Public schools & private lessons

September 11, 2015 at 07:41 PM · I’ve noticed for the last year that enrollment in my studio has been markedly down, and I'd mostly chalked it up to the economy. But recently I learned that the newer music teachers in our local schools are actually discouraging kids from taking private lessons! The rationale is that they only want them to learn what they're teaching in class so that they can all "be the same."

This is a new batch of teachers as all the ones who used to refer students to me have retired. I'm wondering whether this is something unique to my local school system or whether this is a growing trend throughout our school orchestras. Has anyone else heard of this where you are? I find it repugnant, not simply because it hurts private studios but because it is actively teaching kids not to excel in music. Thoughts, anyone?

Replies (23)

September 11, 2015 at 08:07 PM · No, I have not heard of such a thing and I regret to read about it here. I'm fortunate to live in an area where public school teachers encourage private lessons so strongly that they basically stop a hair's breadth short of requiring them.

September 11, 2015 at 08:08 PM · Ugh, I see you live in Indiana. I'm sorry it works that way where you are. Here in Indianapolis, private lessons are encouraged.

September 11, 2015 at 08:14 PM · That may be the stupidest thing I've ever heard of on here--public teachers discouraging private lessons. That is some impressively deep insecurity on the part of the orchestra teachers.

Around here, the teachers all have lists of local private teachers which they pass out to students the first week of school.

September 11, 2015 at 08:28 PM · For the record, the former teachers here were enthusiastic about recommending private lessons. It's only recently that this seems to have changed (a new crop of teachers). I'd heard rumors to this effect for several months, but frankly I couldn't believe it. Today it was confirmed to me ... students are actually told not to take private lessons. Unless they're all making it up, it does appear to be the case.

September 11, 2015 at 10:06 PM · The "keep them all the same" rationale is the one that rings true to me, however unfortunate.

Offer to come to the class to give a free demonstration. Students who are interested will tell their parents and the rest will fall into place. The reason I know this works is because when I was a kid there was a local violin teacher who did this routinely and he typically picked up a couple of new beginners each time.

September 11, 2015 at 10:08 PM · I was teaching an 8 year old girl, and apparently her teacher at the public school did not want me to 'touch' anything that she was doing in school. She basically said not to go beyond what she was taught at school. The teacher just didn't want me to teach her.

September 11, 2015 at 10:39 PM · Great idea, Paul, and something I used to do. Our local schools changed their security protocols a few years ago, though, and now outsiders cannot visit classes unless invited by the teacher. And the current batch of music teachers won't respond to any of my attempts to contact them. It's pretty insular. (By the way, one of my students who was in the school orchestra was the first to tell me they were discouraging private lessons. Her response was to quit orchestra and continue studying with me. It was the school's loss.)

September 11, 2015 at 10:56 PM · Who sets the policy in the school system? Have other private teachers in your area had similar experiences?


September 11, 2015 at 11:31 PM · We always encourage our students to take private lessons. Not sure what those teachers up there are thinking.

September 12, 2015 at 12:00 AM · This is not the kind of problem that is solved by inquiring to administrators about policy. That just increases everyone's general level of ire and stress. Far better to go into the class, give the demonstration, and on your way out, ask to see the school's Principal and tell him or her what a great experience you had *because of the terrific teacher* who invited you and what a great job the teacher is doing inspiring these youngsters to learn and enjoy music and how it's a beautiful school and the receptionist (always a key person in a public school) is so nice, etc. And of course, leave your card with the principal too.

September 12, 2015 at 12:14 AM · Oops. I took it that Mr. Craton was unsuccessful in getting invited to the classroom. Sorry.


September 12, 2015 at 02:16 AM · Oh yes, sorry, I did not read that part carefully enough (i.e., I apparently didn't read it at all). The security policy -- yes that's something that goes through the administration. What a drag. Try busking on the sidewalk across the street from the school, or join the Parent Teacher Organization.

September 12, 2015 at 02:58 AM · Still though it could be recent policy or a miss-communication of information.


September 12, 2015 at 07:07 AM · I live in Australia and when my nephew was learning the violin at school he was told to hold the violin out directly in front of him and to wrap his whole hand around the bow. All the students were taught to do this and if anybody did it differently (correctly) they were instructed to change and do it like everbody else. I cannot see how anybody can learn to play the violin unless they learn how to hold the bow and the violin correctly.

Schools seem to find it easier to teach violin if all the students are doing the same thing so it is no wonder some of them discourage private lessons.

September 12, 2015 at 11:35 AM · It's just so sad for the students. In the past we had a rather exceptional school orchestra with several kids who were outstanding soloists ... two had won a very prestigious area concerto competition (one of them a student of mine). Now it seems they're all being held to the same level and are discouraged from playing beyond the level of the kid in the next chair. (Funny that the sports coaches don't place that same restriction on their students.)

September 12, 2015 at 12:14 PM · The level of playing in public schools is generally pretty low. Sometimes there are some really great musicians, but those are the ones that take private lessons. In Montgomery County, they offer music starting in 3rd grade. I met with the public school music teacher and he said it was basically a waste of time for my son to enroll in the music program. He was already way more advanced than the teacher, who was a french horn player who knew a little about strings.

Now, my son is in 8th grade at a private school that is know for their arts program. The level of playing, like the public school, is very low. It is mostly a waste of time, but my son continues to participate because other students look up to him for his ability and he enjoys the attention and self esteem it gives him.

The point is, students that learn exclusively through the school system do not have a very good chance of becoming exceptional musicians. It is only those that do it privately and devote the time outside of school that will excel.

September 12, 2015 at 12:23 PM · BTW, I liked Mary Ellen's expression "impressively deep insecurity...." That made me laugh.

Maybe we should honor those teachers for their deep commitment and devotion to being insecure :-)

September 12, 2015 at 03:25 PM · In many of our communities (which I believe may depend on demographics), we have a third leg, viz., community youth orchestras where private lessons are mandatory. Rather than focusing on school orchestras (public or private), I would guess that there would be a richer opportunity to find students in youth orchestras. Moreover, with the exception of a few children with "Tiger parents", most kids in community youth orchestras attend because they want to make music ~ and not because of a grade or credits towards a degree. They're probably more likely to practice between lessons anyway.

Though not a school teacher myself, I do hear from friends who do teach and have classes of 40-50 students in a class. I can imagine the cacophony of orchestral students who all get different bowings from their private teachers (ghastly sight for an audience...) The teacher ends up teaching to the middle tier of students, which is the case in all subjects ~ not just music.

At least in my experience, those students who are going to be serious about music will eventually disassociate with the school's orchestra and find more challenging opportunities, like community or university orchestras. Those will also end up being more reliable longer term students who won't disappear after one or two lessons, or after they discover sports or dating...

September 13, 2015 at 04:05 AM · Jenny--I sometimes change fingerings in public school orchestra music if what is in there is unworkable, unwise, or unsuited to that particular student's hand. My assumption is that the teacher wants the music to sound as good as possible, and if it's easier for a particular student to play with a different fingering, why not? Especially if the orchestra director in question is a cellist or bassist. I've never had an orchestra teacher object to my changes, though occasionally they will ask me for fingering suggestions. I do not change bowings.

When I am on the other side as a sectional coach for the youth orchestra or a school orchestra, I make it very clear to the students that if their private teacher has given them a different fingering for a passage, they should do their teacher's fingering and not mine. That's almost the first thing I say at any sectional after introducing myself.

September 13, 2015 at 03:25 PM · So Petty...

I'm sorry to hear about that.

September 14, 2015 at 12:43 PM · Thanks for all the comments and suggestions. Unfortunately this appears to be a disappointing problem with no easy solution. But from the responses given I am at least pleased to know that it looks to be more of an isolated case. My fear was that there was a new focus in our schools nationwide that was seeking for "equality" by keeping all students at the same level.

As to just a few specifics: I love the idea of community orchestras, and I have had several students over the years participate in the only non-school-affiliated youth orchestra in our area; but it is in a nearby town that requires some travel and is not practical for all. And for the record our school's new string teacher is a flutist(!) Without passing judgment, I think the comment about the possibility of some insecurity being involved has merit. I have volunteered to assist however I might, but it's not easy to do when no one will respond. Oh well. I'm just sorry for the kids. They're the ones who lose.

September 29, 2015 at 03:20 AM · In my district the school teachers are being pressured to show that they are teaching the kids in the school program, in order to justify the funding for music; so some really do not encourage private lessons, as that would mean those students that took lessons did not learn their skills in school. I even had a student drop lessons because he was "learning too fast" and did not "fit in", so I know this does happen.

I try to explain to students that if they just want "tutoring" to keep up with school orchestra, I am the wrong teacher; if they are taking lessons with me they should be ahead of the school program's level, and that I want them to be the best they can be.

I am very sorry to see the schools treating the teachers this way, and know the local private teachers used to contribute a lot toward making the school orchestras better, but now the best students do drop out of the school programs and join the metro-wide youth symphonies.

September 29, 2015 at 01:19 PM · Yes--I have seen this in areas where I've lived before too--Sad.

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