What to look for in a teacher?

June 25, 2016 at 07:19 PM · I have had several teachers in the past, but the one I really liked left the country and I was forced to look for a new one. Eventually I found one that seems to have had a long trajectory (or at least that's what he says); it looks like he can play several instruments, he was an orchestra director at some point, (according to him) he was well-praised by professors when he was a music student, and pretty much all members of his family are musicians in one way or another (his father was a violinist).

I think I have progressed with him, however there are many things that make me feel unsure, namely:

(1) I've never seen him play the violin

I've seen him play piano and guitar, but nothing more. He's somewhat old (around fifty I'd say) so it may be understandable, but it bugs me not having a teacher that can pick up a violin and show me how it's done.

(2) I don't think he ever corrected my position or bowing technique, but I feel my bowing could very much be improved. This may be due to the fact that he rarely watches my when I play, he's usually looking at the score - he corrects my intonation when I'm off, but nothing more so far (I've been ~9 months).

(3) He has never heard of the books that most violin teachers have, like Sevcik, Wohfhart, Kayser, Kreutzer, Flesch, Hrimlay, etc. He has two violin books and some pieces scattered around.

(4) Sometimes he explains things in a way I'm not completely sure if I could have understood them without previous background. For example, when he explained legato bowing he explained no technique, only the way it should sound - I did not understand a thing, and I know what he meant only because I have read about it before.

I'm considering look around for new teachers, without leaving this one so promptly. But I want to know, what are the things someone should look for in a teacher?

Replies (36)

June 25, 2016 at 07:29 PM · The first thing you look for is a teacher who will allow you attend a lesson or two given to other pupils approximately at your age and level, and who will give you one sample lesson, even if you have to pay for it at the normal rate. Then, make a checklist of everything that's important to you, which seems to include:

* skill and experience playing the violin (and frankly I would look for someone who is paid to perform classical music on the violin, at least occasionally)

* teaching with the violin (I would like my teacher to do more of this too)

* apparent knowledge of violin repertoire and pedagogy

* ability to explain in general and specific terms

To that list I would add

* a studio big enough to have a regular group class and recital series so that you perform in front of your peers (sometimes two or three teachers will combine forces in this area, which is not only acceptable but possibly even preferable)

* specific advice on repertoire, methods, and practicing

* structured, productive, reasonably businesslike lessons

From your list I would subtract

* apparent youth of the teacher

Some of the best teachers are "around 50" or older. And they might be male or female and of various national origins and ethnicities.

June 25, 2016 at 08:43 PM · I don't care about how old my teacher is. I only talked about age when referring to the fact that he's not capable of showing me how it is done, probably due to physical reasons.

See: "He's somewhat old (around fifty I'd say) so it may be understandable, but it bugs me not having a teacher that can pick up a violin and show me how it's done."

June 25, 2016 at 09:01 PM · At the age of 50, a violinist should still be in their prime. There are plenty of violinists that play into their 70s, and the best are often still good into their 80s. In fact, unless a player has had a physical accident that has damaged their arms or hands, or a disease that has affected their ability to play (Lyme's, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.), it is worrisome to for a 50-year-old violinist to be debilitated enough to no longer be able to demonstrate, especially at the beginner level, since it suggests that their technique is fundamentally incorrect.

Paul Deck has given you a good list. Look for a teacher who plays well themselves and is able to convey, in understandable terms, how to play. That may take the form of verbal explanation or physical demonstration -- different students learn in different ways -- but usually it's some combination of the two.

A teacher should also teach in a structured, progressive manner. It sounds dubious that the OP's teacher is even a violinist at all, or at least not a classically-trained violinist. And by and large it should not be necessary for a teacher to watch the music during a lesson; they should be observing -- although frankly really excellent teachers can tell you what you're doing wrong from *either* watching or listening, as they know what sound a physical motion will produce, and converse, can tell what you're doing by listening.

June 26, 2016 at 12:52 AM · Enough of the ageist comments! Old at almost 50? The cheek! Young kids today have no respect!

Cheers Carlo

June 26, 2016 at 03:34 AM · 50 is the new 30, or so I hear....

How can one teach without showing you how?

Sounds to me that you should go out and get a better suited teacher. You are paying a lot for lessons, get your money's worth out of them

June 26, 2016 at 03:58 AM · I would start by immediately disengaging from that 'teacher'. Then start the journey of finding another one, which might take a while or might not so be patient and don't settle until you have a good gut feeling. Either way, based on your description I would not attend another lesson with him. A text message should suffice, perhaps with a sad face emoji if required.

June 26, 2016 at 06:27 AM · I would have trouble trusting a teacher that I had never heard play. Of course, you can get great instruction from someone you trust musically who doesn't even play the violin, in the sense that someone that isn't a violinist can have a different view, sometimes more firmly grounded in uncovering the musical idea than the violinistic-technical idea. With that said, you probably still need a very solid technical grounding, which it sounds like you aren't getting. I would find out who teaches in the area, and try and attend recitals for as many of those teachers as possible, see who inspires you, and then see if their teaching is a good fit for you.

June 26, 2016 at 06:52 AM · In fact some famous teachers hardly if ever demonstrated. Galamian for example, and on the occasion when he did, it sounded rather bad. D De Lay was another example, and I don't think anyone heard her play. (Correct me if I'm wrong). Although I would agree that it is useful to demonstrate occasionally at least, it is not a given. Having said that, all my later teachers did demonstrate (Sometimes outside Parliament!) (wink) (It was the early teachers who didn't risk demonstrating!)

Apparently a well known but now deceased soloist who studied with Galamian at about 11 years old said he had a job not to giggle when G played.

June 26, 2016 at 11:47 AM · Demian,

You've given some really good reasons to switch. At least I'm sold. Time to find a teacher that is competent.

June 26, 2016 at 12:35 PM · Wow, 50 is somewhat old? I'm 55.....

By the way, "ability to play several instruments" is NOT a recommendation for a violin teacher. You want a specialist, someone for whom the violin is his/her primary instrument. Based on your description, time for you to move on.

June 26, 2016 at 02:53 PM · Having a teacher who plays the violin, and SHOWS you, is now something I would consider crucial. It is true, after a certain point, this may become less necessary. (I.e. Galamian)

Playing with someone, they play as you play, so you can see what you are supposed to be doing, is something I didn't have, and now, at least, I have the Internet for. This visual and auditory experience cannot be replicated, analogous to me as a linguist telling you how to make a glottal stop, then expecting you to do so. Far more effective was watching my professor make one, hearing it, then doing so myself.

I would also be very concerned if a teacher was not aware or did not advocate common repertoire and technical skill methods - building content knowledge should be an essential goal.

June 26, 2016 at 03:50 PM · I have a colleague who never shows or explains anything. When I wish to discuss techniques, she says "they just have to practice"... She plays well, but cannot analyse what she learned as a child. Of course the very alert, well-supported students find their own way, but I sometimes have to pick up the pieces.

One can judge a teacher by how he or she treats the least gifted.

June 26, 2016 at 03:50 PM · DeLay and Galamian restricted themselves, as far as I know, to the very top eschelon of pupils. Therefore their methods may not be the best for a beginner to intermediate player.

June 26, 2016 at 08:35 PM · David, maybe so for Galamian and DeLay once their reputation was established, but they must have honed those methods on average students at some point?

June 26, 2016 at 08:39 PM · To OP - I spent about a year with a teacher who sounds similar in teaching strategy, though that person was a violinist only and did play in the session. Problem was, it was often a little out of tune :(

I was asking for correction and was told just to keep practising.

That teacher had a fine art of page turning, but little else.

You need to be nice and just move on. In my case, in a smallish community, I have had a number of occasions where I've seen that teacher around, and am glad I didn't make a big drama. I just said I needed to find lessons closer to my home and more within my timetable.

June 26, 2016 at 08:39 PM · Derr, double post

June 26, 2016 at 09:10 PM · " DeLay and Galamian restricted themselves, as far as I know, to the very top eschelon of pupils. Therefore their methods may not be the best for a beginner to intermediate player. "

Paul - I may be wrong but I don't think that's entirely true. Galamian did have some very young players who were still in the early stages of development, even if SOME of them (i.e. Josh Bell) did become pretty big stars eventually. However, in the early years (10-14 or younger) they were still learning and a bit rough. He did demonstrate a bit but in a strange way - just aurally without technical explanation, at least in the videos I've seen. Some players were older and more developed such as Perlman and Zukerman.

But people who were there at the time might give greater illumination to his way of teaching, and Dorothy De Lay pupils as well. I've quizzed some of his and de Lay's pupils a bit, and there are no great tips forthcoming, except from Simon Fischer and Pinchas Zukerman, who have a lot of anecdotes and stories.

June 26, 2016 at 11:09 PM · Teacher's ability to demonstrate difficult passages is a must for most students. In fact, I realized that it was time for my daughter to move on when it was apparent the first violin teacher could no longer reliably show how things should be done.

Another quality is flexibility, which may be more relevant to an advanced or adult student. If the teacher keeps insisting a certain fingering or bowing or playing style without proper justification, that would not bode well in the long run.

June 27, 2016 at 02:56 AM · AFAIK, Galamian and DeLay both had teaching assistants whose jobs were to take care of the technical detail work with their students. But neither of them typically taught students below the advanced level anyway.

June 27, 2016 at 06:57 AM · I have to respectfully disagree with you on this topic Lydia.

They did teach students who had yet to reach the advanced level. But they did this because they saw the potential and were often right, as the students did become advanced players, and in several cases big soloists.

June 27, 2016 at 07:20 AM · I hope I didn't get it wrong, I should wait until I am 50 to start teaching violin. Really?

June 27, 2016 at 08:01 AM · "I hope I didn't get it wrong, I should wait until I am 50 to start teaching violin. Really?"

Well, there is something to be said for maturity and a lot of experience. Teachers have often reached a pinnacle and by that age more or less worked out how to do it. If they have been teaching a long time then they will then have a wealth of experience and will certainly know how not to do it, and will have hopefully gained some good successes with past pupils, and will know the pitfalls of the repertoire.

Look around at the fantastic teachers who are in their 50's, 60's and 70,'s and older (Ricci was still doing it and learning at 90+). It's not true that you can't teach an old dog new tricks! My Lurcher learns a lot every day and she's 8 years old (50 in human terms). And she knows when I play below par, as she often sighs. (Some people may think it's animal cruelty to make a dog listen to one's practice sessions ...)

PS Of course I also have huge respect for teachers who can often at quite a young age, teach children as beginners. This is a particular skill and talent which is of incredible importance so that the young players can progress to the very experienced teachers at the advanced level. They are worth their weight in gold.

June 27, 2016 at 11:30 AM · I'm very surprised to hear Mr Galamian & Ms Delay did not demonstrate!

As far as I'm aware Galamian never tought Joshua Bell, Gingold did.

If 50 is the new 30, then 30 is the new 10 which means I could still become pro! ;p

June 27, 2016 at 11:41 AM · I think there's too much emphasis on age here. There are good violin teachers in their 20s and in their 70s. Maybe the younger ones demonstrate more whereas the older ones have developed ways to accomplish the same thing verbally, who knows. The OP doesn't need Galamian or Gingold.

June 27, 2016 at 11:48 AM · David F

Look on Youtube and you will see Gal teaching Bell aged about 11 or 12 ... (Josh that is, not mr G! - he was a lot older...)

June 27, 2016 at 01:28 PM · It's nice to have a teacher that can play or understand other instruments. It could mean that he is in touch with several styles approaches etc.

However, it's critical that he specializes in the particular instrument he teaches. Besides the technical stuff, i think that the most important thing with a teacher is the ability to communicate properly.

This may not happen with everybody, and it is completely reasonable.

Motivation, is essential in this long journey. Loss of confidence is destructive. You seem that you really liked a particular teacher (we all do I guess). Try to analyze what you really liked about him/her and focus on these traits when looking for a new teacher.

I would change promptly, in fact as soon as possible. And the most important reason, is not that most of us advise you to do so. It's your own doubts about this matter. It makes it perfectly clear. You would never post such a topic if you really wanted to continue with this teacher.

And to be fair, we do not know this teacher. He could be awesome, but that's not the issue right now. A teacher should "match" the student. Otherwise...

June 27, 2016 at 02:57 PM · Peter, from the youtube of Galamian teaching Bell, it's not clear whether that's a one-off lesson, masterclass, or regular lesson. Bell's usual bio-sketches do not list Galamian as one of his teachers.

And from the youtube, not only is it unclear whether Galamian can play the violin, but also whether he can even stand up. Well of course I'm just kidding about that; Galamian would have been in his mid-70s to be teaching a 12-year-old Bell (year = 1980). But there is a section at the beginning of the video where he is coaching Bell on his general setup, and that's an example of where a quick demonstration (standing, with the violin) would have perhaps been more efficient. Who knows?

June 27, 2016 at 03:21 PM · I thought that although Galamain did not always play with his students, at least he did demonstrate how to play some parts.

See 18:55

June 27, 2016 at 04:48 PM · Mimi Zweig taught the young Joshua Bell, as far as I know, and then Gingold.

Who did Galamian and DeLay teach at a less-than-advanced level? By the time Sarah Chang went to DeLay, for instance, she was already an advanced student.

June 27, 2016 at 06:34 PM · You notice in these videos that you don't hear Galamian picking on small mistakes. I see that one of the "students" is a young Emma Boisvert. Of course she became CM at Detroit, so as a young teenager she'd already be quite the violinist.

June 30, 2016 at 05:08 AM · Demian, even if you don't know what set of qualifications to look for, you have identified a set of disqualifications, and their reversal would be a good start. Before one can teach, one must learn, which in violin playing amounts to playing. When one can play, demonstration and communication by playing are generally most natural and efficient.

Instead of thinking about leaving while looking for another teacher, I'd leave and free myself to try other teachers to find one who's good for me. Trial lessons might be the best way to judge for yourself. The best teacher for you is the one who helps you play your best, and a good teacher should help you play better in the first lesson and every lesson thereafter.

July 1, 2016 at 08:54 AM · "demonstration and communication by playing are generally most natural and efficient"

Yes and no. Very many students will not percieve the point the teacher is making without verbal hints. The minute sensations and preparatory internal gestures are simply not visible, and we are extremely wary of touching a student's hand, elbow or shoulder, let alone backbone or diaphragm..

July 5, 2016 at 10:38 AM · I find it helpful to think of two aspects of teaching - technique and musical interpretation.

Most good musicians can teach interpretation, at least to some degree.

But I think it's much rarer to find a teacher with a solid approach to teaching technique - particularly a holistic, healthy and relaxed technique. As the posts above make clear, many teachers simply funk it and focus on teaching music. Other teachers dogmatically insist on technical approaches that worked for them or their own teacher without knowing how to help you adapt to your own physique and musical personality.

A really good teacher would have the detailed technical insights you will find in, say, Simon Fischer's Basics and The Violin Lesson, and the skill to work from that foundation to help you find solutions that work for your own unique make-up. I understand that Galamian and DeLay focused strongly on helping students find their own solutions rather than imposing a preconceived approach.

If I was to take on a new teacher I would ask to observe a lesson with a student of around my own level, as others have suggested, and watch how they handle both interpretation and technical issues. I would be looking for someone with an insight into the music, and an ability to help students diagnose and solve the technical points that arise during the lesson.

If I was still interested I would pay for a trial lesson and ask the teacher to evaluate my technique and prioritise what they felt were my key issues moving forward. I would then ask them to outline the approach they would take over the next few months in terms of exercises, studies and repertoire, and explain the reasoning behind it.

Personally I would walk away from any teacher who couldn't demonstrate these skills. I would prefer to invest the money and time in working with the best self-teaching resources. If you can't find the right teacher locally, there is always the option of internet lessons with someone really good like our own Nathan Cole. The best teachers are expensive, but I would much rather invest my budget in occasional lessons with a teacher with proven insights into technique, repertoire and practice skills rather than regular lessons with someone who doesn't have a clear understanding of how to help me progress. "Just practice harder" doesn't really cut it...

July 5, 2016 at 10:46 AM · Geoff - pretty sensible advice. (Demonstration is useful but as you say, some teachers help students find their own solutions - which I think makes them amongst the best teachers).

(But this is only my own personal view).

July 5, 2016 at 11:31 AM · OP: if you have options, make a change. You need a better deal from a teacher, any teacher.

You would be a gifted and very advanced student indeed if your teacher did not have to demonstrate passages, whole etudes, etc to you, had no need to observe your mechanics, and did not see benefit in playing with you, some of the time.

I don't care if the teacher works from a shoe box, or plays a dozen instruments. But the teacher must be able to demonstrate (play on violin, in this case) how to meet the difficulties music puts before you.

The teacher should discuss (negotiate) your goals with you, set out a plan (and know and work to that plan, as the months and years unfold), and be a living part of your journey.

A violin teacher of any merit would know most or all of the books you mentioned.

On the other hand, don't be too precious (unless you are handling the executive performer repertoire). If your next teacher is skilled and plays with you and for you, (sometimes, its you who is learning and needs most air time), engages with you on your difficulties, rewards you for your successes (acknowledgement is enough from an expert), leads you with questions to develop your own problem solving (some of the time), and keeps your goals and plan in focus, then that is all you can handle. For many people, a strong player who is actually also a teacher is "all" that is necessary (not an international reputation, etc).

In your case, from what you have said, "Go, and go now".

July 5, 2016 at 02:38 PM · The teacher should be able to offer different ways to tackle a passage, from both technical and aesthetic points of view, and be able to allow for the differences in hands, shoulders etc. Not to mention minds!

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