Trial lesson. How to not to offend teachers you don't choose?

February 20, 2008 at 05:48 AM · How can I choose ONE TEACHER at a conservatory WITHOUT OFFENDING OTHERS?

I feel so relieved that I finally got accepted to a conservatory I want to go. There are several teachers I am interested to study with. People suggested that I should have a trial lesson with them. But how can I not to offend teachers who I do not choose? After having a lesson and tell her/him "sorry I decided to go to other teacher"? A noted teacher could be a famous violinist and powerful judge at international competitions but not necessarily a good teacher. If I offend that influential teacher it would make my life difficult. I am now afraid how to start this process. But I really want to work with some teacher who is helpful to improve my technique as well as to start my career in the professional music world.

I appreciate it greatly if somebody can suggest a good way to do this.

Replies (21)

February 20, 2008 at 06:00 AM · When I was having consultation lessons with teachers prior to studying, I was given the following advice. At the end of the lesson, ask the teacher what the chances is of them teaching you if you decided that you like to study with them. When you've finally made your choice, I don't think there's any need to notify them.

February 20, 2008 at 06:29 AM · Considering that most teachers at major schools have way more applications than they can accept as students, I don't think it's a huge issue. :P

February 20, 2008 at 06:42 AM · If I was planning to use the "What are the chances..." line, I'd have a second line ready in case they responded "100%, let's go sign you up" but they weren't the person you wanted to study with :)

February 20, 2008 at 07:10 PM · "If I was planning to use the "What are the chances..." line, I'd have a second line ready in case they responded "100%, let's go sign you up" but they weren't the person you wanted to study with :)"

Well, if you know after the lesson that you definately don't want to learn with them them of course you don't ask the question. Otherwise I'd say something like "can I have a bit of time to think it over please?". You might like to mention that you're having lessons with some other teachers to see who is right for you. They have been in your situation in the past, and know what an important decision it is for you. They won't be offended, I promise!

February 20, 2008 at 01:58 PM · I think Erika has a valid concern.

At least one of my very prominent colleagues (not at CIM) has more than once told students in such circumstances: "I DON'T GET AUDITIONED!". Now, before the defensive "right to choose" posts go up... you should know this scenario can be a very insulting thing to teachers with established reputations. Also, I think it naive to believe that a student can gather enough information from one encounter with such a teacher to decide if they are a good "match" for four years of training to come. In many cases, these lessons place very experienced teachers in a position where they need to change what they know should be said to the student into one where they need to say what they know the student wants to hear. Something to think about, no?

In regard to another thread on this subject---payment for these "trial" lessons--- might this shed a bit more light on why some choose to charge large amounts for these lessons? After all, if the time is made for such an "audition" to take place---and it turns out in the end that the teacher is the one being auditioned (and eventually being passed on for one of their colleagues)-- I think there is a good argument for charging a good sum for these encounters. At least there is compensation for any bad P.R.(deserved or undeserved) that might follow... ;-(

One final thought: Most of us who frequently receive these requests grant them with the understanding (at least implied) that the student wants to audition FOR us, not the other way around. Contrary to popular belief,it is not widely accepted among us that it is the "norm" to be auditioned by dozens of incoming students. (I realize this may be incomprehensible to some of you, but its the truth).

If you are "shopping around", at least be honest and up-front about it with the teacher. Give them the choice of whether or not to invest their time for your "adventure in discovery". Some will, and some simply won't-- because they don't need to. I guess you take your chances, but at least there is no deception involved. It really is better to be upfront about it, regardless of the outcome. Fewer hard feelings that way.

I offer this (brutally) honest opinion for your benefit. Good luck with your search!

February 20, 2008 at 02:32 PM · David, I wouldn't be surprised if the scenario you stated above would be true of an inferior teacher who is purely guided by their ego and has to work hard to pamper their reputation. There is a difference between taking trial lessons and shopping around. It is just as difficult for any student to try to set up dozens of trial lessons as it is for a teacher trying to grant dozens. So most of us setting up these trials have thought over who we want to take a lesson with and wouldn't do it unless we wanted to give serious consideration to this teacher.

AHAAAAA!! So now we know the truth. Trial lessons ARE auditions! They come, they pay a 100 bucks or so and if the teacher likes them they get in, and the panel audition is just a formality.

I am very glad that when I decided to study with a certain teacher he treated my "trial" lesson as just a lesson. He didn't even show up to my formal audition. I truly doubt that if I, a lowly violin student decided NOT to study with him that he would take it as an insult in the slightest. Can you imagine a living legend's reputation threatened by being rejected by a high school senior?

February 20, 2008 at 03:46 PM · I'm glad it worked out so well for you, Marina. You seem very satisfied with the way you did it.

Wait!--- What is that big whooshing sound? Oh! Its my evil, egotistical, inferior "living legend" teaching colleagues graciously lying down and being passed over by wiser, more worldly high school seniors who sought advice on, only to be unknowingly "auditioned" (horrors!) during their lesson! :-)

Next time, should I be dishonest?

February 20, 2008 at 06:43 PM · This is an interesting conundrum. Should students, especially undergraduates, audition teachers? On one hand, undergrads certainly aren't able to pick and choose among geology teachers or english professors. Instead, they trust that the university or conservatory has done that for them, that the teacher has his/her job because they have demonstrated competence as a teacher.

However, music is not like other fields of study, and conservatories often employ teacher who are known as performers and not teachers. They also employ teacher who are famous as first-class sexual predators. My own teacher at Peabody was a lousy teacher and had had accusations of sexual harassment going back decades--and yet the conservatory continued to employ him, probably because his name was able to attract great students, mostly from outside the country. At another school, a teacher was well-known for having been the young concertmaster of a major orchestra and had been awarded full tenure with the job. The trouble was, many of the best students left him after a year for the other teacher who wasn't so famous but could teach.

So I am not convinced that conservatories always employ teachers that are great teachers. Name recognition is very important to them. Unfortunately, it may take several years of

poor teaching for the hapless student to realize he could have had better teaching.

I believe that when conservatories really step up to the plate and make an effort to employ people who can really teach, instead of people who've won major competitions or studied with so-and-so, and get rid of the sleazebags who go after their young students, applicants will be able to trust that they will be placed with a good teacher.

February 20, 2008 at 07:16 PM · I think David raises a good point about needing more than one lesson to judge whether you and your teacher are a good match. The problem is you need to start somewhere, and if one lesson is all you can fit in (or afford), then I suppose one it will have to be.

I can see why some teachers might feel that they are being "auditioned", but that seems to me to be quite a paranoid attitude. Isn't it a two way thing - the teacher also needs to decide whether or not they want to accept the pupil. Sometimes you can get a feel whether you might be compatible from a personality perspective, if you feel that to be important.

Also, it seems to me that if a teacher sets their fees very high, then maybe they don't want to accept too many new pupils. After all, the teacher you eventually decide to learn with are going to benefit very well financially in the long run.

February 20, 2008 at 07:09 PM · The relationship between violin student and teacher is of utmost importance for any music student. Apparently there has been no perfect way to match up students with teachers. When a student takes a lesson from a prospective teacher I think they are auditioning for one another. There are radically different teaching styles and philosophies and both the teacher and student want a good mesh. Teachers know that students have to make uninformed and sometimes naive choices when they are forced to rank teachers. Student rankings of teachers are often based on how famous the teacher is and not on how well they may teach. Teachers on the college level should be astute enough to realize the inadequacies of system and realize there is no rational reason to allow their egos to be bruised. Any teacher that is offended when a student makes a choice is immature and irrational; and there is absolutely nothing the student can or should about it. Most of the time the teacher invites the student to their studio and there is no reason to contact the other prospective teachers. If you are choosing between schools there are other factors involved such as scholarship money, that teachers should realize have nothing directly to do with them. Remember there are all kinds of idiots in this world that might get offended and hold resentments for all kinds of inane reasons. You just shouldn't worry about it because it is beyond your control.

February 20, 2008 at 11:17 PM · Please read carefully Erika's original question in her post.

...I'm going away now...

February 21, 2008 at 01:59 AM · Thanks everybody! There are many helpful ideas here. Just I want to clear a couple of things.

I am talking about one school now. I was afraid I couldn't go to conservatory without getting big loan but this school offered me generous scholarship. I am still waiting results from other schools but cannot imagine better financial aid than this.

So, I have to choose one teacher among several attractive teachers. (Or am I totally wrong? Only teachers can choose students?) I will meet the chair of the string dept soon and I guess I have to tell him/her which teacher I want to work with, right? Btw I have never had trial lesson anywhere. Didn't even know that was a common thing.

Before I name some teacher, I want to know how they teach. I am not interested in famous person or even compatibility. I just want to study under somebody who can teach me actual technique. I do not mean to audition them, I just want to know how they teach. Is it better if I ask them whether I can sit down and attend one of their lessons with current students?

Some people here said big figure would not be offended by a high school senior, but I had some experience like that. When I was 8 year old I auditioned for a locally famous Suzuki teacher. She thought I was not good enough and suggested to study with her student. So my mom found other Russian teacher. When we told that to the Suzuki teacher she was furious even it was she who rejected me. So I learned the lesson that rejection could make anybody mad even when a beggar rejects an emperor!

February 21, 2008 at 03:43 AM · I would try to get lessons with the teachers you think you might be interested in. Ask if there is room in their studio. It sounds as if there is room in their studios that you can make a choice. Teachers should understand that choices have to be made unless you just let the school place you with someone. As long as you don't do anything rude or disrespectful I really believe you have nothing to worry about. Like I said before if teachers feel offended after you have gone through the only process available to you then the problem is with them not you.

February 21, 2008 at 03:46 AM · Greetings,

I have to confess to being a tad hornswoggled by the way things have changed since I wa s going through this procedure. When a student wa s accpeted at the RCM around 30 years ago we knew who the great teachers were and roughly what they were like. We had this information through the advice of our current teahcer and former studnets etc. So we contacted those teachers and asked if they had any spaces. Then we went for a lesson in great trepidation with the understanding that it wan`t really a lesson. The teacher was deciding if they wanted you by making a rapid assessment of your level, potential and how you reacted to them. Then they told you yes or no. Actaully it wans`T thta much of a lesson. One often got about fifteen minutes in which the teacher gave just enough advice to make it worth your while without interferring in your playing. In general, one was not required to pay for this session.

The idea that studnets can get a full on lesson and use it to audition the teacher , or even decide jointly was notpart of the package as I knew it. I think the simple reaosn for this isthat while a good teahcer can make a pretty rapid evaluation of whether -they want to teach someone-, a gauche 18 year old, irrespective of their level cannot really evaluate wethe r or not that teahcer is right for them. Quite often the right teacher is the one who is going to give you some serious grief to help you get your act together or it may be they say very little in orde rto make you think for yourself which cna be very stressful, too. Very often these days it seems stduents are disgruntled by this, getitng either a victim mentality or complaining the teache r is not doing their job. I do sometimes feel thta this somewhat peculiar reversal of status may appear to be benifiting the studnet but is perhaps, in the long run, encouraging banality as the studnet shops around around for this person`s `bowing arm` and that person`s `musicianship` as thouhg they cna be \grafted on independently like a quick flip though a plastic surgeons daily menu.



February 21, 2008 at 05:00 AM · I agree with what Buri is saying. I was taught also to go see my teacher's teacher and play for them a kind of vertical approach until I played for Galamian at Meadowmount. I stayed with him in the summer but he passed away my senior year of high school just as I was preparing my audition. He had his assistants, that time David Cerone (Curtis) Margaret Pardee (Juilliard) Sally Thomas (Mannes & Juilliard) I picked Sally Thomas, she took very good care of me and I got a scholarship which was really the only way for me to survive alone in New York.


February 21, 2008 at 12:15 PM · I know this is a somewhat different situation, but there are parallels and I wanted to respond to the person that said that students don't choose their History or Math professors. That's not entirely true. In most American universities these days, students do choose their classes and the first week is often spent "shopping" by attending different classes and dropping the ones they don't like or don't think will fit or whatever. The "fit" between the professor's teaching style and the student is one of the considerations. This is more common with electives than with a major, but it's still done.

In graduate school in Biology, when students are trying to decide on a lab and advisor with whom to do their PhD (which I think is a more analogous situation to what we're talking about here for music), the most common situation is for students to do rotations in several different labs with several different advisors. Both the advisor and the student are "auditioning" each other in that case. There is no guarantee that the professor will take the student or that the student will stay in that lab. Both play a role in the decision.

I think this is as it should be, and really, has to be. For one thing, it cuts down on favoritism and the power of insider connections, thereby making the playing field more level. Professors are less likely to be able to accept only students who are recommended to them by their buddies and who only came up through the "right" channels. Both professors and students have their personality quirks and academic interests that have to be considered. It's a waste of everybody's time and resources to have a student in a lab that's a bad fit--and bad fits can absolutely include "famous" world-renowned labs headed by Nobel laureates with stellar publication records and all the rest of it.

I wonder if it works this way in science because, by and large, science Ph.D. programs want to retain their students and want them to graduate. There's supposedly a shortage of trained technical workers and of students interested in pursuing science PhD's, so it doesn't really make sense to set an otherwise motivated and qualified student up to fail by saddling him or her with a bad advisor relationship, especially one that s/he didn't choose. And, by the end of their Ph.D.'s, students contribute a lot to the relationship as well, doing important work in the lab for very little pay. So the advisor also benefits from a good student relationship. The teachers benefit from being "auditioned" by the students too, and generally they are able to see this and set their egos aside a little bit. Is that not at all true in music?

Perhaps there's no perceived downside to setting up a music student to fail? If so, that would really be too bad.

February 21, 2008 at 02:59 PM · You say you have not had any trial lessons? Then what are you worried about offending any teachers? However you come to your decision about choosing a teacher always remember that it is your decision. The experience you had with a suzuki teacher was fueled by that teacher's ego. What did you really lose by making him/her mad? Did you lose a lot of opportunities in your community? I doubt it since you are considering moving on to conservatory. Don't be afraid of teachers, sometimes they are only worried about themselves.

Buri, no one can disgard your experience as I'm sure many people share it. But I think we should give students a little more credit. Yes 18 is a young age, equiped with many immaturities, but I give credit to someone preparing, taking, and passing an audition. Let's say I was a parent of an 18 year old and I was asked to pay a tuition fee upwards of $20,000 (not including living expenses). I would not want to disrespect any teacher, yet I would strive to find the best teacher for my child. I am sure there is a way to do that without hurting teachers' feelings. Navigating through so many egos will be difficult, yet nobody can map out my own life or the life of my child right?

I think the expense of a good musical education is astronomical these days, making it a buyer's market. This does seem to interfere somewhat with the way violin teachers have always been revered. A student will say where can I get the most bang for my buck.

February 21, 2008 at 05:51 PM · Karen,

You're right concerning graduate students. It's just as important to pick the right thesis or dissertation advisor as it is the right violin teacher. But not so important for undergrads. As a college teacher, I've seen many undergrads switch academic course teachers for reasons that really didn't have merit--maybe the course had too many assignments, or maybe the teacher just didn't seem "nice"--something that too many young students place too much emphasis on.


You may not be able to avoid offending someone. I had an experience in applying to grad schools where the teacher that I indicated a preference for was not the same as the one with whom with I had many lessons with (there was no problem--I just wanted a different point of view). Although I don't know for sure, I do believe I did offend the latter one. Some teachers are very territorial--it's a fact of life. Perhaps I should have communicated better to the latter teacher that I just wanted that different experience.


February 21, 2008 at 08:04 PM · The best way of not offending a teacher is to do your research earlier. If there is someone you want to study with or know more about, ask to talk to some of their students about their experiences, find out as much as you can about them thorugh forums like this too. Some teachers would even let you sit in on someone elses lesson. But it is different when you actually study with the person. When you meet a teacher to study with, you are basically asking that person to invest their time, wisdom and feelings in you and your future. It is always unpleasant when someone thinks of helping you, after being asked to do so, and then being rejected. That is not very respectful, or thoughtful especially when someone is devoting their life to teaching and helping others. The best thing is to do your homework early rather than having to deal with a tense situation later. Also the situation varies alot depending on the circumstances. There is usually more flexibility with private teachers than in a conservatory. Some teachers have a 2 lesson trial period where you can both see if you like working together. In any case, its pretty difficult to tell from one lesson what the whole learning experience will be like so make sure you dont make a mistake impulsively. Not getting crazy with excitement after one meeting doesnt mean its a mistake as all relationships go through an evolution, just as love at first sight does not always mean happily ever after.

February 22, 2008 at 03:53 AM · In my opinion, it is really important to do your research as you choose your teacher. Talk to students and past students. Attend studio classes and masterclasses. Also, I would try to take a lesson with any teacher you are interested in.

If you have done your research, this may be just one or two maybe three teachers.

I think you can tell a lot from one lesson about the teacher's interest in you as a player. This is a very important component in a successful teacher-student relationship. You don't want to be the marginal student in the studio unless you are a very determined player who feels comfortable that you will be able to prove yourself.

I also feel compelled to relate some of the things that I have seen in trial lessons in the past.

It often does not take long to see characteristics in a teacher that would be unhealthy. In a masterclass a few years ago, I saw a highly recommended teacher push a shy player to tears and then not let up. It was a very disturbing display. Witnessing a trial lesson with another well-regarded teacher was like being showered with negativity. Another teacher was way, way too excited and gushing. One teacher was moved to tears and disturbingly dramatic. Probably worst was the teacher who persisted in comparing the student to his/her well-known past students as if to prove his/her competence.

The good matches have also been almost immediately obvious. A sincere, but not gushing desire to work with a student is a good indication. You can tell if they are confident, relaxed individuals. You can also tell if they are self-promoters or competitive with their colleagues. You can tell something about their ability to listen and communicate with you. It is harder to tell, but none-the-less important, if they have an approach to music and technique that you can live with. I have seen teachers who promoted a Russian bow hold and this was very confusing to the Galamian technique trained student. I have also seen teachers who had rather tame ideas about how certain pieces should be played. This type of teacher would be a bad match for a bold, virtuostic player. It helps to know your musical values and what type of player you would like to become as you select a teacher. You should have some idea of your goals for your college years and on.

February 22, 2008 at 11:56 PM · 2 Cents: I agree with David very much. I am very biased because I think great performers do not always color between the lines when they teach. Career teachers tend to be more predictable. When we were looking for a new teacher (not near conservatory level yet) I knew these guys were all really great players and teachers. I was told these great players didn't take younger students, only older, conservatory level sutdents. I called anyway and said something like, "We would like your opinion, and if you think you can help us, we would like to know. If you don't think you can help us, or are too busy, we would love your recommendations for a teacher you think would be good for us." This gave them a graceful way out of committing to us versus an "audition" for the teacher. They were all so great. Each teacher at the level you describe has strengths and good ones usually know if they can help you. If they can't they usually have some good ideas and are quite generous.

As for big egos...Oh well...sometimes those guys/gals can really help a student too. Sometimes the ego makes them great performers which is important to learn about.

It can help build up needed ego strength in the student. The student needs to accept the teachers ego if you know the teacher has a type of greatness in them. Great players can be awkward teachers, but if their intention is to make you great, then I would accept them warts and all. On the flip side, great teachers are not always good performers and you really need both. Good luck.

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