Question for teachers: can you play everything you assign?

June 5, 2010 at 04:22 AM ·

My longtime Suzuki emphasis prompts me to think I should be able to play well everything my students want to learn or I want to assign, in order to demonstrate each piece in its entirety. This was pretty easy in public school, where most students worked through a fairly finite set of materials and solos. How I find myself approaching my private studio is quite different; I'm very interested in individualizing/differentiating.  But I have my own routine practicing, stuff for my quartet & fiddle band, and lit I want to learn for me, which I may or may not eventually also give to a student. Do you ever assign pieces you haven't polished? Do you think you can still teach them well? If you are a student, how does this strike you?

Replies (25)

June 5, 2010 at 07:56 AM ·

I think that sometimes it's great when a teacher can learn together with their students it shows that you're a real person, and that the learning process will always be happening even after the teacher is gone.

June 5, 2010 at 08:53 AM ·

I believe my teacher could play everything!  Indeed, its a mystery to me why she is not an international superstar - but for the fact that she seems to prefer to play in a group/orchestra and needs to stay here to teach me :)

OK, reality: I suppose I am your nightmare student - a returner who is immersed in as much music as possible.  I don't think I've ever played the same piece at two different lessons.  Granted that my level is much lower than my teachers but I'm still working on material that one might think would need some preparation even by experienced players.  Some, such as Handel and Bach sonatas she knows by heart (do all teachers have such a prodigious memory??) but then there are piano/solos from anthologies that she has not even heard let alone played.  I learn from both - with the pieces she knows we get a lot of nuances that I guess reflect at least in part the time when  she learned them.  However, I think I learn as much (or rather something rather different) from the new pieces.  This is not related to seeing her 'be human' but simply because I get to see how she approaches the piece and get a lot of clues from that both on how to dissect a new challenge.

I need to add that my thirst for new music is abating as I am getting more and more interested in the performance of a particular piece.  I dare say the next lesson we will actually work on the same piece as the last one (Handel IVth).  

June 5, 2010 at 09:27 AM ·

I certainly do not play all the pieces that my students work on.

I came to be teaching my classical violinists almost by accident - the university where I teach jazz had no classical teacher, and asked me to find someone. I just said I would do it. I am really glad i did.

Although I may not be able to play immediately all of all the works my students work on, I can give the principles both of violin technique and of musical interpretation that I have developed over the last thirty years.

At university level, I tend to use Bach as a core text, with students bringing to me pieces they want to learn. These have included pieces by, Vivaldi, Wieniawski, Monti, Bloch, and Kriesler.

When a student  comes to a problem passage, I can show them how to work out what to do - I look at that passage myself, and they can watch me find several solutions, all of which they can try, and see what they prefer, or even come up with something new of their own.

I have asked them how they feel about my not being able to play everything straight away. They have said things like, "It is reassuring, " or  "It's great because I can follow why you want to do something a certain way." My favourite was, "Ah, you know your stuff," from an ex- RNCM student.

So now I add to my list of teaching principles that my limitations also offer the willing student an opportunity to learn.

The other side of my teaching is being a stickler for scale work. I lost one student after she complained to Admin that I had "made her work on one scale for TWENTY MINUTES!"

no great loss



June 5, 2010 at 11:07 AM ·



Another thing one student said was that because their other teacher could already play the pieces, the student felt that the teacher didn't really understand why she couldn't get certain things. It wasn't a challenge for the teacher: she had been playing them for years. The problem was that she couldn't go back , approach the piece from scratch, and think like a student again.



June 5, 2010 at 11:48 AM ·

 I am the student, but my teacher can play well I believe anything, of course he has high standards so he may not say that of himself and I do know that if he has a more challenging piece he does go over it, rehearse it, practice it but it won't take him too much work to get it going good again.  So I think if he teaches a very advanced person or gives a professional consultation he may well the day before go over the piece but that's probably all it takes him, he wouldn't have to prepare well ahead for it.

But I don't think it is necessarily essential for all teachers to be like that, otherwise I think we may have not many teachers out there, not enough!  I do think it makes the teacher's job 'easier'.

If my teacher needed to repeat over a section a few times in front of me I would not mind, or probably it would make me feel better as it shows he's also 'human' :)


ps I do like what Graham says and I agree with it :)

June 5, 2010 at 02:04 PM ·

I had a teacher who could play everything he asigned too me.  But he also had a student, from Armenia, whom he said is better than him!  I now wish I had asked him, "How do you teach students who are a better violinist than yourself?"

June 6, 2010 at 04:01 AM ·

I don't think that a good teacher needs to be better than the student - at an advanced level.

When you play/perform you do things that you are not aware need someone on the outside, watching, to inform you of those things (whatever they may be).  So you need someone who is aware of what' what...but they don't necessarily have to be better than you are.


June 6, 2010 at 04:42 AM ·

I find it is a big advantage to have a teacher not only can play everything I work on, but also have deep understanding of each piece. My teacher is a fine concert violinist and there seems to be nothing she cannot play with ease. Some of her students are winning all sorts of competitions, including international ones. So almost every piece I work on she has both previously taught and performed many times.  Naturally, she is very demanding and she wants so much out of each note:) ...  There are other teachers in town who are poor players but can also produce successful students. I guess some teachers had injury or are too busy to practice so they may not always be in as good shape as their advanced students are, and this may not be a major issue. Can they offer the same products to their students as teachers like mine do? I think not. 

June 6, 2010 at 07:13 AM ·

It clearly depends on what level the student is at.

Hopefully a teacher can play everything at the beginner or intermediate level.  If not one would have to ask if they are qualfied to be a teacher!  However, as one approaches advanced levels then the teacher may or may not be able to play it - it becomes increasingly important that the teacher has a great ear and perhaps less important to have knowledge.  Even the most advanced player can surely learn from the most advanced listener - even if the changes that they make as a result of the lesson are eventually self-administered.

June 6, 2010 at 01:20 PM ·

I think it is important for the teacher to know how to learn to play everything that is presented.

Also, we need to be able to hear inside the music and know how to discover what interpretation the music needs.

We also need to understand the fundamental mechanisms of technique, and know how to get the student to develop them.

Teaching is not about playing an instrument or a piece of music - it is about getting a student to be able to play the music  and the instrument..


June 6, 2010 at 01:34 PM · Thanks, everybody. for your thoughtful comments. The responses are quite reassuring to me in my current situation.

June 6, 2010 at 01:49 PM ·

I play everything I teach.  I think it's rather important! 

All of my teachers were (and are) marvelous players.  My first teacher could play everything, quite well and with a beautiful sound.  Having a visual and aural role model was a great inspiration.

As for repertoire, something I do is to keep exploring the literature, looking for new pieces to teach.  It's fun to have new things to practice, whether I end up performing or teaching the pieces or not.  It's easy to get stale. 

June 6, 2010 at 03:45 PM ·

Just to clarify, I can play everything I assign, and I do some practicing on every piece. I use Suzuki books a lot, not exclusively or religiously, & I go through even very familiar pieces as students reach them, especially if it's been a while since anyone studied something. For not-Suzuki selections, I usually read through a couple of choices w/students. They see me make note of spots where I want to consider fingerings or bowings given, or if the edition doesn't have a lot printed. I sometimes work these out in the lesson with the student, sometimes work them out myself & bring in a plan, sometimes assign that to the student. I am always looking through lit. I am not so familiar with, & trying things out. My question was really about the extent of mastery you feel is needed to teach a new, (advanced) piece. Thanks again! Sue

June 6, 2010 at 04:06 PM ·

I think a teacher should be able to play anything he or she assigns -- BUT..........  Going way back to my piano days, my teacher would play through everything she assigned, and I would, in turn, play according to what I'd heard her play.  To this day my sight-reading is atrocious!!!  I think the student should play through the assignment without the teacher playing it first, but after that, the teacher should be able to proficiently demonstrate any part with which the student seems to be having trouble (technical or interpretive).

June 6, 2010 at 04:35 PM ·

(a) I love it when students bring me pieces I've never heard of that they want to learn.  Of course I can't play them right away, but it's always easier to point out what someone else is doing wrong than to do it right yourself :-D

(b) Mostly I can play (or learn) anything my students are learning, but sometimes it has been 15 years since I last performed it.  In that case, if I need to demonstrate & I mess it up, I point out how & why I messed up so that they will know how to avoid whatever awful thing I just did.  I find it kind of fun.  Don't know what my students think :-p. *

(c) I wonder how "good" a violinist Galamian was, or Delay... or how much of the music they taught they had really mastered.  


*In Piatigorsky's memoir he describes working with a very talented student.  He always tried to demonstrate at his highest level, to inspire this kid; but it never worked somehow.  One day he decided to play badly on purpose, and the kid began to improve.  After the student gave a recital, Piatigorsky overheard him saying:  "Piatigorsky is a great teacher, but man is he a lousy player!"

June 6, 2010 at 06:38 PM ·

Depends what the student needs and what the teacher can provide at a certain stage in the process – are we talking teaching how to practice, specific techniques, phrasing, articulation, style? A student may be proficient technically but deficient musically.

How good was Dorothy DeLay as a player/performer, specifically? (Rhetorical question...)

Some of the best lessons I've had were from masters of other instruments, not my own...

June 6, 2010 at 07:30 PM ·

The ideal teacher is perhaps a good pedagogue and also incredible player... I mean those who study with (let's say) Bron, Oistrakh, Auer etc for many years might have had one of the best teachers ever...   (I don't know about Auer really but I suppose he did was a great player? ; )

But there is also a few famous pedagogues who produced some of the world's finest soloists who were not said to be good players. (not to mention the top soloists who got ill, had M.S. or had an accident but kept all of their head! There are many of such stories in the music world)

Perhaps it depends very much on the teacher and the student.  A student who already hears violin very well in his head might become a fantastic player with a great pedagogue that can't play very well...



June 6, 2010 at 09:19 PM ·

 My teacher can play everything I play, but I am in a position where she's not doing a lot of assigning.  I bring stuff to her, some of which she has played and is very familiar with, and some of which she is not.  She didn't know the Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D--but who could blame her?  There aren't any recordings available that I could find on the internet, not even on YouTube. And then there was the cello piece from the 1600's that I transcribed for the viola myself.  (It wasn't really written for modern cello, either, but the first public performances and editions of it had been on the cello.)  No one had seen that before.  There are also these weird arrangements that I get in orchestra, such as the 1812 overture in a different key from the standard.   I am now doing the 4th mvt of the Franck Sonata with her on violin, and it's something that she has very well under her fingers.  It's also probably the least outre thing I've brought her in a long time.

But she seems to take all of it with grace, and sight-reads it beautifully, if necessary.  I learn a lot from her demonstrations.  One demonstration can easily be worth a thousand words.  I don't think I'd feel comfortable taking lessons from a teacher who couldn't demonstrate what s/he wanted me to do.

Then again, I don't necessarily expect perfection in the teacher's demonstration either.  It's funny, a few times she has demonstrated something she's not completely familiar with or was just sight-reading and then apologized for its being out of tune or whatever, and I didn't even notice the mistake.  I'm usually just focused on the specific issue at hand, such as how the bow is to be distributed or how I should do the shift or make the phrase.  I seem to be able to pick out the important thing and not be distracted by the rest.

 If she played everything like Heifetz I might just end up feeling intimidated and hopeless, like that student who was helped by his teacher playing badly on purpose.  Sometimes it does work well with young kids like my daughter to play something incorrectly on purpose and have them see if they can tell you what's wrong with it.  It engages their critical faculties in a way that seamless, perfect playing does not.

June 6, 2010 at 10:30 PM ·

@Bruce: love the Piatigorsky story!  Though it seems the student would also have had to be something of an idiot if he was not familiar with his mentor's achievements at all (thus its a bit hard to reconcile that with him being very talented).  Did it say what happened to that particular cellist?

I actually know Piatigorsky's daughter - I wonder if she could confirm the story?

June 7, 2010 at 07:05 AM ·

Elise - you could check with her & see.  I don't remember if he was famous yet when he taught this student.  OTOH, maybe they were just ignorant.

I have heard that much of P's autobiography is to be taken with a grain of salt. (It's entitled "Cellist" -- out of print AFAIK but apparently used copies are findable here & there.)

June 7, 2010 at 01:11 PM ·

Hey,John, Don't mind the side-slip. Never know, but my post may be running its course. Your question is very much along the line of something I've been thinking about, so if you don't mind, I may hijack it to a new post? // The short answer is much of the stuff I'm presenting to students is pretty thoroughly bowed & fingered. What I'm doing is trying to use what's given,  making written or mental note of what doesn't just "happen" during sight-reading. I try to understand the editor's choices, and then work up or change for technical or expressive reasons. I'm not crazy about the rationales, "I'm used to this way', or "This way is easier for me." Certainly one factor, sometimes a strong one, but not the primary one to me. Sue

June 8, 2010 at 12:57 PM ·

As a student, I think it's important that the teacher be able to play all the pieces he or she assigns, and also to know how to teach them. However, being able to play them doesn't necessarily mean I expect the teacher to have them memorized/mastered. I do however think it's really helpful when during a lesson the teacher will play the piece, either in its entirety or in bits, in order to show the student whatever he or she is talking about. I'd assume that if a teacher is no longer capable of playing whatever reppertoire he or she is assigning, then it's time to send the student on to a more appropriate teacher.

August 16, 2010 at 05:07 PM ·

The one great teacher I had (there were several others who didn't really teach), could play anything, there were a few times she made a mistake, but even her mistakes were gorgeous. Her playing, even short passages, brought tears to my eyes many times. One really obnoxious teacher played what I was working on, and it irritated me to no end she was out of tune, but then again, that was mostly because she had been so mean, making fun of my face, my breathing, but with no tips on how to improve. So, a helpful, respectful teacher can NOT know, but if a teacher is going to behave as if they are the most wonderful thing on the planet, and be rude and uncaring, spend the lesson time talking about themselves, then they better get it perfect.

August 16, 2010 at 05:21 PM ·

"If a teacher is going to behave as if they are the most wonderful thing on the planet, and be rude and uncaring, spend the lesson time talking about themselves," then IMHO the student is justified in finding a new teacher.

August 17, 2010 at 01:42 AM ·

 Alison, that view fails to include some very fine teachers.  Dorothe DeLay was one of the most important teachers of the 20th century.  She openly admitted that she was unable to personally play much of the virtuoso repertoire but that was due to lack of practice, not lack of knowledge.  There are other examples I can think of but I will refrain from mentioning them because they are currently living and I don't intend any disrespect.

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