name teacher I should just quit, and another one told me I'd end up in a major orchestra.

The reality ended up somewhere in between...

June 2, 2018 at 01:09 PM · As an adult returner, my teacher asked my goal, which was to be able to pick up the instrument and play well, to my level of satisfaction. Maybe join a community orchestra, or even teach a little later in life.

When we talk about "professional", what does that mean? How many that start at 3-8 years old actually make it? I think the burnout rate is high, talent and teaching aside. It's impossible to quantify the success rate for those that start young, but I bet it's a single-digit percentage (or fractional percentage) at best. So can a 23 year old achieve success? Maybe. Will a 6 year old? Maybe.

In both cases, the odds are against the student.

June 2, 2018 at 01:13 PM · It’s an overcrowded field already. Teachers are not doing any favors by not having candid discussions with students about their potential. They are especially not doing favors if by their efforts they enable a marginal candidate to become a teacher who will go onto to make countless more marginal performers in their own image. I’m all for teaching people to love and play music, but probably quite a few of the players in the pipeline need their expectations adjusted.

June 2, 2018 at 01:15 PM · I think the answer is somewhere in between the two questions Laurie asked. I think it is the teacher's job to set the interim goals that lead students toward their original goals. If the original goals are too ambitious at some point reasonable students will learn that on their own. But they can make progress on the way - and there are various ways to make a living as a professional musician.

We knew a flautist in high school who was about 20 when he finally graduated. He joined the Navy, played in a Navy band. When I checked into his name on line 60 years later he had just died. He was about to be feted at retirement as the long-term professor of music at William and Mary College, but died days before - so the celebration turned into a memorial. This almost-high-school-dropout had earned all the degrees that qualified him to be a college professor - and of course he was always a fine musician (eventually on all the woodwind instruments)

June 2, 2018 at 01:24 PM · I hadn’t voted yet when I wrote my previous comments. I’m a little unhappy with the options, as I believe something of a middle ground is needed. I expect a good teacher will work to achieve a student’s goals (and their goals for the student) or at least make progress in that direction. But at the same time, a good teacher will make sure the student is aware of the difficulties ahead, and not turn out students who cause others down the line to sadly shake their heads and wonder why no previous teacher had the decency to encourage a direction where there might be hope of success.

June 2, 2018 at 02:08 PM · As a former French teacher, when a pupil, young or old, came to me for lessons, I always asked what their motivation was/is. Did they want to read Proust and Racine in the original, conduct business transactions or simply survive as a tourist in Paris? Often they just wanted to pass an examination that was part of the secondary curriculum. En route, pupils dicovered strengths and abilities they had never realised they posessed. One Australian girl (also a fiddle-player), originally with an accent you could cut with a knife, made such progress that she is about to graduate from Oxford as a Modern Linguist. For a teacher to be less than encouraging is like bad parenting. You must be realistic but always ready to point the way out of the mire.

June 2, 2018 at 03:17 PM · I think this is a very contextual issue, and I, like many others who have responded, have difficulty with the clear choices Laurie's question provided. I would say, "it depends," and part of what it depends on is the student and the professed goals. There are also different ways of saying "your goals are out of reach," and a really good teacher can find the right words for a particular student.

June 2, 2018 at 06:07 PM · I couldn’t agree with neither the Yes nor the No statements. If a student comes with a long term goal, the teacher should be honest with the student and lay out realistic expectations commensurate with the student’s natural abilities, motivation and determination. This is not a question of encouraging or discouraging a student, but one of recognizing what is to be reasonably expected given the student’s personal situation. Encouraging a student to pursue a career path at great expenses of time and money, knowing he/she can ill afford it nor in all likelihood achieve it is in a way dishonest. On the other hand discouraging a student that is hard set on a life’s dream who is motivated if not unusually talented and well aware of the challenges ahead and necessities of pursuing his/her dream because of un-usual circumstances (such as a late start) is also equally dishonest in my opinion. In other words, the teacher role is to lay out what is required to achieve the student’s goal, and it is up to the student to do what is necessary. Even if this may seem daunting and discouraging, at least it is realistic.

June 2, 2018 at 07:05 PM · As one who started the violin at 30, with the modest expectation that I might be able to play some hymn tunes in church, I find myself in a place I never anticipated. As a High School student I wanted to become a professional cook (long before the words celebrity and chef appeared together in a sentence and Emeril Legasse was watching re-runs of "The Flintstones" learning how to say "BAM!"). I tried cooking and eventually became one of the leading people in Supply-Chain-Management. Life is funny that way.

I don't want to rain on anyone's parade but the reality is that as long as you live you never know where the next twist in life will take you. To be sure the adult/late-starter is highly unlikely to land a career as a professional musician - particularly on an orchestral string instrument simply because there are way too many young musicians in the pipeline. But, who knows if the late-starter might form a quartet and play weddings and other occasions.

FWIW: My latest student blew me away after skipping lessons and not practicing for some time just played all the pieces required for an upcoming audition and played them quite well indeed. The unexpected always happens.

June 3, 2018 at 02:03 PM · In a different performing arts field, I told a student she would never make it as a dancer, and should act instead. While she went on to become a very successful television actress, with a career far, far longer than she ever would have as a dancer (even if she succeeded) who was I to judge? I always regretted it. So, I'm a firm No.

June 3, 2018 at 07:21 PM · I had a student some years ago who came to me as a sophomore in high school and soon told me she wanted to become a professional violinist. I gave her my usual speech, that there are different ways of making a life in music without being a professional performer, but she persisted in her desire to play the violin for life and livelihood. So, I told her she would have to practice a minimum of 18 hours a week and pushed her very hard. She rose to the challenge, was very diligent and made great progress. When the time came for college auditions, she was accepted with a scholarship at the College of the Performing Arts in Chicago, which is part of Roosevelt University. After she arrived there it became clear to her that her chances of winning an orchestral audition in a full time ensemble were very small, but she developed an interest in jazz and started performing in the Chicago area. She finished her BM in violin performance, is now taking a year off from studies, doing Suzuki certification and teaching violin. She plans to do a Master's degree in jazz next. I'm very proud of her and I'm confident she will have a career she will enjoy.

June 3, 2018 at 09:59 PM · The answer is neither. Set progress milestones for the student and help him come to his own conclusions as he works to the milestones.. I am in my mid sixties and know what I can never be but some of my illusions/delusions still sustain me. They are quite scaled back from my teenage years. Back then it was play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with orchestra to acclaim and nowadays it is play the slow movement of the Bach a minor concerto beautifully in my study.

June 4, 2018 at 05:36 AM · I think the crux of his discussion is :What is a goal? Being a professional musician is an unrealistic goal for most learners, but that doesn't mean they won't ever make it. However, that kind of goal is too far away for a teacher to predict (unless we're talking tertiary teachers), and has far less impact on lessons than things like the type of music tradition the student wants to participate in (eg Suzuki vs O'Connor methods), and the day to day technical and musical developments along the way.

A suitable goal may be to join a particular group that matches THEIR CURRENT LEVEL, perform a particular piece at a specific event, master the techniques for a specific type of music at a specific technical level, or even just find time to practice. Every learner is different and noone can make predictions about a distant future If the goal is completely unrealistic AT PRESENT, a student needs to know. And the teacher needs to guide them into setting realistic goals - maybe they won't be able to join an orchestra just yet, but what about that slow irish session down the road where beginners aren't frowned upon...

This applies to my English students as well as my own music lessons. I'm well known among the kids as a hard marker and the person to come to for serious feedback if you want to improve your writing. However my realistic evaluations never come without a "so if you do this and that you can get to that place I said was out of reach right now".

I've been told off by the powers that be for being the tough teacher when I've been overhead saying things like. "But you're never going to be an engineer if you're not good at maths and science". However, the kids concerned never had a problem though because it included "so this is what you need to do if you really want to get better at maths and science; Is it worth that amount of effort in those subjects to get there? Do you enjoy them enough? If not you might want to think about other kinds of careers in subjects you enjoy." (Funnily enough alot of those kinds of goals seemed to be set by parents rather than students).

It seems to me that educators are being put under increasing pressure to be "supportive" in very negative ways that aren't supportive at all - ie praising mediocre performance, supporting presently-unrealistic goals without setting milestones for getting there - for fear of creating stress and anxiety. Well structured goals shouldn't create anxiety, but they do create opportunities for praise when short-term goals are achieved (not attempted - unless of course attempting is itself a goal).

This is framed by my own music experience. I was the top kid in a very low level music class. Sitting at 80-90% for all my class exams, I was certain I'd study music at uni and become a high school music teacher. When I didn't get in anywhere I auditioned (at about suzuki book 3 level piano!!!) I was shocked, gave up, and fell back on my other love - literature.

It wasn't till I'd finished my degree and was visiting a friend at a German conservatorium that I experienced what being "musical" meant and realised I had neither talent nor technique. If my teacher, who must have been well aware I was semi-tone deaf, had given me some degree of understanding of where our class sat against the rest of the state, I wouldn't not have wasted a whole bachelor degree trying to get back to music. Even better would have been if she'd targeted skills that took a good decade of community choirs to fix.

When it comes to career paths this stuff is important.

But this story has a happy ending.

I've enjoyed teaching English for 25 years, but my real love is still music. Violin/viola are way harder than piano, but I now play in a folk settings and was in a very good community orchestra. And a few years back I started teaching violin for free to kids that couldn't afford lessons.

I'm a good pedagogue and found the right places to learn about violin teaching (especially all the many amazing teachers here). Over the two years I was teaching I learned to provide a pretty decent foundation for other teachers to take over, and I definitely inflicted the students with my passion for music in general and strings in particular. By the time I got moved to another school, I'd started writing simple arrangements and hearing multiple parts in my head so I could begin to conduct the ensemble. These are the hardest things I've done in my life, but most rewarding. My high school teacher would have been stunned!

There's been a three year gap while I changed schools and has RSI injuries, but I have that original unattainable goal in mind again: I'm teaching a new round of beginners and I want their free lessons to be as good as I can make them. So I'm going to get myself a Bachelor of Music Education.

Not just yet - I have a whole bunch of milestones. I can't get into that course, so I'm aiming to get a credit average in a Certificate of Music and transfer.

I have the minimal qualifications for the certificate course, but I need to excel in it, so more goals: instead of revising theory from 30 years ago, I'm going to run through the syllabus that works from an aural perspective and do more than the minimum grade requirement. That's a whole set of sequenced goals right there (modes and pentatonics on top of ordinary scales anyone? Necessary if I want to understand Kodaly properly).

I'm starting lessons again, at a level my wrists can cope with while they heal. And since I know I'm playing folk more than classical I'm about to start working with a teacher who uses O'Connor method (virtually unknown over here) to take students through classical exams. I want to see how the two styles fit, as well as filling in all the technical gaps that happen when you do exams too fast and tend to just scrape through.

I'm expecting to start the Certificate in 2020, and slowly work my way through the Mus. Ed. units starting a year after that (I work full time, so study will be slow). But look here again in ten years and it's pretty likely this 'try-hard' will have reached her unattainable goal. I just wish someone had taken the tough-love option and shown me the steps to making it achievable twenty years ago!

June 4, 2018 at 05:37 AM · Oops - sorry - this box is tiny. Hadn't realised I was writing an essay!

June 4, 2018 at 05:55 AM · The ambiguity lies in the term “a student”.

A 6-year old won’t ask this in a serious way if at all so of course you would provide maximum encouragement.

A 17-year old may indeed ask. Saying that there are many others playing more advanced repertoire very well, that there are very few openings for professional violinists and that it will be very hard for the students to compete, is being honest not discouraging.

You could also point out for example that most Juilliard graduates, despite the difficulty of getting in, don’t become full-time musicians.

A teacher should encourage a love of music and the best playing a student is capable of at the moment.

June 4, 2018 at 12:10 PM · College/conservatory is expensive; well-paying jobs in music are very hard to come by. I consider it an ethical obligation for a teacher to give a student a realistic appraisal of their chances, especially if that student is going to take on student loans to pay for college. It's one thing to borrow six figures to pay for medical school, with the reasonable expectation of a lucrative job at the end of the road. It's quite another to borrow six figures in acquiring a performance degree if the best the student could hope for is 30K - 50K a year playing freeway philharmonics and weddings, and teaching private lessons seven days a week. And that's for the better students. Even the very best students need to know the realities of the audition circuit and how competitive those top jobs are.

If a high school student who is struggling with Bach a minor tells me they want to be a professional musician, I am absolutely going to tell that student that a fulltime orchestral job is not in their future. I will suggest other ways that music can be a part of their adult life.

If a strong student for whom conservatory admission is a realistic hope tells me that they'd like to pursue it professionally, I will describe the audition circuit and the alternative/default life of freeway philharmonics and private teaching. I will also suggest to these students ways in which music can be part of their lives without making it a career.

In either case I will work with the student if they still want to audition for appropriate schools (for the marginal student this may be a branch of the state university with the understanding that a four-year music degree is no more or less than a four-year degree in philosophy, art history, or English when it comes to their future employability). And I recommend that the student look up Juilliard pre-college senior recital videos on Youtube to get a better idea of how they rank in the larger world of student violinists. Sometimes it's hard for a student who is the best in their school/one of the best in their youth orchestra to imagine just how stiff the competition is.

June 4, 2018 at 03:35 PM · Mary Ellen, your last paragraph was well said. I wish reality checks such as the one you mentioned were widely available in more fields.

June 4, 2018 at 06:17 PM · And the opposite question: should the student tell his teacher that he wants to play professionally, if the teacher believes that the student plays just for himself?

Let's be honest, it's unlikely that a teacher will say in this case that this is not too ambitious. Then the potential violinist may feel uncertain, and will slowly progress if he does not lose his skills at all.

On the other hand, this dialogue may simply not happen.

June 5, 2018 at 01:31 PM · Just tell your student to start a gimmicky hip-hop violin gimmick. They will make way more money, and be culturally relevant, since the lack of upward mobility in classical music has completely destroyed it's appeal to the masses.

June 6, 2018 at 01:23 PM · The teacher should be realistic. Have an opinion based on their professional experience which the student should take into serious consideration.

People don't take violin lessons to learn what they can't do. They want to know what they are capable of. We need goals to improve.The only reason for this discussion should be in relation to setting the goal to the player.There is always a goal, no matter what place the student is in.

In the end it's up to the student to decide. Determined people don't always take a teachers advice if they have a strong feeling about another direction.I don't say this to discredit teachers since they are only doing their best to help the student.

Some students would rather die trying to be something out of reach.Maybe getting close to the goal is a more than ample reward for the effort.People who don't reach above themselves limit themselves.

If the only goal is a career in music that pays well, then there are limitations to many people. Maybe a handful of teachers only teach this caliber of student. This is a narrow path. Traditionally narrow paths aren't attractive to artistic types.Art is all about freedom to express.Rigidity doesn't figure into this.

If you make yourself mutually exclusive, don't be surprised if there's no one else going there.

Learning the violin should always be about what we CAN do.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop



Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine