Teacher woes

August 14, 2008 at 08:57 PM · I started taking "formal" lessons last week with a teacher I found on the internet. Before I begin, I should give a bit of info about myself. I'm a fulltime jazz musician (guitarist) with a degree in classical music theory. I've loved the violin since I was a child and know quite a lot about violin culture, performance practice, techniques, etc... On top of that, I've had the oppurtunity to play and work with world class violinists. However, I only picked up the violin last december. I didn't have any formal lessons but got lots of tips and advice from a lot of my professional violin friends (who are too busy to give regular lessons). Nonetheless, I was able to make a lot of progress on my own and by pestering them with advice every time I had the chance. I have really good ears so I know when I play out of tune; I am able to go to various positions, depending on what I`m asked to play, I can go up to 4th/5th positions, have started working on vibrato, etc... I would really like to stress that I have practically bathed in violin music of many styles since I was a teenager (i'm 26 now), so I am not ignorant when it comes to violin culture.

anyway I decided I would really like to take it seriously, since I have a lot of free time. I decided to look for regular lessons. I know of some of the best teachers in town but it's not within my budget to study with them (and they probably don't teach adult beginners anyway). I stumbled upon an interesting ad on the internet from a fellow who claims to play all the challenging pieces (paganini caprices, wienawski, etc...) and I was able to negociate a price within my budget.

Well I showed up for a lesson and before entering the room, I heard some violin music and I decided to listen a little bit. I thought he was finishing up with a student. It was the Bach Gm presto from the sonata bwv 1001. The playing was quite average (poor tone, intonation issues). In my opinion, I would say a beginning intermediate student. Well, I walked into the room and realized to my horror, that it was the teacher himself (a man in his late 40s or 50s). Granted he was sightreading the music, but i've been with music students who sightread with better tone and intonation. in his studio, there were a lot of pictures of him from his youth and various newspaper clippings or awards of some sort. I never really examined them.

Anyway, he had me try out a few things and told me that I was quite advanced for the time I was playing. He had me sightread some duets. While we were playing the duets (him playing the other part), I thought I was struggling a lot with the intonation (at home my intonation is usually decent), but here it was downright nasty. Then I realized it was the teacher that was way off, it really made it hard for me adjust to his intonation.

Now here's where I am having trouble deciding.

1)I've already prepaid him for 4 lessons.

2)good teachers don't necessarily mean good players and can at least point me in the right direction

Now if we consider point number 2: I do have a few reservations. He told me that my left forearm should be forward enough (towards the body) that I can see it with the corner of my way while I hold the violin. But when I do that it is rather painful. I realize that the forearm should be forward enough but to tthe point that I can see it in the corner of my eye is really difficult.

there's also the issue of vibrato, now I realize there are different schools of vibrato. One thing I've been told by a cirques du soleil violinist friend, is that when performing vibrato, the left hand should preferably be free, that is that the joint/bottom half of the index finger should not be used to hold the violin. He says most great violinists play that way, and true enough of all the violinists that i've been able to observe, only one had his index stuck to the side of the fingerboard but the result was still good.

with this teacher however, his index finger was practically stuck to the side fingerboard and the result was not pleasant when he performed a vibrato....

my question for you guys are:

1) what are you opinions about the left hand forearm issue

2) vibrato and index finger (what i said above), how do you guys do it? is your left hand free?

His playing is quite average; but the material he 's given me is pretty good (wohlfhart , sevcik etudes, etc...).

I m hesitating though. One thing's for sure, I cannot play duets with him, it'll ruin my intonation.

and I hope he isn't registered in this forum (if you are, I'm really sorry). He was really excited to have me as a student and he said that I have really great potential but I don't know if I can continue with him, and if he asked me why I would stop lessons with him, I would probably have to lie. I don't to want have to tell someone their playing is bad if they don't realize it themselves. Interestingly enough, he seems to make a really good living out of teaching, he seems to have a lot of students and lives in a really nice condo. Tricky!

Replies (25)

August 14, 2008 at 11:57 PM · Whenever I have not gone with my gut regarding teachers I have would up regretting it and wasting a lot of time.

August 15, 2008 at 02:59 AM · Boy, I agree. Your list of 'cons' is much bigger than this teachers 'pros'.

Phone him up and gracefully excuse yourself from further lessons. In the future, request a trial lesson with any new teacher before you put money in their pocket. You should still pay for the trial lesson time at their regular rate but then go home and decide if this person is right for you before you commit to a month of lesson fees.

August 15, 2008 at 03:26 AM · As Tess said, poiltely excuse youself. There really is no excuse for poor intonation. A student teacher bond either works or it doesn't. and when their are doubts from the student-it doesn't.

Usually when hunting for a teacher, going by word of mouth is better. The music world is quite small. And people not only know each other, but also their playing and teaching style.

August 15, 2008 at 03:38 AM · My professor had an amazing teacher in school who had become partially deaf. He couldn't hear the high notes of the violin, and sadly quit performing. He was still an amazing teacher, albeit not able to help with intonation in the upper register.

If this appears to be something like that, and you feel that you can gain from the next few lessons you've already paid for, see how the next few go and (more than likely) then excuse yourself. Maybe you can steer the lessons toward theory, or rhythmic study, something that will surely help your playing but isn't an intonation exercise. If you think he will cause detriment to your playing, politely excuse yourself now.

Lesson learned: trial lesson, then pay for the month. However, if you were my student, and that dissatisfied with the potential relationship, I would give you a refund.

August 15, 2008 at 04:08 AM · You prepaid? Ouch. Maybe I'm wrong, but unfortunately it would seem a bit gauche to ask for it back, even if you do feel entitled to it as you well should.

On the other hand, I suppose you can consider yourself very lucky to be more informed than many beginners, especially those who don't come from musical backgrounds.

I have some broad egalitarian ideals about music and music education, and you don't generally need Itzhak Perlman to teach basics. However, all my democratic inclinations go out the window when I think about how many unqualified teachers there are out there and how there is really no system in place to identify them (like the bar exam or national board certification; even people who don't know much about those fields can recognize the standard). What business does a middle-aged violin teacher have sight-reading the G minor presto, anyway? I started several years later than many of my peers and still got to it by college.

I think you've learned enough from this experience about choosing a teacher sight unseen (or sound unheard, as the case may be). Just to recap, though, anybody can be anything through the magic of the internet. At home we always joke about how some people haven't updated their headshots in twenty years, but it isn't a laughing matter.

August 15, 2008 at 05:27 AM · Based on what you wrote about yourself, you may be very difficult to teach: you are experienced in music, savvy _about_ the violin, but have little experience playing it yourself.

You would probably need a violin teacher who plays the violin at least as well as you play the guitar, who is able to respect you as a colleague musician, and tactful enough to teach you what you don't know yet.

This teacher does not qualify. The fact that he made you pay for four lessons in advance suggests that the man knows.

I had an experience like yours. I did not confront my unsatisfactory teacher with my list of complaints, but I just said that the necessary "click" wasn't there. That way I did not have to lie, but I thought I could spare her feelings. She had the gall to call me and tell me that I was doing her an injustice (by terminating the lessons) since I could not possibly know what I was doing, and hang up the phone. It was all the extra proof I needed.

NB: I haven't listed this person on this site as my teacher.

August 15, 2008 at 05:23 AM · Short version: The teacher's goal is to train the student to exceed the capabilities of the teacher. That appears to have been completed in the first lesson! :>

No more teaching needed at that level, on to the next teacher...

August 15, 2008 at 06:06 AM · thanks for the replies, here are a few clarifications: regarding the prepaid fees, it was my offer, i suggested that i prepay for four lessons at a rate that's within my budget. I guess it was my mistake, but you know, his ad was really captivating; this guy would make an excellent car dealer! if i'm not mistaken he's armenian and wrote about his child prodigy days and having gone through the standard "virtuoso" repertoire.

I've had two lessons so far, I hesitated because I do realize that a good teacher isn't always a top player and the age could possibly be a factor as well (as someone mentionned), ...

Like I said, I am satisfied with the material that he's giving me; it seems like standard stuff; but when we started talkign about vibrato, and when he showed me his vibrato, it set off a big red alarm...

again, i certainly realize there are many schools of vibrato, but it's the first time I see it done the way he did it; the end result is what matters but in this case the end result wasn't too good (in my opinion).

I asked this question in my original post, when you guys do vibrato, do you use your index (lower half, close to the hand joint) to support the violin? Every *good* violinist I've spoken to tell me that the hand should be free, and having the index finger support the violin limits the movement of your hand... seems logical enough; and again, i've spent hours observing master violinists, it really does seem to confirm what my friends tell me. I've only seen one fellow do it (a jazz violinist) with the index supporting the instrument but he made it sound great.

my teacher on the other hand, not only was his index supporting the violin, it was practically wrapped around it while he did the vibrato and it sounded out of tune.

one thing's for sure, no way am i gonna want to play duets with him!!

i'll see how the third lesson goes and i'll most likely finish the fourth lesson as well, and have a better idea of what i should do; i'll definitely ignore his vibrato advice!!

it's a very difficult situation for me as far as lessons go, my friends are busy and if they will teach me, it'd be very awkward, they wouldn't take my money even if i wanted to pay... they give me great advice every time i see them though.

then there are the word-of-mouth teachers that i know of, but unfortunately, their rates are out of my budget.

someone suggested we focus our lessons on theory and rhythm; i have a degree in classical music theory actually.. and as far as rhythm goes, i`m a jazz musician. funny thing about rhythm, during our last lesson, we played a piece together with a metronome, at one point i stopped playing because we were no logner with the metronome, he kept it on going and didn`t notice, and told me to keep playing, i replied that he wasn`t following the beat haha.

anyway, if i stop lessons and he asks why, i`ll definitely have to lie; i just can`t think of a polite way to tell the teacher he plays way out of tune and time.

Interestingly enough though, he seems to have a lot of students and he does live in a really fancy area!

thanks folks, and if you guys can answer my Q regarding vibrato, i`d appreciate it. I searched a lot of forums and youtube videos, many people talk about vibrato execution, but no one seems to talk about the issue i`m referring to

August 15, 2008 at 07:04 AM · I think you should go ahead and take the lessons that you paid for. Ask lots of questions, and be open to learn without feeling obliged to adapt to everything he throws at you. He's been playing a lot longer than you, so pick his brain. A good teacher will be able to tell you why they teach it the way they do, so feel free to ask why. Whatever the result, it won't be a complete waste of money. If after you've completed the lessons, you still feel the way you do now, you can refuse to continue without explanation. You owe him nothing.

It sounds fishy though, that someone as prodigious as you describe would be "sight reading" the G minor presto.

August 15, 2008 at 11:26 AM · This is so interesting. In your position, I'd do what Emily is suggesting, finish up the 4 prepaid lessons getting what you can out of them, and then move on. Start looking now, getting some trial lessons if you can. Once you find someone better suited to your level, I think the contrast will be obvious and the decision will become clearer in your own mind as well.

August 15, 2008 at 12:03 PM · "i replied that he wasn`t following the beat haha."

What did he say?

Anyway, this adventure isn't about making you a virtuoso fiddler, right? See what develops, then find somebody more expensive if you want, or a student at the local conservatoire...

To answer your other questions, it's typical to have the index lightly brushing the neck during vibrato. It's not right or wrong. The left forearm, it's more or less perpendicular to the plane of the violin. Usually means comfortably tucked underneath it.

August 15, 2008 at 01:36 PM · Dennis,

If you can stick it out for the next two lessons, I think it will still be educational. ;) It will also seem like you really did give him a chance, and that may soften the blow to his ego when you tell him it's just not working out.

I wouldn't rule out the "word of mouth" teachers just yet. See if their rates are set in stone; if they think you have particular aptitude, and as long as you come off as an intelligent, inquisitive student and not a know-it-all (I'm not saying you are), it might be personally fulfilling enough for them to want to make an exception. Then again, these people are trying to make a living, so what do I know?

August 15, 2008 at 01:46 PM · Well, at the very least, you'll know what habits you DON'T want to develop at the end of your lessons.

Cool that you have a degree in music theory! And yes, since you're a jazz musician, I suppose you don't need to work on rhythm itself. I just meant relating those 2 things to the violin more directly... Doing different bowings to accomplish certain rhythms up to speed. Understanding how all your knowledge of chord spelling applies to the violin. I have no idea if this guy is capable of such things, but that was my best hope for you gaining something of value.

For vibrato, I think various types are most musical, and in the smaller types, I leave my index finger knuckle against the neck. If I play up high, my hand isn't touching for vibrato. At any time, however, my contact with the violin is slippery, so I'm not "supporting" the violin with my knuckle (at least not primarily) to allow fluid, relaxed motion at any time.

August 15, 2008 at 06:57 PM · Have you heard any of his other students?

August 17, 2008 at 08:53 AM · Hi Dennis

Simon Fisher, (whose wonderful books 'Basics' and 'Practice' answer most of my questions), says that while having the two contact points (thumb and base of index finger) is important for intonation (ie guiding the hand), this should be a very flexible hold, in which the index finger can ease off completely during vibrato. I certainly do - otherwise the violin would shake. The two contact points become thumb and various parts of the hand above 3rd position, where the index finger has to let go the neck.

Regarding the left forearm, I was taught that always seeing the forearm is an old-fashioned concept. Instead, the arm needs to rotate only as far needed for comfortably reaching the string you're playing on with the 4th finger. It depends on how high on the shoulder you like to hold the violin, how long your arms are, how large your hands etc etc. Do what works for you.

It sounds to me like the advice and experience you've gained so far are guiding you very well. Unless you can see some value in continuing with this teacher, you'd basically be going to 'get your money's worth' or to do him a favour.

When I teach I don't expect to be paid in advance and would not want to teach someone who didn't like my playing or teaching.

August 17, 2008 at 10:02 PM · thanks for the advice folks! i'll finish the 4 lessons, i'll have my 3rd one on wednesday, and post a follow-up.

i've only heard one of his other students who was an adult beginner so there s not much I can say. He seems to be doing OK though.

I'm far from being a know-it-all, but i have to admit that i can be very picky and paranoid when it comes to teaching. As a fulltime musician, "perpetual student" and teacher. I've seen many approaches to pedagogy, bad and good and in between; everyone has helped shaped the way i feel about music and teaching.

Technique wise, on the guitar, from the age of 15 to 18, i was on the wrong track because of just plain wrong advice from the teacher I had at the time. And i've also found that good teachers can sometimes also give bad advice... i've learned to ask questions and ask for as many different opinions as possible to help form my own

thanks again!

August 18, 2008 at 02:03 AM · i have to admit that i can be very picky and paranoid when it comes to teaching

That's probably better than the alternative.

August 18, 2008 at 06:55 AM · Dennis,

I too am an adult beginner on violin but with many years of touring & recording playing both horn and guitar. Also college trained in performance, music theory, & composition. I've been with my beginning teacher about a year and a half now & will stay until I can't learn more from him. The trick is to know where you're having trouble and ask him how to correct that specific problem. He may be used to dealing only with rank beginners unable to conceptualize well. Use your own experience to guide him to your needs, then let his experience guide you. This should help you optimize your time with him and streamline the teaching process.

August 18, 2008 at 07:57 AM · " Use your own experience to guide him to your needs, then let his experience guide you."

This is one of the best pieces of advice I've seen on the boards. Well said, David!

August 21, 2008 at 03:17 AM · well i had my 3rd lesson today, i was able to hear him perform a little bit for me. He corrected my bow hand, at first i was skeptical but i went back home and watched videos of heifetz, menuhin, etc... and especially todd ehle. Turns out he was right! So I'm glad I got sometihng out of him today.

i noticed that his intonation is ok when he plays single note melodies. every few notes might be a few cents off so it sounds a bit uneven but it's still borderline in tune... when he plays double stops on the other hand is when it becomes a total disaster.

and i was able to really observe his vibrato today, his left hand is practically grabbing the fingerboard thus totally limiting freedom of motion, and the vibrato sounds so weak. i definitely won't be able to get anything from him as far as vibrato goes.

my main problem with vibrato at the moment is the index finger, i am unable to free it up without drastically changing the position of my thumb (so that the pad of the thumb supports the violin). If anyone can shed some light into this i'd be interested in hearing what they have to say... btw i play without a shoulder rest.

i was watching some youtube to videos to see if i can someone who plays similar to him:

i found a fellow who has the exact same vibrato:


and that's precisely the problem i have, getting the index to come off...

i noticed if i put the scroll against the wall, i can do it pretty well, so it has to do with how i'm holding the violin i suppose.

i did a search on vibrato , and no one seems to talk about this issue

August 21, 2008 at 05:30 AM · Dennis,

Go to the following site and plan to spend some time there. They have it down to a science. You'll probably want to check out the other lessons too.


August 21, 2008 at 02:24 PM · Dennis,

ELBOW - In my opinion there is no one right place for your left elbow. Don't think of sticking it in one place and then only moving your hand around. The hand leads, and the elbow follows.

Fingers on G string - elbow juts out in front of you, and you can see it

Finger on D string - Elbow points down straight to the floor.

Fingers on A string - elbow starts tucking in futher to the left.

Fingers on E string - elbow points out towards the back.

***This is only my opinion and how my teacher taught me, but he's got excellent credentials. All teachers will teach this a little differently so be prepared for that.

VIBRATO - don't worry so much about it. Overanalyzing it won't help much. Stop thinking about the joints and speed and the grip. Only a little thought goes a long way with vibrato and in most cases it comes quite naturally.

FINDING A TEACHER - It's difficult to internet shop for teachers. I would suggest talking to your friends about it and they could point you in the right direction. Maybe some of them have college or graduate students they teach that they can hook you up with. If you can't learn from your talented friends, learn from their students or someone else they can recommend for your level.

You're doing the right thing sticking with the 4 lessons and honoring that committment. But trust your gut strings and move on from this fellow. He'll be just fine in his grand ole house so don't feel sorry for him. He's doing the best he can with what he has and so should you.

August 23, 2008 at 03:40 AM · thanks for the replies


yes i've seen those videos (i'm a violin freak!). But they weren't much help, I know how it's supposed to be done, it's the fact that I can't do it...

but actually today when i tried it out, it was WAY better than it was yesterday... thinking about it so much over the last few weeks made a huge difference!!!

i think the problem is how i hold the violin.. i just received stephen redrobe's dvd, and it really helped... (i play without a shoulder rest)

like i said i am able to execute the vibrato if i'm in a certain position and especially if my thumb is in a particular position (though with my new violin grip thanks to mr redrobe, it has gotten better)

and then the problem is switching between non-vibrato playing and vibrato... where ih ave trouble getting my index off... it's gotten way better since yesterday and since watching the mr redrobe's dvd


to get back to the original topic, the main reason i chose this teacher besides his supposed credentials was because of an email i sent him...

i specifically told him i wanted to learn without a shoulder rest... he told me not a problem, that's how he learned too, when i showed up for my first lesson, i see man playing with a big shoulder rest, and he never tried to correct the way i held my violin....

oh well!!! coincidently, i found out we have a common friend, i asked her about him here's what she replied (i've edited out some personal information):

"hey d,

you've analyzed right. He sells himself as top notch, and truly believes all that but unfortunately his health has gotten the better of his playing.

He wanted me to play duets with him. I just couldn't do it; so I sent him one of my students. Since then, we keep in touch with the occasional email.

I feel bad saying this because he means well...but that's the reality of the situation."

well, there we go...

anyway, i'm not sure how to stop the lessons with him without hurting his feelings, yikes!!! he's a really nice guy though

August 23, 2008 at 07:55 AM · Dennis,

I know what you mean, but then almost all bowing is like that for me. My teacher says it will come in time as long as I keep trying to do it right. I think a lot of bowing is like riding a bicycle; a matter of feel-balance and co-ordination. oh, well, persevere. You sound like you're off to a good start, and I'm sure your other chops didn't come overnight either.

September 3, 2008 at 12:51 AM · The violin should be cradled between the thumb and the base of the index finger, not cleched or teetered on top of the thumb. Watch masters on Youtube like Heifetz.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program

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

Violinist.com Business Directory
Violinist.com Business Directory

Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning
Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning

Dominant Pro Strings

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases



Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins


Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & 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