Teaching with or without the instrument?

September 29, 2009 at 07:22 PM ·

I've posted this elsewhere;  forgive me if you've seen it already:


I was wondering, as a teacher, do you teach, holding the violin/viola or do you just sit and observe and comment? I'm thinking that most of my beginning music teachers (aside from orchestra directors) did hold the instrument, play along with me and demonstrate. But then as I got more advanced, the teachers just sat and observed and commented. They rarely demonstrated, mostly not at all in university.

Also, since teachers have also invariably been students, what do you recall about your own teachers, in regard to whether they demonstrated, or just sat and observed/commented?

Additionally, for piano teachers, do you have a second piano or keyboard in your teaching studio?


So far, the distinction has been drawn between so-called "Art Music" teaching and fiddle teaching;  since fiddle is an aural tradition, the teacher will use the instrument. 

Replies (20)

September 29, 2009 at 07:51 PM ·

I think there're 2 different issues when teaching. One is to teach the technical part of the playing, and the other is to teach the musicality.

When teaching technical part, I always liked the concept of "teacher = model", but not necessary want the student to copy exactly what I do. Demostration is more like a inspiration. More like "wow teacher is cool and I want to do that too!".

However, trying to demostrate some musical expression by demostrating is a different story. Very often students will focus on looking at the teacher's playing than to hear the playing when teacher is demostrating. So by just explaining (or even singing) some musical expression will be more effecient than demostrating the playing. Not to forget that some student will copy the teacher exactly, say, where to slow down/speed up, where to play loud/soft, phrase shaping - these they learned by copying, but never come from deep inside their heart. They won't be independent to self explore/experiment when teacher is not around.

I find learning the musical expression part of the playing, students tend to prefer having some inspiration when they hear the actual performance (live concert, of DVD/CD), although some teachers have the capacity to demostrate something that'll input straight into the heart of the student. Anyway, thanks to today's technology, it's so convenient for anyone to get inspiration from recordings, anytime, anywhere. After getting enough inspirations, students will then start to explore, experiment, when they're alone, at home or practice room.

September 30, 2009 at 05:08 AM ·

I think it's fine to use the instrument, especially with beginners. And it's okay with advanced students, as long as the student is still the center of the lesson and it's to the end of helping their understanding. I think it's foolish to outlaw any potential tool for learning. Sometimes the only way you can say it is to show it, or create the sound effect, etc.

September 30, 2009 at 05:45 AM ·

Connie, I'm sorry to hear that your university teachers just sat there and commented on your playing.

In my opinion, you simply cannot teach an instrument without playing examples for your students. Dr. George Klump, my first piano teacher, used to play lots of examples for me. All of my violin teachers, including the ones that I met at University, would play for me. Though, there were some lessons when the teacher would have no instrument. This happens. Sometimes, your teacher doesn't need to demonstrate anything. 

If you are teaching private lessons to students in a non-university setting, it is mandatory for you to play for them. If you do not ever play for a student, they will assume that you can't play your instrument (and will find a new teacher). Learning by example is not only vital for music, it's essential for building a private musical practice. Playing for your students once or twice a year at a recital is not a substitute for demonstrating mastery over the instrument during practice.

Let's take another example. Masterclasses, and lessons with Pinchas Zukerman. Pinchas uses his violin to provide examples for his students. Likewise, I've never been to a masterclass where the "master" didn't demonstrate something. It's pretty hard to be a master without touching an instrument. These are high forms of teaching, and demonstrate that the best teaching is accomplished with an instrument in your hands.

If you notice that your students focus on the visual (what the teacher is doing with the hands, etc.) rather than the auditory (hearing the music itself), then you should just turn your back to the student and force them to listen. That tends to get the musical point across. Make sure they know why you're turning your back though, because it looks insulting.


Aha - teaching piano. You don't need a second piano to teach piano. For fingering stuff, you can just lean over the piano and show the student how to do something. When necessary, the teacher takes over the piano for demonstrational purposes. This is how all of my piano teachers operated, and it is how I operate.




September 30, 2009 at 02:40 PM ·

Luke, thank you for your thoughtful response.  It really wasn't a "how to do it?" question about how I should conduct my teaching sessions.  I think I've got that covered! 

What I was looking for was the breakdown between the teacher holding the instrument and demonstrating, and lessons when the teacher doesn't.  There are sort of two general areas of teaching from which I've gotten responses:  (1) Aural tradition music, such as fold/fiddle;  and (2) so-called "art music."

In the aural tradition, of course teacher is going to demonstrate throughout because that is how the music is taught - by demonstration, rather than notes.  In classical music, with respect to master classes,  the teacher usually does demonstrate but not always.  Yo-Yo Ma gave a master class at Rice when I was there and unless I misremember, he did not bring his cello. 

Most musicians are reporting that their teachers demonstrated during their early training, but the further along they got, the more the teacher depended on listening and commenting.  I studied with three Galamian students and one Heifetz student, and I don't think any of these gentlemen ever demonstrated to me, or held their instruments during my lessons.



September 30, 2009 at 02:49 PM ·

I saw a DVD od Gingold doing a master class with his proteges (Sp?) one of them a 13 yr.old Joshua Bell and the pieces these students were playing were MEATY!  I mean Bruch, etc., etc., and he gave examples with his violin to teach the student what he or she should be hearing.  The students did receive oral instruction but his playing for them was invaluble.  There are just some things that must be heard IMHO.

September 30, 2009 at 05:34 PM ·

I think the idea that to demonstrate somehow poisons a student's ability to express on his or her own is ridiculous. I agree with Galamian's ways of teaching on so many things, but fervently not, when it comes to this.

September 30, 2009 at 06:11 PM ·

Laurie Niles wrote:
"I think the idea that to demonstrate somehow poisons a student's ability to express on his or her own is ridiculous."

I don't think it's all that necessary to set any rules at all, it really depends on the student. Some student will tend to copy without understanding. Large part of teaching musicality is to input knowledges, so it's not at all awkward if a teacher teaches without any demostration at all. To me, having the student to play alone will have the student to get full attention of what he's doing - this will force the student to listen carefully what they're playing, and train them to think on their own how to get things worked.

Of course, some students are highly intelligent, demostrations are much effecient. It always depends on the student. I also mentioned in my earlier post that attending live concerts or listening to recordings will also help a lot - they're also part of the demostrations. Even singing the passage (which e.g. Maxim Vengerov used a lot) is a very good demostrations too! :-)

September 30, 2009 at 08:46 PM ·

> In my opinion, you simply cannot teach an instrument without
> playing examples for your students.

So, how did Galamian and DeLay manage to do it?

October 1, 2009 at 07:47 AM ·

I'd feel like a complete slacker if I taught without my instrument.

Complete slacker.

I'm also certain that Galamian and Delay never had the opportunity to work with students who only ever played by themselves.  Playing with your teacher can be a real treat, as well as a solid foundation for a fuller understanding of harmonies.  Students need to practice playing with others.

October 1, 2009 at 09:53 AM ·

A long time ago, in school, I had a teacher who maybe showed off too much, rather than demonstrating. 

But now lately as an adult student I've been finding that my teacher's demonstrations are one of the most valuable parts of my lesson, especially where aspects of musicality are concerned.

I tend to be confused or put off by certain metaphors, and a demonstration just cuts to the chase.  For example, once in the past I was told that my playing was "too square" and I needed to make it "rounder" and I didn't really understand what that meant.  I just knew it didn't sound very nice.

 But  I've revisited that issue recently and when I heard my teacher play a small section of a piece with subdivided beats and syncopation, suddenly I got why it was important to count it her way rather than the way I had been doing it.  I heard the life and movement in the piece in her version that had been lacking when I practiced it at home.

Her demonstration also brought home to me a connection between intonation and tone that hadn't made sense to me before.  Sometimes I will play passages out of tune, but I won't hear it myself, under my own ear, as out of tune.  I'll just hear it as "screechy" or "off" in some way, as having poor tone quality.  And then she points out verbally that such and such notes were out of tune, and then play the passage for me correctly, and then it will click.  I'll hear the contrast with what I played and understand which note was out of tune and whether it was sharp or flat.  And the poor tone quality--which I hadn't realized was a consequence of poor intonation--will also go away. 

Sometimes we can get to the same place with words, but I find that the demonstration can show me something in 30 seconds that it could have taken 15 minutes of discussion for me to get.

October 1, 2009 at 12:07 PM ·

I think the moral of this story is that, if you are a great violinist... you can be a total slacker. As for the rest of us, we want to make young boys and girls the best violinists that they can be. That involves holding a violin while we teach, and there really is no exception.

A teacher who doesn't use his or her instrument seems useless. It's like learning violin from a book, but with a book that also criticizes you endlessly.

October 1, 2009 at 12:24 PM ·

Generally speaking, I'm a great believer in demonstrating for students. Like the old adage about a picture, one demonstration can be worth 1,000 words. I read that Perlman believes in demonstrating as little as possible, feeling that once you play for a student, the conception that you're trying to encourage them to develop is not theirs anymore. With all due respect, I don't think that's a problem most of the time. A demonstration can be a great inspiration, and it doesn't mean that the student is going to try to do an exact imitation. My two most well-known teachers, Glenn Dicterow and Aaron Rosand, both demonstrated for me and others. Many years later, I still have a warm glow in my mind's ear from some of those brilliant and gorgeous demonstrations! At the same time, playing just to show off, or to get in some extra practice, is not the right right thing to do. Also, I don't believe in playing in unison with a student. If you're going to play together, play in harmony or octaves, etc., so that it's very clear who's doing what. You have to judge what works with a particular student. A demonstration that inspires one, may intimidate another, and you may have to tone it down a bit.

Someone mentioned having studied with students of Galamian and Heifetz, who didn't demonstrate. I think that's just a coincidence. Three of my teachers studied with various combinations of Galamian, Heifetz, Delay, and Dounis - and they all demonstrated to me. As to the afore-mentioned, Heifetz did demonstrate, and the others, let's face it, couldn't. Maybe they were fine players when they were young, but once you have about 100 students, you can't practice anymore.

Lastly, for teachers just starting out, it's not so easy to demonstrate well, beyond basic positioning. The student is doing most of the playing. Meanwhile, you're in listening mode, and your playing engines, both mentally and physically, are cooling. Suddenly you feel a need to demonstrate how to bring off a certain passage, and don't be surprised if that's not your best 'take' of this or that portion of the Mendelssohn - or even of a Seitz concerto! A little of your own practicing and pre-lesson warming up helps!

October 1, 2009 at 12:56 PM ·

As for big masters, Oistrakh took his violin when needed to do a perfect demonstration!  

My teacher demonstrates with her instrument when needed but she has a unique (perhaps just unfrequent???) trademark.    She often leaves her violin at home when she goes to the conservatory for many reasons. But she isn't shy to take the violin of any student with any setup and can play it almost as if it was her own. She also tells this is essential to know with what the student plays (and if it's the student's fault or not lol). Especially young ones, who don't know the difference between a good and bad instrument, if it needs adjustment, if the bow hair is finish or if an area is "blocked" on the fingerboard etc etc   I find it's a very good idea and aknowledge that she is quite good... to play with any violin of any sizes and setups.  


October 1, 2009 at 04:36 PM ·

Szerying used to do that at master classes. I might very breifly and temporarily do that to check out what's going on with a student's violin or bow. At my conservatory, I had a teacher who would often do that. I hated it! He would grab my fiddle and demonstrate. With my fiddle still under his chin he would talk. When he'd talk, he'd spit. Yuk!! After every such lesson, I'd go home and polish my violin, including the tailpiece!

October 1, 2009 at 04:53 PM ·

 I always play with mine, until they get to quite an advanced level, at least for some part of the lesson.  I do this because my teachers played with me, and I found it invaluable...I found that there were many things that I learned through imitation or mimicry, especially the various bow strokes. I never had to struggle over the development of many 'bow' things, because I was able to play with and learn from my teachers.   This was hugely beneficial and influential to me, and I want my students to have that same advantage. 

However, this doesn't meant that I play all things with them.  The more advanced the student, the less I play with them, though even then, I always play with when introducing a new song, often demonstrating the applicable technique (and talking them through).


October 1, 2009 at 10:59 PM ·

Raphael, be happy, studies showed that those who grew up in a too clean environnement were weaker lol   You would have liked my friend's clarinet teacher who took it directly out of her mouth to try it while he drank beer...   Quite hilarous that they always had colds at the same time...  Wind instrumentists (other friends told me such things) are used to "spit" issues. Not hygienic at all but they are as avid demonstraters as violinists...  We are very lucky compared to them (Just not at 30 under the sun or in a hot performance IMHO : ) 

But if the teacher and student are "clean" I think it's a good and helpful. It can't harm a teacher who generally owns a good instrument to go back to a student's "school of hard knocks" instrument to understand him /her better.  Anyway, it is said that the best violinists are/were able to play on pancakes.  Sometimes, surprise, surprise it's the teacher who falls in love with the student's instrument.  And even more happy is the student's maker : )  


October 2, 2009 at 01:29 AM ·


well, I do sometimes use a students instrument to demonstarte soemthing if the stduent is suggesting mine sounds okay because it is more expensive or bigger than theirs.  I am somtiems surprises how much noise you can get out of a half size isntrument;)



October 2, 2009 at 02:06 AM ·

Ha - you're right, Anne-Marie! I'd be much too squeemish to play, say, the oboe - to say nothing of all the trouble to cut those capricious reeds!

October 2, 2009 at 08:28 PM ·

 Hi Connie.

You may remember me from maestronet (T_D)!

I always have my Violin to hand. All my teachers had their violins to hand and played....quite often in some cases.

October 6, 2009 at 08:53 PM ·

It is my observation that teachers of violin (and other bowed strings) rely more on demonstration than teachers of other instruments.

I have taught piano and violin to my children, and I find that demonstration and imitation are much more effective for beginning violinists than beginning pianists.

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