College Teachers: Are they for musical insight or for influential fame?

December 14, 2008 at 07:12 PM ·

I got the idea for this thread for Professor David Russell of the Cleveland Institute of Music.

He asked the question: do students search for teachers based on influential fame rather than the musical insight they could gain?  For example, if there was a fantastic teacher in a little known university, and in another university a well known soloist (who didn't necessarily teach well) taught, who would the students choose?  Which teacher would "propel" you further in the musical arena?  Lately it seems that some little known musicians who have not studied with incredibly famous people are not very well known, even if they are some of the most incredible musicians on earth.

What are your thoughts?  I see te capacity for an incredibly interesting thread.  Thanks, Mr. Russell.

Replies (33)

December 14, 2008 at 08:42 PM ·

Without being specific, I will say that at a university studied at had 2 teachers: one was famous and one was not. Many were attracted by Famous Teacher, and soon became disenchanted and transferred to Teaching Teacher. 

People who chose a teacher based solely on fame or accomplishments may be making a mistake as far as their own development is concerned. Sometimes fame and good teaching are both present in one teacher, but not always.

December 14, 2008 at 10:30 PM ·

I don't want to name names but I know a very good professionnal violinist who send her daughter to the best teachers that were members (some of the best positions) in a famous symphony orchestra.  Her daughter and her were not satisfied and these great players always told the daughter to ask to her mother for help!  Many very advanced teachers only think in terms of interpretation/emotions and are not able to go back to the "student's perspective" to explain the technical things to them. Morover, some almost play by instinct, (because they have did it for so much years)have the right motion but don't even know how they do it!  But there is incredible teachers that are also incredible players and even soloists!


December 14, 2008 at 11:44 PM ·

It goes with the territory as they say, some great violinist are just great students, but sad to say that they're not a good teachers at all. But since they famous for there virtousos, you as a students wants a piece of those, and   saying that you studied with them carry a great deal, and others expect you to be the same.

But you are right though, there are a lot of great players who  studied with the  great teachers/mentors but not given enough credit for, for theyr'e not too popular. Also, [politics can play up with that too, is still who you know that kinda deal..)

Politics are sometimes really screwed things up. (pardons my words).

But again, TALENTS can get you through it.

December 15, 2008 at 12:30 AM ·

This answer could go eiher way..... 

With an unkown, good teacher, your going to develop incredible skills and you'll remain out of the spot light until you make your debut. Then, taking the classical music world by storm. So you'll have everything going for you. Your going to be an amazing violinist, a fresh face and sound, and not the same as everything else.

With a famous teacher (who sucks) your going to have great connections, and your name is going to be behind that teacher. So if your learning from this teacher and constantly in the spotlight, it's not going to stay that way for long. So your name will always be out there but your not necessarily going to be the best violinist, and the ability to back up that fame; or be someone interesting.

I'm going to use these names, but that doesn't mean I think badly of any of them, it's just the closest to an example I can think of. With someone like Sarah Chang or Joshua Bell, they've been playing their entire lives and mostly in the spotlight. Chang was with the Julliard school and famous from a very young age. When you hear her name, you think "oh, good violinist, but not that interesting". With a fresh face to well, at least the American classical music scene, someone like Janine Jansen is still unheard of to some people and a fresh face in the music scene and her sound/style is unique. So she's more interesting in that aspect.

So I think your time is so much better spent developing amazing skills etc instead of becoming famous.  If your amazing your going to get there eventually.

December 15, 2008 at 04:38 AM ·

I don't know how a prospective student in high school would know if an unknown teacher at some random school would be a fantastic teacher.  I think one can assume that all the teachers at major music schools are qualified as teachers, especially if they have been around a while.  Obviously there could be advantages if ones teacher is a successful violinist and has connections  in the music world.  There are numerous teaching styles and not every teacher is suited to every student.  There is lots of luck involved finding a teacher that can help propel a student into a career. 

December 15, 2008 at 03:34 PM ·

Well, I meant a teacher at a less known school. Like some of the teachers at colleges here. Ugh nevermind I'm too tired to try to explain my view and I have to go to bed...

December 15, 2008 at 05:49 AM ·

Studying with a great teacher (but not a big name)-you learn a great deal, but have to make your way the old fashioned way.  This is not strictly so, as the world is so small, that many great teachers are also fairly known in personal and professional circles.

Studying with a big name (who isn't perhaps a great teacher), opens doors via the the instructors connections.  Personal connections are how a great many people make it in the music business.  Unless you know someone, odds are against you getting the position-whatever it be, and this goes for any field.


In the end, the teachers' goal is to make the student self winding-that is the student learns how to observe and correct and teach themselves.  It is up to the student to find an environment where they think they will thrive, and a teacher with which they will do great work.  Teachers want students they enjoy teaching, and institutions want students that will make their schools look good down the road.


In the end what matters is making yourself the best violinist you can.  Yes you can ride names--but in the violin field, it quickly becomes apparent the state of one's training to any trained eye.

December 15, 2008 at 11:50 AM ·

Thanks for starting the thread, Brian. Fascinating responses.

December 15, 2008 at 01:00 PM ·

"Yes you can ride names--but in the violin field, it quickly becomes apparent the state of one's training to any trained eye."

I think that sentence pretty much sums up and ends this entire discussion. I think Marc and I have the same view on this, I just didn't communicate mine as well as him into words. I think most of us will have the same conclusion but you never know with these things.

December 15, 2008 at 04:44 PM ·


This is an interesting thread and a good question.  Here is a stab at it?...

I think that it depends where you are in your development and what environment you need to develop.  If you are at a stage where you need to have serious foundation or reconstruction work to progress further, then you need someone who can teach you that.  If you have a very solid technique, but your playing needs refinement and a deeper understanding of music and sound, then you need someone that can give you that.  If you are a finished player in needs of inspiration, being around a stellar performer can give you that in terms of the demonstrations they give in lessons.  Some peformers have also had great teaching and can transmit that.  In an ideal world you find a teacher that can do ALL of that.  However, no one individual probably can, but can offer you things in different balances.

The next factor is how you learn, especially at this point.  Do you need someone that will break down everything step by step in all its components and help you to think and rationalize problems?  Do you prefer to learn by observation, seeing someone play and figuring out from that what principles you can apply?  How much experience do you have as a performer that permits you to understand what a peformer may be trying to teach you?

Next, what evironment do you need?  Many times, well-known or famous teachers/pedagogues teach in famous institutions, where you may be surrounded by a lot of talented players, and this kind of atmosphere can be very helpful in not only stimulating you to learn, but sometimes you can learn from sharing, playing with your colleagues. 

Another factor is how much money do you have and how much do you need?  Although a great education is one of the best and most important investments in your future, debts are hard to pay off and music can be challenging at times for the financial returns.  So, you have to factor that in, IMHO, in your choices.  You therefore may want to save a big school for grad studies, especially if you aren't far enough along to land a substantial scholarship going into your undergrad.

Lastly, in the end, are you getting a quality education, especially, the one that YOU need? When you combine everything, if you aren't learning learning the skills, playing-learning-artistic integrity that it requires to play well, then no matter what the school (whether you pay or it's free, famous or not), you are not getting what you need for your future.  Now this may happen anywhere, in places big or small.   A quality education lasts almost forever (there are things that I am still learning today from lessons a decade ago in grad school, only because I had to gain that much experience in the professional world to finally absorb the knowledge!)

So the bottom line:  I would advise anyone to first look at themselves realistically and see what their needs are, within the context of their reality of life.  If you have to, make a list.  The see your options and choose the one that is best suited to you.  In the end, the true objectives are to improve and keep improving and learn everything that you can to try to communicate and serve the music as best as you can.


December 15, 2008 at 02:23 PM ·

There is a third category of teacher not mentioned here and perhaps more sought after than the great artist, this is the well-known pedagogue.  These are the folks who consistently turn out competition winners, soloists, etc... Sometimes they get this reputation from one student who goes on to become famous followed by the flood of students seeking the same.  This in turn allows them to be very selective of their students but isn't necessarily an indication of their depth as a teacher.  Some of the highly sought-after  teachers  have very systematic, effective approaches which work well for many students.  I would put Mr. Galamian in this category.   With a teacher like this, you have the security of a method that is likely to work for you.  This could be really important for a student whose technique is in a developmental stage, perhaps this is most college students.  Some teachers earn their name by being energetic promoters of their students, good at packaging commercial products.  There may be a time for this type of teacher, but I don't think the early undergraduate years is the appropriate time.

As a parent I am most interested in teachers who work well with students possessing strong musical personalities.  I admire the teacher who turns out individuals with beautiful technique while still preserving their unique approach to the music and the instrument.  There is also an aspect of quality.  One often sees students who can play with perfection, fast and accurately, but without artistic depth.  The great teacher is a person of great artistic depth who thoughtfully fosters this in their students.  Having been a great player at some point probably helps with this last qualification.  It is also important that the teacher exercise good judgment and that they are able to take the long view, especially where younger students (teens and pre-teens) are concerned.  One of my son's early teachers said, " You must always study with an artist."  I think this was excellent advice.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to know these things ahead of time about a college teacher except from observing their students and former students and by way of recommendation.  The one thing you can generally assess from trial lessons or summer camp lessons or masterclasses is the level of interest the prospective teacher has in you.  This is a very important consideration.  As a parent I  want a teacher who recognizes my child's particular talents and is really interested in fostering them.


December 15, 2008 at 02:54 PM ·

 "As a parent I  want a teacher who recognizes my child's particular talents and is really interested in fostering them."

Jennifer, that is so true, but so hard to find.

December 15, 2008 at 04:21 PM ·


I completely agree with your post and your thoughts. You sum it up very well, in my opinion.

December 15, 2008 at 04:45 PM ·

Mistake - edit on my part...

December 15, 2008 at 08:20 PM ·

I would see if the teacher would make the time to listen and observe me, in Masterclass Form, note the comments and go from there. I would be interested in what needs to be corrected, the recomended correction, why, and does it or will it solve the problems.



December 15, 2008 at 10:37 PM ·

One thing missing from this discussion is what the career goals of the student may be. I think that the teacher's name may only help in limited circumstances, and that actually the school or conservatory name is more important. One thing to remember is that outside of the violin world, people may not recognize who to us is a big name. They will, however, recognize the top schools. For instance, a faculty hiring committee at a college may not have heard of the famous teacher. And auditions at orchestras are, initially, behind a screen. Want to get on the soloist circuit? You usually have to win some competitions. I was lucky enough to be able to study with Seven Staryk, a name known to many on this site, but (unfortunately) how many have heard of him otherwise? 


December 16, 2008 at 02:29 AM ·


Your post was really thoughtful and you seem to know a great deal about the music world and music teachers in general.  How can a parent with no music background or a student of such parent possibly know how to go about finding teachers that you describe? I mean, my son's first teacher was a referral from someone I called out of the phone book and he was with her for 7 years.  His current, and only other teacher, is, I believe, wonderful and has a critical eye and is a gifted performer himself.  He has helped my son have higher expectations of himself and we've seen improvement.  Yet, my son has some quirky ways that drive his teacher crazy. He is used to a certain kind of high achieving student that plays well, strong, and controlled and technically and physically, does everything he asks.  My son is not like this. (I'll post a link to his latest solo when it goes up on the website)  I am inclined to think that my son needs to "get his act together" rather than the teacher allowing my son's quirkiness to be a part of his playing.  Does that make sense?  For instance, my son loves to play fiddle music but every time he plays fiddle music, his bow arm goes to pot, his violin slips down his chest, and his teacher gets frustrated with him.  My son is a wiggler.  In his recent recital, his teacher said he looked sort of arrogent (based on his apparent confidence and his casual clothing even though my son was so very nervous).  So, shouldn't my son try to "fit the mold"?  His teacher said if he ever does competitions, they won't take him seriously because of his arm, posture, etc.

Ok, sorry to ramble off the topic a bit but I just am wondering how one becomes an expert in what to look for in a teacher to bring out the best in the student.

December 17, 2008 at 04:56 AM ·

Mr. Russell,

Thank you!  Judging from the students of yours that I have heard over the years, I believe that you are a perfect example of a teacher who fosters artistic depth as well as technical security.




It is much easier to see in hindsight what we have done as parents that has worked and what has not worked than it is to know at the moment if we are on the right track.  You have to trust your instincts where your son's teacher is concerned.  If your son's lessons are like a dialogue between two people in love with music and the violin, then that is a really good sign.  If your son's teacher has convinced him that he is capable of meeting high standards, then that is also a good sign. 

I know what you mean about the funny, goofy habits that some kids have.  Believe me, with patience and gentle reminders (from the teacher not the parent), and with normal development of coordination these goofy things will lessen.  My youngest son's vibrato used to be so broad that it made people laugh until tears ran down their cheeks, and now at almost 15, he has wonderful control over the width and speed of his vibrato.  He also used to accent every down-bow  as if he were playing a hoe-down and this habit now only shows up on rare occasions. 

If you have concerns about your son's bow stroke and general right arm position, ask your son's teacher to prescribe exercises to address these issues. Some teachers are more organized in their approach to technique, using etude books and scales and exercises regularly and others address technique as it arises in the repertoire.  You might ask your son's teacher if he would be open to devoting one or two lessons a month to technique alone.  It takes regular follow-up and a scientific approach (which your son wouldl probably really enjoy)  to correct bad habits.

I am reading the book "Outliers" and the initial chapters on opportunity really struck me as relevant to violin training.  I think that as a parent, you are best to act as if your child has great potential and that he/she is worth the best teacher you can find.  He/she is also worth the best effort you can provide in the way of support.  It sounds to me like you are definitely giving your son your best effort.




December 17, 2008 at 06:11 AM ·

Jennifer and Rebecca, on the topic of looking for the right teacher - how far are you willing to travel to get to one? 1, 2 - or 5 hr drive? Just wondering when does the quest for the best fit teacher become "insane" to other "sane" beings (esp, non music loving spouses).


December 17, 2008 at 12:18 PM ·



Thank you for your kind remarks about my students. I really appreciate them. Reading your later remarks, I think we should vote you " violin-mom of the year!"  I wish all perents of students had such well founded insight and clearly defined opinions! Your kid(s) are lucky to have you and so is their teacher.

P.S. I loved the vibrato story.

December 17, 2008 at 11:53 PM ·

I agree with Mr. Russell.  Your posts have always been so helpful, Jennifer.  I feel like I'm walking in the dark and running along behind my son trying to keep up, and you bring clarity to so many issues.

I do feel very good about my son's current teacher.  His experience both as a teacher and a performer, as well as his life experience (coming from another country) and his energy, all help make him a good fit for my son (though it was rocky at the beginning because my son wasn't used to working).

As to the original question, I remember meeting one of this teacher's college students and she said this teacher was the only reason she was at that particular college. (It is just a state university, not a music school)  He does have students who compete and win in contests but that doesn't seem to be his thrust at all and is, in fact, very particular about which contests he feels are good for his students.  He also attended Apsen way back when, when he first came to this country, and he does not recommend it for younger students but he admits his view is skewed being that he was a new immigrant.  I think he is flexible. 

Lye Yen, you have asked a great question.  Being that I also have a non music loving spouse as well as 2 younger children, one with special health needs, he would not support me driving my son anywhere far for lessons *but* we are in a very large city and my sons are very blessed to have good teachers within 15 minutes of our house.  In fact, we had the lessons at my house with his old teacher for about 3 years!  His new teacher is moving even closer to our house (as he and the others who share his studio are symphony players and are tired of driving through traffic that's far from symphony rehearsal) so I feel very, very fortunate.If my son was exceptionally gifted in violin (he isn't) and someone recommended a particular teacher, I might take a look at it, but we don't have to worry about that. 

I hope you are able to find a very good teacher close by, Lye Yen. 

December 18, 2008 at 12:35 AM ·

Thks Rebecca.

December 18, 2008 at 02:25 PM ·

I would like to give this thread another twist and ask this question: Have you ever known any teacher to hold onto that famous (gifted, talented) student to gain fame for his or her studio? I have.

Just a note here... NONE of the teachers listed on my page have ever done this.

But I do know of one teacher who held back students from moving onto other teachers who could improve their playing. Just so that they could have them in their concerts to "show off" their prize students to gain more students for their studio. It is a business you know.


December 18, 2008 at 04:28 PM ·

Sadly, that is true. It does happen.

In my opinion, it is one of the biggest problems in our profession. Is the teacher a teacher or a power-broker? Do they care for the students first, then their own career?

There is an element of risk in this profession: Popularity is built upon the perceptions of other people. It is a temptation to play upon those perceptions. However, when all is said and done, a teacher who cares for the well-being of the student as a priority--might receive proper recognition--or they might not-- but, the ones who can still look at themselves in the mirror in the morning have a better chance of lasting long enough in this profession to make a positive impact.


How is that for an unintelligible run-on sentence? ;-)

December 19, 2008 at 05:49 AM ·

In reply to the original post - I would chose the teacher I have right now.  Lessons are just flat out fun and sometimes funny, to the point of bringing tears to my eyes from laughing so hard.  On the other hand, he continuously drives me and pushes me to my limit, works me through that limit, and then prepare me for the next one.  AND he keeps me motivated, even when I feel like chucking either my viola or his metronome out the window.  Tonight in lessons his metronome got such a glare from me that he turned it off and hid it, knowing what I was threatening to do :)  I've progressed so far over the past two years with him, it is sometimes difficult for me to realize this, until someone in my family listens to the occasional recording I send them. 

My teacher is a professional symphonic musician, plays many solos/concertos either independantly or with the orchestra, performs alot of chamber works, teaches at the local university, private studio, and Interlochen in the summer.   I think that out of all his students, I am the least likely to make music a career (being that I'm significant'y older than his other students, and already have a day job). However, he often jokes with me about branching out more in my "musical career" (community orchestras, quartet performances in the park, concerto competions, X-mas music for the family, etc...). 

I think he will end up retiring before I stop taking lessons from him...  unless I move out of the area.

December 19, 2008 at 11:03 PM ·

Interesting topic.  If I had it to do all over, I'm not sure it would be different.  My son was in a prestigious Suzuki program that has produced some excellent violinists.  However, I was an anxious mom and worried about whether we were going in the right direction.   Was he learning how to practice, problem solve, enough opportunities, etc., so we added a teacher -- two teachers at the same time for a year and then on to the newer teacher.  That worked for a while until my son went to summer camp -- and it was a total disaster.    The second teacher decided at the end of that summer that he would not longer teach my son and we had to scramble to find a new teacher.  After the summer experience, my attitude changed.  I wanted a nurturing teacher -- not a famous one, but someone who cared about and would nurture my 14 yr old son.  We were taken on by a violinist in the NSO who was wonderful for that year.  Then she had a baby and we were adrift again.  He went to another summer camp and studied with an incredible teacher who became his mentor as well as his summer teacher.  We were accepted by a teacher at a university (about 2 hr drive from our home) who totally worked him over for the next three years before college.  Did my son have lots of quirks?  Definitely, but these two teachers treated them as part of the process, gently working with him so that they gradually disappeared.  As his technique improved, the playing became easier and things like awful facial expressions, excess movement, disappeared as part of the process.  He continued to study with the teacher from the summer program during the summers and his home teacher until he was accepted into his college program.  His summer teacher/mentor became his college professor.  I am so grateful that he had this opportunity to study with this teacher -- who is also a well known performer, chamber musician, because he worked with my son as an individual, developing his unique characteristics.  Last year I suggested that I wished he could just continue on for graduate studies with the same teacher.  However, he replied that he needed to go out and get experiences from other teachers, but that he would always be in touch with my son.  So he is now in graduate school with yet another teacher who hopefully will continue to develop these unique characteristics.  I think he was well-prepared for his graduate studies.

The bottom line is that for us, having two nurturing, caring teachers during high school was of utmost importance.  Also, having two teachers who were on the same wavelength as my son was very important.  The summer/college teacher is extremely quick at problem solving which my son loved and he delved into the historical aspects of playing which really appealed to my son.   If my son had gone to the teacher he studied with at the first summer camp, he would probably have quit violin because of the extreme negativity.  But we were so fortunate that we developed these relationships with two great teachers.  One other thing I think is important is that these teachers, although they were also performers, were for the most part consistently there for lessons on a regular basis, so there were very few gaps.  For my son, that was important.

Sorry this was so rambling, but it is a perspective from someone whose son is now in the final stages, so perhaps my hindsight will add to the discussion.


December 19, 2008 at 11:11 PM ·

Ruth- Thanks for sharing your story about your son! Simply incredible and how wonderful for your son!!!!! I wish I was so fortunate. Some day.



December 19, 2008 at 11:47 PM ·


I loved your story and so appreciate you sharing!  You know, I was told by several people for several years to change to a traditional teacher from a Suzuki teacher.  Maybe we should have switched earlier but my other son's cello teacher reminds me that the concert master of our symphony was a Suzuki student and that makes me feel better.  Also, I think the Suzuki method developed my son's ear.  His sight reading was weak but 3 years in a community orchestra playing normal stuff like Dvorak and Beethovern have greatly improved his sight reading.

I'm encouraged to hear that these nurturing teachers helped smooth out the quirks.  I know my son developed some bad habits with his old teacher because he was too comfortable with her; this is one reason I specifically picked his new teacher.

Thanks again for the great story, Ruth.  How wonderful to hear of your son's success!

December 20, 2008 at 01:49 PM ·


I'm always curious about the result of kids whose parents pick the teacher for them. Does the parent want to make the child a violinist? When the child grows up do the parents also pick the spouse for them? In todays world it seems teachers are just a pair of old shoes!


December 20, 2008 at 11:03 PM ·


I'm a little confused by your question.  Are you saying that children of all ages should know how to pick up the phone, go through the internet, interview teachers, etc., in general, know enough of how to pick a teacher?  I definitely think as children grow into their teen years and beyond, they learn to take that onus on but I haven't known any (not that they don't exist, just not in my cirlce) young musicians who are able to do that without adult help.  I also don't know how that relates to picking out a spouse, either. :-)

I know my son asks for my help in many things as he continues to be organizationally challenged.  I also step in if I see something that's amiss.  For instance, my son didn't want to change teachers after being with one for 7 years; that was my decision and my son is glad he made the change.  That was my call as I was able to see he had grown complaisant and lazy with his teacher and he didn't think he could grow any more as a musician. OTOH, when he's out on a gig, I have nothing to do it.   I do think parents are a support to their children; in fact, that's the advice I've gotten on, that I should be my son's biggest supporter.  I've been chastised for not being his supporter, so now I get to hear the other side. :-)  I love this site! LOL

December 21, 2008 at 11:18 PM ·

Hi Rebecca,

Thanks for your reply. I was just curious about the result of students whose parents pick the teacher for them. My parents didn't pick my teachers for me so I didn't have to go through that experience. I went to the nearest school to my house and my first violin teacher came there to teach me. That worked for me and I understand what your saying also. The teacher can't do everything for the child and it's good your son is finding his way together with you.

All the best,


December 21, 2008 at 03:52 PM ·


I agree with Mr. Russell's last, excellent point!  Teaching has to be about the music and the education.  I think also that playing the violin well, teaching well and serving the music well is more important than seeking fame.  May or may not happen, but once again, you can live a lot better with yourself.


December 26, 2008 at 10:43 PM ·

Oh Michael, assumptions like that are dangerous.  When my best interest is at stake, I can't assume anything.

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