Can you judge a teacher by their students?

March 17, 2011 at 01:15 AM ·

This is a bit of a touchy subject, but it is important IMO.  Most teachers have student recitals periodically.  If you listen to student recitals with two different teachers, and teacher A students are far better than teacher B, does that necessarily mean that teacher A is a better teacher?  Obviously, there are many factors at play here, including the degree of talent in the student pool, but each teacher will focus on different aspects of technique and musicianship.  Do those factors have a big influence on the outcome of the students?

One of the things that struck me many years ago when I attended the student recital of my old teacher (former Peabody professor Young Ku Ahn) was the power of his students, even the beginners playing twinkle.  They all had big clear tones.  When I first started studying with him in high school, I was already pretty proficient, but he had me playing open strings for the first 5 weeks.  No doubt, his other students had the same training and hence they all possessed the ability to draw a full sound out of their instruments.

So the question is, can you judge a teacher by their students?

Replies (47)

March 17, 2011 at 02:28 AM ·

Yes, you can judge a teacher's worth by how their students are. An extreme example would be Japanese teachers trying to teach English to their own Japanese students. I'd be difficult for the Japanese student to progress as compared to going to the U.S. in an environment where everybody speaks English and taught be teachers that actually know how to teach English.

Teaching a student is like building a house and the basics give foundation to their later abilities. I recommend a teacher that knows how to fix the foundation of students or help students unlearn early poor habits. Sometimes, the competition and listening of other better students encourages them, sometimes it can discourage. The main point is, you want a teacher that knows what he's teaching compared to someone who is lackluster.

March 17, 2011 at 02:40 AM ·

In the limited student concerts I've seen, I would say "generally" yes.  But some teachers like to put anything that's technically challenging between the hands of their students just to show off.  Sometimes the student isn't ready to play it well but he/she just plays it because the teacher decided so.  I don't particularly enjoy these because it doesn't sound guenine.  I would not recommand such "puff" teachers...  I would go to the teacher who's students have the best tone and sound, clean articulation of phrases and good intonation. 

However when there's a terrific kid, just be sure that it's really the teacher.  Sometimes the teacher is ordinairy but the kid has a profesionnal musician tiger mom...   and maybe dad too.  

And judge by the best of what's available as students at x place.  Do not expect to see Julliard level kids at every conservatory or so told "good" school because they aren't : )    Does that means the teachers are no good?  That's touchy... even at serious places I've saw/been I've never seen a staff where all teachers were equally good.   Some are over qualified for the students (that's nice!), some are ok to teach them and some seem to teach to a lower standard than that of the other teachers/school. 

Yes, I guess it's not an easy subject! 

I agree with the first poster.  My actual teacher speaks Russian. In the 5 years I've been with her, I noticed an improvment in her French and English.  At first, it was not easy for me to understand her French.  But she definitivly speaks "violin" and that, I understood from day one!  When she wants to show you how to do something, she can only imitate the gesture without words or grad your harm/hand/finger in a way that you will immidiately understand what to do!  If it's a musical issue, she just has to sing or play.  I'm convinced she could teach someone without a single word...  

March 17, 2011 at 04:07 AM ·

 Depends on the sample size. 

March 17, 2011 at 12:04 PM ·

If you hear the same sort of problem over & over, that is more likely to be tied to the teaching. For example, if a handful of players don't shift positions artfully, or play w/really awful vibrato. Who approaches a particular teacher for lessons, based on chitchat about his/her style of teaching, or because he/she had good luck in attracting a talent can even be a factor in what you hear at recitals a few years later. Sue 

March 17, 2011 at 02:59 PM ·

I hope you cannot judge a teacher by his students otherwise if people judge my teacher by watching/listening to me I'll be sending my teacher out of business!!!

March 17, 2011 at 03:05 PM ·

Jo... according to the student level!  : )

As an example,

If a bunch of a good beginners shine out amongst the other beginners, it's maybe because of a good teacher...  


March 17, 2011 at 03:14 PM ·

well, IMO, i have to say yes, though not 100%.

March 17, 2011 at 03:17 PM ·

Anne-Marie, yes, even at my level I think I'd send him out of business LOL

March 17, 2011 at 03:42 PM ·

It's not always a good idea to judge a teacher by their students, as a teacher who has been given or aquired a load of cloth eared untalented dim wits is not going to get very far with them.

This could be a good teacher who with the right material could get very good results.

On the other hand a really poor teacher could get a very talented kid who would go from Grade 1 to soloist in 6 years.

So talented players don't really need a good teacher so much (although it might save them time with a good teacher), to become very accomplished.

EDIT: I'm not saying bad teaching is a good thing, and there is an awful lot of it going on. With moderately gifted people it is better to have a really good teacher to avoid bad habits in the first place, which then take time and effort to correct.

March 17, 2011 at 05:08 PM ·

 for the most part, i think,,,,no.

i agree with charles that it depends very much on the quality of the students.  and if the students are young, whether the parents are there to help, haha.  and when the students are older, whether the parents are able and willing to make sacrifices to optimize the kids's practicing and learning.  

often better teachers attract better students, so it is really not random selection, meaning not all teachers and students start at the same starting point.  when we sample by attending one recital,  we see just a slice, not really how well they have worked together and how rapid the improvement.

also,  when you are in a teacher's recital and looking at his students, an overall impression is made.  next week, you sit  in another teacher's recital and another impression made.  to compare the 2 impressions is tricky unless they are matched, that is, similar level of students to start with, similar number of hours of teaching, similar numbers of practicing, similar level of interest/passion, similar home environment,  etc.

but if we have a chance to know the students in depth and know their study materials, their problem solving skills, their repertoire based on years of study, then we can have a better sense if a teacher is able to bring up the level of an entire class, not just the talented ones.  as charles indicated, teaching the talented ones does not reveal as much as teaching the uninitiated ones.  to turn someone around 180 degree imo is a sign of a great teacher.  one has to be a great diagnostician, patient gardener, and astute psychologist.  and a dreamer.

i know some of you look to compete and place into those all state orchestras.  if year after year one teacher's students tend to crowd that orchestra, then it is worth looking into the likelihood that the teacher, in that set-up, has an upper edge in teaching his students to meet that standard.

March 18, 2011 at 02:55 AM ·

Jo, stop being so hard on yourself.  You're doing great and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Al, seems like your first sentence and last paragraph contradict each other.  Stop being so wishy washy :-)

March 18, 2011 at 06:30 AM ·

Perhaps over time you can tell. If you could observe how a teacher works with students of all levels and abilities over a period of years you might get a sense that even with those students who don't seem to be quick studies their more gradual progress could still mean their teacher is doing well by them. Maybe they play a Vivaldi concerto in high school and aren't playing Tchaikovsky but if they play well in tune, with a good tone, and solid bowing, and a steady sense of rhythm, and fluent movements, and good phrasing and musical expression they are being taught good habits and it shows.

 Also, in the relationship that can develop between public school teachers and private teachers, a private teacher may  acquire a group of students , referred to them by the public school teacher who feels they have  "problem" students  that need more individualized attention to get their technique in order. The teacher may very well be doing good by students he or she's inherited that are very rough around the edges and that may comprise the majority of their studio, and they may have a smaller proportion of advanced students at high levels so that does not necessarily mean they are not a good teacher because they aren't teaching a majority of  students who regularly do well in competitions or auditions.

 Another thing to consider is that a very important crucial factor is how well a teacher interacts with a student. If the teacher is good with children and helps them enjoy their learning experience, regardless of how advanced a player they become, that teacher may very well be considered a better teacher than one who is unreasonably demanding and gets results through intimidation. What you gain by being a tyrant is lost because of the damage you do to young minds and hearts.

  Some teachers are ideal for adult students and just because their adult students may not be professional musicians or have taken  the violin up at a later stage in life than is typical doesn't mean they aren't good in their teaching.

 Some teachers also are refiners- they  don't feel their expertise lies in getting a student off to a good start  at the beginning stages but they can take a good, conscientious student who has an aptitude for the violin and  develop them by putting the finishing touches that  makes the student a cut above the rest.

  I also agree with Anne-Marie's points.  There really are a lot of factors- but in the long run,  say in the more typical scenario with children learning the violin,  they, with encouragement and support from parents or other "interested parties",  are the ones that do the hard work of taking what the teacher can offer and applying it. There is something to be said for just plain old hard work and solid commitment over time. A good teacher will want to  give credit more to the students than to his or her accomplishments.



March 18, 2011 at 11:15 AM ·

 "Al, seems like your first sentence and last paragraph contradict each other.  Stop being so wishy washy :-)"

because imo, the ans is not black or white, but shade of gray:)
if only judging by recital performance level randomly, as i said, i don't think we can say much about a teacher.  such is the case with tiger woods now with sean foley who picked up tiger at his lowest point.  to judge foley's performance as a teacher and pit it against haney, harmon, tiger's father is similarly not that straight forward.
as i said with violin teaching,  we have to dig deeper, or observe a trend based on our knowledge of the student teacher interaction, to assess if over time the students improve effectively under the guidance of a teacher.
mind you, this teaching thingy can cut both ways.  here we are talking about giving credits if the student does well; the other side is that if the student is perceived-perhaps inaccurately-as not improving fast enough, should we single out the teacher to blame?  of course not.  because as i said, the student and the family has a big role in that development.
to me, a great teacher is not the one just teaching violin technique/performance but one who is a powerful influencer, the ceo. (at kiddy level, to enlist the help of the parents, at higher level, to open up job and performance opportunity for the students)   the teacher needs to learn to deal with people who want to be pushed as well as people who do not appreciate to be pushed too hard, and every other peculiar trait in between, each with the right touch.  at home, the ceo has his chief operating officer aka the parents at work, but often i see there is room for improvement in the branch of ceo-coo.  because of that deficiency, or potential untapped, the teacher may be great, but the system set up is not optimal, therefore, the students do not benefit the full dose from the teacher.  we see that in corporate world all the time--the generals do not connect with the foot soldiers.  so right there, we can argue that the students are not reflective of the greatness of the teacher.  but if we think slightly differently, since the teacher is in charge, perhaps the students' level indeed reflects how the great teacher ineffectively manage the operation.  thus, wishy and washy:)
the other thing not easy to tell is where the interest of the students lie.  many students want to be competition level warhorses.  others may not want to go that route and just want to learn violin for the fun and appreciation part.  from the playing aspect, it is likely kids playing big concertos with more focus and preparation tend to grab more attention, as if the teacher is preparing the students to go places:)

March 18, 2011 at 03:31 PM ·

I tend to agree with Peter Charles. A students' aptitude plays a huge role in how fast they learn and how well they learn.  I don't think judgment of a teacher should be determined by how well his students perform in a recital. You don't know how long that student has worked on that particular piece trying to get it just right, and ,maybe that's the only piece they can play that sounds halfway decent.

March 18, 2011 at 07:20 PM ·


Thanks for the reply -- as usual, very insightful. 


As the parent of a successful musician, perhaps you can share additional insight on what drove your choice of a teacher for your daughter?  What kinds of things were you looking for?  What caused you to switch teachers if you ever did?  Was it steady progress all along, or were there periods of big improvement followed by lulls of minimal progress?  What do you feed her in the morning?  Does she take vitamins?  Do you apply torture techniques when she makes a mistake?  Basically, how the heck did she get so good? 

I feel like the lady in the Meg Ryan movie where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a restaurant, and the lady at the next table says to the waitress, I'll have what she's having.  So c'mon Al, spill the beans.  What's your secret :-)


March 18, 2011 at 07:30 PM ·

Keep away from orgasms when playing an F# ...

March 18, 2011 at 07:33 PM ·

P.S.  Perhaps you should write a blog one day -- "How I got my kid into Carnegie Hall and the LPGA tour."


March 18, 2011 at 10:01 PM ·

Peter, you should say G string unstead of F # lol    

March 19, 2011 at 12:07 AM ·

 " as the parent of a successful musician" i thought only i can come up with a moronic verse like that, smiley! 

"perhaps you can share additional insight on what drove your choice of a teacher for your daughter?  What kinds of things were you looking for?"

not sure what i have to say is of any value to others.  since as non musical parents we had/have no idea, we pretty much went with gut instinct on whether there is good rapport between the teacher and our kid.  my kid is a people person so she will find something in everyone to like.  we did not go out of our way into ny city for big name items.  we never fancied that our kid would take violin seriously and up to now, we are right! :) it is really a silly experiment: how long can a kid tolerate something she does not like.  we thought it is not a bad thing when applying for college to state that she plays the violin, until we realize pretty much everyone either plays violin or piano.  backfire! :)

" What caused you to switch teachers if you ever did?"

we did 2 times.  first time due to moving.  second time, the teacher was pushing her to go far with it and she rebelled.:)  i just hate to see her in tears every lesson, although with that teacher (great teacher imo, but probably better with older kids)  she overcame sight reading issues.  the current teacher is a very personable lady.  in the long run, it is a good thing that my kid does not feel dreadful going into a lesson.  playing violin is bad enough already, haha:)

"Was it steady progress all along, or were there periods of big improvement followed by lulls of minimal progress?"

i thought her progress was steady as long as she actually practiced.  no major mental or physical blocks, but because of golf, spring, summer, fall, the weekends are all gone.  so monday morning i make sure she pays attention.  scramble time!!!:)

" What do you feed her in the morning?  Does she take vitamins?"

scrambled eggs with cheese.  milk with chocolate powder.  a piece of fruit.  some vitamins the shape of tiny violins,,,just kidding.  seriously, she has been taking fish oil and reishi from a very young age.  not sure if they do anything, but my hope is that those supplements will help delete some of my dumb genes:)  

" Do you apply torture techniques when she makes a mistake?"

i used to use ice cream as reward when she was young,,,then a silly star system...20 stars for that!   oh sorry, have to take back 5 stars,,,that note was wrong,,,again!  

i think to my kid the biggest torture is my interruption.  she just hates it,,,as seen here:

March 19, 2011 at 02:24 AM ·

If all factors are equal, I would say yes.  The only situation that I can think of that would meet that criteria would be teachers with rank and file beginners with a caveat - large sample size (more than a one or two students - two points do not make a trend). 

March 19, 2011 at 08:38 AM ·


The youtube clip. She has a very fluid style and a good ear, which is very good. And temperament too!! Just what a good fiddler needs.

March 19, 2011 at 08:43 AM ·


"Peter, you should say G string unstead of F # lol "

Naughty!! (I had to actually think about that one ...)


March 19, 2011 at 11:29 AM ·

I don't think you can definitively tell how "good" a teacher is, but I think you can see positive earmarks of their teaching in their students.  I think that good teachers will generally have students that look comfortable on stage, engage with the audience, have a confident tone, have good memory, and look like they are playing the violin with a purpose.  I think that this comes not from having a certain bow hold, or a certain technique maxim, but if students feel like they can freely perform in lesson, they will be able to freely perform in a recital.  I think the best teachers not only encourage their students to play well, but to perform well, and make performing come with more ease by being kind (to a point of reason) and supportive in lessons.


That being said...I think it is the job of the student, this is what I think before I perform, to represent our teacher well!  Our entire life if we are in music performance should be to represent our studios and teacher in the best possible way.  A good teacher should be the driving reason behind why you have a career at all, and you are endebted to that teacher to perform at your best because of the opportunities and knowledge that they have given to you....


just my perspective. cheers!

March 19, 2011 at 12:33 PM ·

I think the only way to really judge a teacher is by how well their beginners to  advance students play.After attending several recitals (for voice and other instruments) over the years I've noticed that how well or poorly the teachers  beginners play determines how well the advance perform.

If you look at other ways to judge teachers

Price - are teachers who charge more  better?

education -well educated, who they studied under = better?

Concertmaster =better?

The teacher is nice,so therefore they are a good teacher

When it comes down to it results are the most important,everything else is second.

March 19, 2011 at 12:52 PM ·

 thank you peter for your kind words, which reminds me of the first teacher we had. shortly after starting the violin, the teacher very convincingly conveyed to my kid that she all the nice adjectives you can think of.  to me, true or not is secondary, but the effect of thinking highly of a student in the very very beginning and making the student believe that is the case may embark journey on a different level.  a praise or two shifts the responsibility to the student because everyone, no matter how young, has self esteem that needs to be nourished.  for some kids, the more praise they receive, the harder they try, which makes the teacher's job easier.  a positive environment can make those ambivalent towards music less ambivalent:)

our second teacher decidedly do not want to splurge the students with praise. it is a different style, to try not to set the students up for falls.   it might have worked with some kids, but clearly my kid found it confusing.  when i tried to negotiate a settlement:), indicating that my kid responded better to positive leads, i felt that a change might not come easily.  in the end, it was natural to change to another teacher instead of changing the teacher.

March 19, 2011 at 03:13 PM ·

 Of course you judge a teacher by his/her students. How else do you pick a teacher? The studio is the teacher's oeuvre. Look for technique, intonation, musical expression. Do the students play with excessive tension? How are their bow arms? What do their left hands look like? You need a wide enough sample, of course, to correct for new or intransigent students, but if you go to a studio recital and see great training, you can generally surmise that the teacher is a pretty good teacher. And vice versa. 

Which explains why some teachers are loathe to let new or difficult students venture out and do competitions or public appearances. If they play badly, they sully the teacher's reputation. I've seen teachers who are so secure in their reputation that they don't become involved at all in their students' outside-the-studio activities, and some teachers who micromanage every step. 

I can sympathize with teacher who take the latter approach (although admittedly it can drive them crazy, and can even drive students away) after hearing, as a fly-on-the-wall, big-eared parent, over and over, blanket, damning criticism like "so-and-so's students play out of tune," after someone overheard a poor audition. It may be unfair when people make judgements like that after a very small sample, but it happens, and reputation is everything for a teacher whose livelihood depends on maintaining a thriving studio. 

One important point made on this thread is that a teacher who has an objectively great studio might not be the best teacher for every student. The more advanced a student, the less critical it is to have a personality match, but all teachers are human beings, and there is enormous variation in teaching style. Some teachers are more articulate than others; some use abstract language, some use metaphor, some teach by demonstration. Some teachers talk though the whole lesson; some hardly say a word. Some play through the whole lesson; some don't even bring an instrument to the studio. Some focus almost exclusively on musicality; others are technicians; others work on both. As a musician evolves, his/her "ideal teacher" will also change. 

March 19, 2011 at 04:24 PM ·

This is a bit of a loaded question, Smiley.  Things too calm without a shoulder-rest debate going on?

One thing I would add is to not judge a teacher by ONE recital, even if many kids play.  After attending two or more recitals a year for over ten years, with students of a few different teachers, they can vary wildly.  I've been to some where all the little monsters sounded like they were Carnegie-bound, and others where the same kids couldn't get through their pieces without a train wreck or two.  Position of the stars, maybe.

As others have pointed out, the demographics of a particular studio make a difference, too.  For example, where I live, the local Waldorf school requires kids to learn a stringed instrrument and to take private lessons for a few years.  Some of these kids really shine, and take to it like ducks to water.  Others, maybe more like cats to water.  If one teacher has more cats, and another more ducks, it's harder to compare.

I think I'm starting to see where you're headed with this.  For a particular, unnamed kid, I'd be a little wary of making judgements based on recital performance of the kid's peers.  If a teacher surrounded by cats has a couple of ducks in the studio, they'll love teaching the ducks, and the ducks will thrive.

March 20, 2011 at 06:45 AM ·

"second teacher decidedly did not want to splurge the students with praise"

What a back wards idiotic concept.As long as the person dosn't think they are better then everyone else ,telling them that they are doing well and playing  well is so important.

Keep the cats in and  let the ducks out- well some teachers cheat a bit ,it may also be pride.

March 20, 2011 at 01:41 PM ·

 i disagree with e smith vehemently.:)

if it were not for e smith's the drive (both mental and behind the wheels) and her resourcefulness, her maturing artist daughter will not benefit from any great teachers.  she made it possible that those great teachers could effectively teach.  my point: the greatness of a teacher cannot be practically isolated and judged easily, unless and until it is controlled.  instead of going to recitals to get some idea-which happen 2-3 times per year at best for most teachers- i find word of mouth to be quite reliable and possibly the most commonly relied upon route.

great teacher is overrated.  getting there is underrated.:)

what happens with the lessons is overrated.  what happens in between the lessons is underrated.:)

for every student that shines under the guidance of a great teacher because of family involvement, i can show you 10 students that fail to shine under the same teacher because of family involvement. :)   that is the ratio often observed in a recital,,,  ain't that the truth people?



March 20, 2011 at 02:58 PM ·

Lot's of great responses.  I'm glad I started this thread.  After reviewing your comments, the concepts are starting to gel.  As Lisa pointed out, my reason for this inquiry has to do with a certain unnamed boy and how best to nurture his musical development.  Obviously, there are many factors at play, but after some consideration, here are the key factors, with the most important ones at the top.  Interesting thing to note, my original inquiry had to do with teachers, but it turns out that is just a small part of the overall equation.

1.  Effective practice:  it doesn't matter how good or bad a teacher is, in order to improve you have to practice effectively.  Improvement does not happen during the weekly lesson; it happens during all the practice sessions in between.  As long as the teacher is providing a good basic foundation, it is up to the student to learn what is being taught.  Making time to practice (e.g., making it a required daily activity) is critical to steady improvement.  Strong family support is a big factor for getting this right.

2.  Teacher rapport with student:  perhaps even more important than teaching correct technique, the teacher has to inspire the student.  A student with mediocre technique and an abundance of enthusiam will outperform the student with perfect technique but hates the instrument.  Chemistry between the teacher and student is critical and must not be underestimated.

3.  Teaching technique: this is a rather broad category and includes all the skills necessary to master the instrument, from beginner to advanced.  It might be surprising to some that I put this 3rd on my list of priorities, but from what I have gathered, most all teachers will provide the basic fundamentals of proper technique.  There are obviously differences, but for the most part, any responsible teacher with any experience will provide the foundation for any student to be successful as long as items 1 and 2 above are satisfied.

4.  Ability of the other students:  for some, this may be an important motivational factor.  When you see and hear other students performing at a high level, it could offer additional motivation to work harder, or to achieve a certain sound.  I attended an elite university, and when I reflect back on my college education, it was not so much the professors that inspired me to work, but the other students.  I think this could work both ways though.  Some might be turned off by hearing other high performers, especially if they know they will never be able to play at the same level. 

March 20, 2011 at 03:09 PM ·

Smiley - I agree with a lot of what you say - except the bit about the right technique.

I do think that is very important, and I don't thnk there are that many people (certainly in the UK) who do teach technique well.

OK, at the best music academies the top level teachers do. But elswhere it is more hit and miss. (Usually miss!!)

Maybe in the US it is better, as it may be in continental Europe.

Thanks anyway for starting an interesting and important thread, where the discussion has been mostly very rewarding.


March 20, 2011 at 03:25 PM ·

Very interesting conversation.  The more time I spend as a violin parent, the more I realize how critical parental involvement is in the equation.  Having said that, finding the right teacher is also essential.

Smiley, I do not agree with your third point.  I think that there are huge differences between teachers in regard to the technical aspects, as well as teaching musicality.         

March 20, 2011 at 03:49 PM ·

 here is something that i think can apply to teachers, great or otherwise and parents, who know how to be helpful or not.  imo, everyone has room to improve, particularly those who think they are great:)

in colvin's talent is overrated, on page 174, there is a description of a research:

"mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (not responsible for misspelling surname like that:) of the university of chicago  and colleagues  investigated  why it's easier for some adolescents than others to sustain concentrated, effortful study, and the core of deliberate practice and high achievement.  the research focused on the students' family environment, evaluating them on two dimensions, stimulation  and support.

a stimulating  environment was one with lots of opportunities  to learn and high academic expectations.

a supportive environment was one with well-defined rules and jobs, without much arguing over who had to do what, and in which family members could rely on one another.

the researchers classified family environments as stimulating or not and supportive or not, creating 4 possible combinations.

adolescents  living in three of those combinations reported the typical low-interest, low-energy experience of studying.  but in the 4th combination, the environment that was both stimulating and supportive, students were more engaged, attentive, and alert  in their study."

to me personally, it is very difficult to constantly apply this on a daily basis.  but if knowingly i do not try to live up to it, it is my fault,,not the teacher's fault, not my kid's fault.  it really comes down to this very simple thing.  i am living under the constant fear that if i do not do my part, i, single-handedly, will make my kid's teacher lose face:)

March 20, 2011 at 05:07 PM ·

@ al ku (3:49 p.m.)   ---  My old teacher didn't make a scientific study of this, but she taught ~50 students a week for decades, so she had some experience in these matters.  She told me once that she'd found there are a number of factors that all have to be present for a kid to become good, and a good teacher was only one of them.  Supportive parents, enough money (or familial determination to find a way around that), interest on the part of the student... I forget what else.  I've noticed it in my teaching too --- it takes an incredible amount of determination for an interested kid to overcome uninterested parents, not to mention the parents who are actively against the child's musical interest.*

She had several students who went on to professional careers --- impressive for a flute teacher in any case, considering how comparatively little work there is out there for flutists, and for a private teacher especially, whose students were not pre-screened by any audition process ---  and many many more who didn't.  Some of those were truly terrible, and she taught them anyway for the money.    Was she a bad teacher because Kimberly got into Juilliard but her best friend Jennifer "really liked the flute and didn't want to quit" but would only practice 1/2 hour a day?  If you only heard Kimberly, you'd think "wow, this girl has a great teacher;" if you only heard Jennifer, you'd think "wow, this girl's teacher is terrible."  (About students like Jennifer, she would say "That's OK, I like bread and butter.")

Sometimes I worry about being judged by my "bad" students' problems; but not too much.


(*I have a friend whose father actively opposed her going into music, to the point where he was calling our teacher every week after her lesson, saying "Don't encourage her!  Why are you encouraging her?"  I don't know what would have happened, but he was killed in a car accident and after that, for better or worse, she only had her mother's support and not her father's opposition to work with.)

March 20, 2011 at 05:20 PM ·

 bruce, of course, studies cannot encompass everything that applies to individual cases, and often studies simply confirm our common senses that have worked.  

interesting you bring up the money factor.  on the average, i think it is safe to say that more well known, highly demanded teachers tend to charge more.  so, almost with any discipline, having the resource, although not a guarantee, is certainly helpful to many to pursue studying with those dream teachers.  but driving around in a ferrari does not necessarily make the driver a good racer:)

many "great" teachers are not attention seeking types and they have a lot to offer.  they are everywhere.  they may not hold jobs in well known places.  they may not frequently send kids to competitions.  they are ready to help if matched with appropriate students/parents.  i think with the right combo of a decent teacher, helpful parents and a dedicated student, it is really not difficult to develop the student into one with solid fundamentals ready for more challenges down the line.   

too bad having that combo looks more like a chance encounter...:(

ps.,,bruce, i wonder how your old teacher views "inborn potential" on her list,,,

March 20, 2011 at 05:40 PM ·


I hate to say this, but I feel you are making life far too complicated. Things just have to be more simple than this, surely?

We hope for good teachers and motivated pupils, and good supportive parents. In the end the mixture of options is beyond our control.

A kid does not necesssarily need enlightened parents, though it can sometimes help. A determined kid and a good teacher can achieve a hell of a lot. Even a determined kid and a passable teacher can be good.

March 20, 2011 at 05:48 PM ·

 "I feel you are making life far too complicated." 

i have never been accused of that.  they always say: come on, dude, just think a little for pete's sake:)

March 20, 2011 at 06:18 PM ·

"Smiley, I do not agree with your third point.  I think that there are huge differences between teachers in regard to the technical aspects, as well as teaching musicality. "

@A.J. Noble, perhaps you can elaborate?  Have you encountered teachers that were poor with regard to teaching technique and musicality?  For discussion sake, let's consider only professional musicians that have gone through music school and have quite a bit of teaching experience.  So if tomorrow, I started "Smiley's violin studio" that wouldn't count :-)

March 20, 2011 at 07:27 PM ·


I'll offer a short anecdote.  We watched a masterclass one time at which one of the performers was a young violinist who had been studying for many years with the concertmaster of a reputable small symphony.  The masterclass teacher ended up having to spend most of the coaching session working on the violinist's lack of bow-hand and wrist flexibility.  There were other issues too, including a lack of musicality, but I was surprised that a reputable teacher with a fairly senior/advanced student would not have addressed these issues already.   




March 20, 2011 at 08:35 PM ·


I don't know if I would consider that very compelling proof of your claim (that some teachers do not teach proper technique), because it was an isolated case.  But if all the students of that teacher had rigid right hands, then I agree, it could indicate a problem.

But, your post brings up another important point.  Just because someone is good at something, does not make them a good teacher.  If I wanted to improve my golf game, I'd rather have lessons from Butch Harmon than Tiger Woods.  While Tiger knows a lot about his own golf swing, he has relatively little knowledge about teaching golf, and dealing with different types of swings. 

The best teacher is not necessarily the best violinist.  And the best violinist is not necessarily the best teacher.  Performing and teaching are two different things and require very different skills.


March 20, 2011 at 08:44 PM ·

Al --- she thought inborn potential was important, but not as important as hard work and dedication.  She'd seen a lot of students with plenty of "talent" but not much interest.

March 20, 2011 at 11:21 PM ·


You're right that this was only one of this teacher's students.  However, this was a serious student, playing moderately advanced repertoire, and no doubt recommended for this masterclass (which was given by a famous violinist).  I can tell you that there is NO WAY that my daughter's teacher would recommend a student to play in a masterclass when such fundamental issues had not been fixed.

I agree 100% that just because someone is a good violinist, does not mean that they will be a good teacher.   


March 21, 2011 at 02:30 AM ·

 Al, it is true that I drove my daughter to her lessons for years. And that she was responsible about practicing. But I also think my point, that you can judge a teacher by the students he or she produces, is valid. In a studio with young children, you need to look for set-up, position, intonation, bow arm. In an older studio, these things, and more. Precision, musicality, lack of tension-- the whole package. Of course there will be outliers in every studio. And teachers who are unwilling to deal with problem students will have a more uniform studio because they drop kids who don't conform. So there are sometimes teachers who bring about a mixed bag of results because they are willing to deal with the difficult cases. But in general, as the studio goes, so goes the teaching. 

In more elite studios, you can certainly see the product of the teaching. I don't mean that students emerge as clones of their teacher (although this sometimes happens, but that's a studio to avoid) but that the teacher's approach has a lot to do with the direction of the student's development. 

Another point about studio quality-- you generally want to be in a studio where you are not among the most advanced or "best" students. You want to be in a studio where you have much to learn in studio class, and others to look up to. If you get to the point that you are the best student, it's time to move to a new teacher...


March 21, 2011 at 03:28 AM ·

This is a very interesting discussion and I think applies to many other areas in life not just teaching. 

I will say that if a teacher has expectations which they make clear at the outset and does their best to observe the interaction of child/parent/and teacher in the process of fulfilling these expectations from week to week a lot of difficulties can be avoided from the beginning. 

In meeting potentially new students with their parents I ask them to observe lessons and recitals before they commit. Obviously this process can not go on indefinitely but at least it gives them a chance to see how I teach students similar in age and  social development  and what the results are, if you want to call it that, as demonstrated in the recitals. This is not a perfect process, but, to be honest, it does limit the number of students and parents who end up quitting or switching to other teachers because they weren't  aware of what my teaching or my expectations would be like. I prefer being up front about these things because  you cannot meet everyone's expectations and they can't be expected to meet yours, but you can tend to find people who see the validity in how you teach and why and people do talk to others so your reputation, good or bad, does spread by word of mouth.  If, over time, many students seem to do well with a given teacher, you can begin to assume the teacher has a proven track record. By this criertia, though, teachers first starting out may seem  to be at a disadvantage because they haven't established a proven track record, but they must remember that everyone has had to start somewhere and despite a lack of experience they may bring other things to the table such as  youth, enthusiasm, flexibility, curiosity, and patience that some more experienced teachers may have lost over time.

Sometimes you have a sixth sense about things and you see a parent or student who are not quite sure what they're getting themselves into, and who don't yet seem like the kind of student you'll feel comfortable working with,  but, perhaps, over time,  they allow you to mold them, and you too are molded in this process, of bringing them to a place where they can meet your expectations. Some students just need more time to "get with the program" and to have abandoned them before that process is well under way is one of those things many a teacher must chalk up to experience.

 I do not believe it's wise to go blindly into the teaching process. You need to have a plan or expectations. The student will need to have one too. That's what practicing is about- to get better, to go from point a to point b improving. A teacher that can keep the student on point, as they say, will succeed with that student. It may be made easier if the parent helps too in the process but their role has to be considered carefully and it will doubtless change over time. It's wonderful when everyone is on the same page but when it doesn't work out- for example, when a willing student is not being helped by a parent or a willing parent is not being helped by their son or daughter, then the teacher's role becomes much more crucial in the equation. It may or may not work out but the teacher's ability to convince the student that they are, during that lesson, the most important person in their life, can often make the experience likely to get better. Your devotion to and concentration on that student and what they are doing is another factor in what makes a teacher a good one. You are letting them know that they matter so much to you that success is the only option. At least, that is the conviction to which you should hold.

 You cannot be all things to all students and their parents but if you consider what you do important enough and you set standards that you hold yourself and your pupils to then you are showing integrity and an honest determination to give the best. These are good qualities that everyone can try to apply in all aspects of life, not just music. In simple language, do your best- put forth your best effort.  Teacher, parent, student- we are all learning in this process.


March 21, 2011 at 01:49 PM ·

 i think e smith and ron are possibly 2 of the most articulate and trouble-free posters on this site, so it is always a treat to read their thoughts, one as a parent and the other as a teacher.  i think if smiley and his kid are serious about violin, those 2 posters are good to confer with.

since my kid has a different interest level from e smith's, the direction and route taken so far seem quite different.  i think our choice of learning an instrument is quite peculiar when comparing with many others.  my kid up to now has never taken practice seriously, let alone having aspiration to be on stage for a living.  based on her level of play,  she is clearly under-practicing. without my help to her on time management-how to use the 40 min-1 hour in the morning, she will have more problems.   i am aware that eventually she needs to take full responsibility on her own practice--if she sticks to violin then:) -- but i also maintain that some kids need more guidance before they can do it effectively and efficiently enough.  in other words, my kid needs more training and time with this. to take the initiative during practice, to make every action and thought count, is not that straight forward with her.  in fact, i think many children are like that, like my kid, who should be in special ed as far as learning violin is concerned:). frequently she breaks into giggles during practice.  why, i ask.  she says, oh nothing, just thought of something funny in school.   i think on some level her violin playing produces the background music with which her brain takes her to another place.  as a result, the score is in front of her does not have much meaning.  she will play the quarter note as a 1/8 or 1/2 at her discretion.  when you point is out to her, she will nod but you just know she is not convinced.  

yesterday after golf practice when we were driving home i asked her to help me out  with this observation:

with golf and with violin, i don't expect much.  by that i mean before each practice session, we discuss what to focus on today.  to make it easier to remember, we usually limit to 2-3 things--the same 2-3 things that will stay for weeks--  the central themes of the day.  no matter what we do, those are the recurring guidelines that apply. only 2 to 3 things, but they seem so difficult to remember,  even with reminders from me when i see that you drift off.

meanwhile, in school, everyday you learn new things, probably 2-3 new things every minute.  and yet you get A+ in every topics and the teachers are crazy about how good a student you are.

so help me out with this.  how come learning new things at a great pace in school is a breeze but handling couple things during violin and golf seem so impossible?   can you see why i am confused?

her answer: school is so much more interesting, dad!

you see, with kids like mine, who are still immature or different, if they do not perform well enough, how can one possibly attribute it to their violin teachers and vice versa???

ps.  i do agree that  with older kids, it is easier to see teacher's input on students' violinistic skills.  on the younger ones,,,,good luck:)



June 25, 2011 at 03:50 AM ·

 In my opinion the ability of the teacher should not be just by recitals but more on their background. 

Consider two student resumes


Student A= several years of piano lessons, parents who are professional musicans, siblings who all play instruments, parents attend every lesson and require daily practice, parents  encourage student's music making skills


Student B=Never had musical training in their life. only music student hears is on the radio or tv, parents never attend a lesson  and expect the student to magically organize their time and effectively practice, only child, practices when he/she feels like it

Which child do you think will play better at the recital?

What is amazing is a great teacher may take student B to sound relatively decent which is a feat all by itself. There may be errors in intonation but imagine the skill level without the teacher.

My point is if a student has a great musical background, poor teaching will not destroy this student. This student will improve. But great teaching can make Student A sound amazing and Student B sound decent with a few errors. Both of these students often play in the same recital.

I would hope someone would not judge my teaching ability based on how student B performs because you need a little more background on where the kid came from and how much improvement was made

June 25, 2011 at 10:42 AM ·

Also depends rather on the teachers circumsances - some have to teach everyone while others would simply drop student B in your example above, and only showcase student As :)

That said it might be possible to judge a teacher a bit if you see the same technical error in several of their students - such as a too raised right shoulder which will likely lead to physical damage. 

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

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email 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 Business Directory Business Directory Guide to Online Learning 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 in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine