Thoughts on private violin pedagogy vs. public school pedagogy

September 5, 2006 at 06:53 AM · There has been some discussion about the disconnect between public school violin pedagogy and "private violin lesson pedagogy" (Suzuki or traditional). I'm curious to hear what private violin teachers have to say about public school teaching. Public school teachers, what do you think the private teaching world should know about child development, public school pedagogy and teaching in general? I straddle the two worlds, so I have a dog on each side.

Replies (26)

September 5, 2006 at 11:58 AM · I've screwed it up on both sides, so I at least have a sense of how difficult it is.

I'll say this: Regardless of the nature or even quality of instruction, motivated music students find whatever way they can to get ahead in whatever situation they're in.

Times are also changing with the ever increasing amount of informational material that exists outside the classroom or studio - being a phenomenal source for any violinist at any level.

September 5, 2006 at 02:05 PM · I'm the product of public school lessons only (until recently), as is my oldest son (tenor sax) youngest son has a year of band and will be starting private trombone lessons this daughter (oboe/piano) does public and private...

There are too many students for the public school teachers to teach effectively - and the ones that take up their time are the 'squeaky wheels' that inevitably don't stick with the program and will drop out when something better comes along (with exceptions) such as dating - so the 'gifted' kids loose out on instruction...BUT they gain in learning to play/deal with a group...

..however, the kids that loose out the most are the ones that were like me - quiet in personality, plenty of desire and drive, but with little natural ability. Without private lessons (my parents couldn't afford them) we can't keep up and eventually we drop out...

...private lessons are essential for individual development, but again, private teachers are overwhelmed with individuals' needs and the group effort rarely materializes...a yearly recital - even if it does get students together to play as a group, isn't enough...

I maintain that to be a fully rounded player you need both...

September 5, 2006 at 02:18 PM · Kevin, you're very right about the amount of information available outside the classroom. I spent some time looking at clips of famous violinists on The ability to see ten or fifteen great violinists and how they play without even leaving your home is just amazing to me. When I was first learning violin, most folks didn't even have a video cassette player, so if you wanted to see (as opposed to just hear) great violin playing, you were at the mercy of the local concert venue.

September 5, 2006 at 03:19 PM · All true, Howard.

Records and books and Strad magazine have been around for the last 100 years. That's how I learned then, and that's how I continue to learn. We also had another resource back then that players today don't have in as much quantity nor accessibility: retired older generation violin masters who had trained in the pre-WWII era.

When I was a young boy and didn't know anything about violin, one of those masters found me and completely changed the course of my career. He had played with Mantovani, did Radio City, and freelanced all over the world. Today we are as close as ever, and his advice has never failed me. I have known several other older generation violinists like that who were more than willing to share their lifetime of experience, and I NEVER closed my ears to them just because they were "old". Last week, I found a guy who had studied with Cecile Hansen! Obviously I'll be picking his brain.

One of the most educational books I ever read was Louis Lochner's biography on Fritz Kreisler. Where did I find that book? Buried deep in the stacks of my high school library. So forgotten was that book that on a whim I did something I never did before or since: I STOLE the book and brought it home. I don't have it anymore, but it was incredibly educational.

Being in public school forced me out of the classical violin box into other realms of music. That has been my saving grace over the years, not being JUST a classical violinist.

I used to have weekly lessons at Margaret Pardee's house. She was a great teacher yes, but listening to the students that came before and after me was just as educational as the lesson itself. But the best part was her IMMENSE library that rivalled Juilliard's. For years, I would sit in that basement library of hers and read all of her literature and borrow all of her LPS. Meanwhile, photos of Heifetz and Persinger and Galamian glowered down at me - not to mention Mrs. Pardee herself.

As a student violinist in Juilliard, I would go up to the library to hear things. That is how I got to hear Szeryng play a fabulous Symanowski #2, Rosand do his Spanish Dances (that were reissued about 10 years ago), and Michael Rabin do his since venerated "In Memoriam" album. I also was startled later to hear how different CDs of the same LPs I was listening to sounded - I vastly preferred the realistic analog sound of the LPs. Also, Juilliard had an impressive literature collection that even I never got to fully explore.

I'm very fortunate to have had both public school and conservatory training, but I have attended neither in 15 years. Yet today, I'm just as eager to learn new stuff as I was then. My latest mentor is one of our own members (to remain anonymous, at least temporarily), and I've learned as much from him about the violin than I have from my best mentors. This man said it best: "There's so much to be learned that isn't immediately visible if one goes mining for it"

In summary, my belief is that there's great stuff to be learned all over the place - more now than ever before.

September 5, 2006 at 03:17 PM · Kevin,

Good point. All I meant is that this generation has a lot more access to life-like, more-or-less unfiltered performances than we did. I agree with you though, that "working musician" models are in short supply. Imagine if the only way you could learn plumbing was to watch old videos!! There's nothing like being around the actual practice of a field, in all it's sloppiness and undefined, unsystematized glory.

There was an episode of Star Trek in which somebody managed to migrate their personality into a special type of computer. After that compter broke or whatever, the same information was "downloaded" into a "regular computer". All the character's personality was encoded in the "regular computer" but only as a set of static rules and data files. The episode made clear that the poor guy was dead despite the high fidelity of the information stored in the "regular computer" as compared to the "special computer". I think we have something like that going on in higher education- lots of fidelity, lots of rules, but the context and spirit of the thing is easily lost without access to the people who actually ply the trade and the situations in which they worked.

Hope this makes sense... I'm on my lunch break and thinking/typing quickly...


September 5, 2006 at 11:19 PM · People are more important than programs. You can be right in your programs, but if you treat people poorly, you're wrong altogether. Is that what you're getting at, Howard?

Oh, I just read your post again, and I guess you were kind-of getting at something else, but I hope it's okay for me to mention this anyway: Generally, I think the most successful public school programs are built by people who are genuinely interested in people. It doesn't necessarily (although it's helpful) take a musical genius to run a good school program.

I love what Kevin had to say about his education. I think that puts a perspective on the ways a motivated student can find the resources he/she needs.

In my experience, the most successful teachers are consumed with people, not programs. A wise teacher I know put it best: Don't teach the lesson, teach the students.

I think that's true for public teaching and private teaching, and every teaching. I find when I don't concern myself with teaching the child, the lesson, whatever it might have been, isn't learned.

Sorry, Howard, I'm afraid I'm off topic.

September 5, 2006 at 10:59 PM · I teach orchestra in the public schools and I'm also adjunct violin faculty at the local university. I need to say, honestly, teaching orchestra is the easy part of my public school job. The difficult parts of teaching are the things not associated with the music, such as Fund Raisers, field trips, PTA meetings, IEP meetings, teachers meetings, contest paperwork... That's the hard part.

If you know your stuff (the music) and you have a personality that clicks with the students, you're about 25% perpared to teach in the public schools. The other 75% is the stuff they don't teach you in college.

September 5, 2006 at 10:44 PM · Strategies for public school string teaching vs private teaching are different by necessity and will vary greatly depending on the community in which you teach. Either can be successful, although the emphasis in a classroom setting is different than in the one-on-one setting. Before you can even get to your basic nuts & bolts of string pedagogy, you have to deal with tremendous variables. You may have students using school owned instruments that may have ancient strings or need some adjustment that cannot be done do to budget constraints. Your district may expect your program to have large numbers, regardless if that is the ideal learning environment. If it is an elementary pullout class, you need the support of the classroom teachers, or your best efforts are thwarted. At Middle and High School levels, your choices of literature may be bound by requirements of your state music association. Students often have the opportunity to audition for more select groups, but unless they get some one-on-one instruction, they may not develop a high level of skill-there are exceptions, of course (myself as an example!) Despite some of the limits of in school instruction, there are some advantages too. You may have daily contact with a student, so there are more opportunities to reinforce basic concepts. Students trained in groups usually develop good rhythmic skills & sight reading ability. You also will reach some students who would otherwise have no access to music instruction. The advantage to the private lesson (besides the avoidance of endless meetings about lunch detention, AYP,NCLB, etc.) is that it can be tailored exactly to each individual, and you have a say in who you teach. Serious private students can of course reach advanced levels of playing, but you will also have students who can make time stand still. Ideally, a student who takes both privately and and participates in a school group/youth orchestra will be a more well rounded musician. Different teachers may have an affiinity for certain age groups or settings, and the goal should be excellent training whatever the situation. I am a conservatory trained musician, and I freelanced and taught privately for many years before going into public school teaching. I tend to have a foot in all camps, as I like all aspects of teaching & performing. When performers, teachers & the community work together, the results can be amazing.

September 5, 2006 at 11:29 PM · Great discussion!

A while back I really felt that I was not cut out for public school teaching exactly because of the things people have already mentioned.

I realized that in a public school setting, the bulk of one's time and energy has to be spent on things that are NOT music: paperwork, fundraising, parents, administrators, classroom management and so forth. I have the highest admiration for public school music teachers who are really capable and passionate with what they do-- I think they are doing a tremendous thing for kids and for their commmunities, who would otherwise have no exposure to music.

In private lessons, on the other hand, I think the teacher is able to spend a much greater proportion of the time actually teaching violin playing.

Probably the ideal music education for a child would be in a community music school or conservatory prep program, where the child receives private lessons but also has access to theory, history, and musicianship courses, Alexander technique or Dalcroze, chamber music, orchestra, and ongoing recital opportunities. Sadly, programs like this are only accessible to families that can afford them, or to students who are lucky enough to be discovered, or talented enough win scholarships.

Public school music teachers are trying to provide a basic level of music instruction to every child. Many of them have to make do with shoestring budgets, unfair expectations, and lack of appreciation from a culture that doesn't value music (except as a halftime show for the football game). Hats off to them!

September 6, 2006 at 03:24 AM · Nathan Milstein said it best: "You can't teach everything . . . and if somebody doesn't know what invention means, he should stop violin playing".

September 6, 2006 at 01:19 PM · I've been thinking a lot about my own question... For me, the biggest difference between what I do at school and what I do in my private studio is that, at school, there is the overwhelming sense that the structure around me is not in place to help but is somehow my adversary. It seems like most teachers feel this, even the regular classroom teachers. There are many, many, many rules and situations which get in the way of efficient teaching and one is constantly fighting for access to materials, time and even students. The worst thing though, is that this is seen as being inevitable, "just the way it is". The school, apparently, has it's own agenda as an organization that differs significantly from it's stated mission to educate children. I am reminded of the musicians union that I belonged to that, against the wishes of many of it's members, caused a strike against the local symphony. It was clear in that situation that the union had a publicity agenda that was somewhat at odds with the mission to protect it's constituent workers. It had, in effect, a life of it's own that superseded the needs of the workers who created it. I think the schools operate in much the same way and with a similar disconnect between agenda and mission.

In my private studio though, everything exists for the sole purpose of teaching as much as is possible. Yes, I suppose you could say that my agenda is a little different from the mission of the studio in that I want to make money, make a reputation etc. but this agenda is still more consonant with the mission of the studio than the school's agenda is to it's mission.

September 6, 2006 at 02:19 PM · The fact you're even noticing that marks you as a good teacher, Howard.

I'm sure that your students know too, and they sympathize. Besides, good students will find a way to excel under your tutelage no matter how bad the situation is.

September 6, 2006 at 07:56 PM · Well said, Kevin. As a private teacher, I think it's highly important for me to encourage my students to join orchestra in school.

High School Orchestra was difficult for me to support because it was social suicide. When I was a senior, I decided "enough is enough" and I designed a T-shirt for the Orchestra (all the cool clubs in school had shirts) and we made a "Marching Orchestra" for the Homecoming parade--the guys were so embarassed to be in it (but they loved me, so they did it anyway) that they wore nylons over their heads--which actually made us cooler, and we had a great time. I spent tons of hard hours working to make a difference. I could see I was in a situation that wasn't going to change unless I did something. So, for my senior year, I had the Orchestra experience I wanted.

Sad to say, the orchestra teacher didn't run with that increased momentum and has lost support from the community for his program. When he retires, they will most likely cut the Orchestra program entirely (they've already cut the grade school program).

Anyway, I can tell you're one of those who wants to make a difference and the administration is getting in the way, and that must be incredibly frustrating. But, thanks for fighting the good fight.

You put your dilemma extremely well, and I can see that playing out in my Orchestra teacher friends' experiences. I think, in large part, "forces combine" as an enemy to effective teaching in a public school setting. So, I guess that defines the game you play as a public school teacher. I know you'll figure a way around all that. You'll find your allies--kids who're leaders, parents who want to be involved, black-market music . . . you know, your standard orchestral espionage tactics.

Let us know what you discover in the process, and hooray for you! Keep going. We need you. Never say die.

September 6, 2006 at 05:39 PM · Kim, that's COOL!

You are the exact type of student who'll go the extra distance I was talking about. I hope other kids follow your lead!

September 6, 2006 at 08:17 PM · Howard,

The observation you mention is the very reason I was not able to use my education degree for public school teaching. A good teacher can find a way to teach in spite the system, and unfortunately I couldn't. It really got to me. Loved the kids, hated the school's beaurocracy.

(Some of it--the stuff I wouldn't put up with--was stupid really, like manditory after school board meetings that had absolutely nothing to do with me. I would get up to use the restroom and not return.)

The main issues that hamstring private lessons:

-student apathy

-parents with sudden personal issues from week to week which terminate the scheduled lesson

-placing every other extra-curricular activity of "multitalented" child in front of lessons and practice time

-high school jobs/help with family business

-failure to buy needed materials

-lack of parental guidance/enforcement

-teacher inflexibility (inability to see and meet individual needs)

Just a few off the top of my head.


September 6, 2006 at 11:28 PM · Gee, I'm starting to get another picture--Emily, I'm sure things must've been pretty yucky to drive you away! Tragic.

It must take a Herculean effort to work around the system . . . otherwise I'm sure you would have done it--Emily, you're like Lara Croft, in a violinistic sort-of way, you're a rebel with an important cause, a maverick of strings . . . so what is going on in these schools?!?!

Maybe we need to explore more aggressive tactics, espionage, covert operations, etc.. Maybe we could encrypt . . .

Oh, yeah, your list of dislikes in the private teaching category is dittoed by me.

September 6, 2006 at 11:20 PM · my friend teaches in public schools and also privately. i've heard a lot of different stories on either side.

kevin's right...a motivated student will always find a way through. having said that, anyone who really wants to conquer the violin must eventually find their way to a private teacher.

September 6, 2006 at 11:45 PM · Laura Croft? Ha, stop it, you're making me laugh and it's making my migraine pound.

September 7, 2006 at 12:43 AM · I am a parent of a violin student, and I am guilty of what Emily listed about private lesson parents. Not because my daughter is multitalented but to fit in in her school, she has to pull her own weight in sports and qualify for a team. She is 12 years old, and they are all into establishing pecking orders at this time of their development, right or wrong.

For her sport last year, there were twice as many kids as there was space for them. Before I knew what it would be like during the first week of school when they try out for a team, I had scheduled for a violin lesson. We kept the lesson, but she was very out of shape. The teacher, locally fairly well known violinist, told us that it would be her last lesson for a while. Her teacher is a wonderful person but seemed not to understand the life of an ordinary middle school kid. The teacher has taken her back recently, and all is well now.


September 7, 2006 at 04:14 AM · "-teacher inflexibility (inability to see and meet individual needs)"

This one is an important one on the teacher's behalf. I've never fired a student yet, partly because I know I should give them the benefit of the doubt whenever I can. I understand that life happens outside the violin lesson, too. It's funny though: a lot more of life seems to happen to the same people again and again. It's pretty easy to tell the difference between exceptions and habits when it comes to excuses.

September 7, 2006 at 04:29 AM · Hi

I recently went and saw a teacher that is considered one of the best in the nation (the midwest mostly, the nation as far as I know). She had a couple of guidelines to be her student, one involving dedication. She told me this, in a nutshell:

In life, we all have some sort of goal, we all aspire to be something greater. And in order to do this, we must be the best at what we do at that certain moment, or whenever. Whether or not you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a businessman when you become older, your job right now is playing the violin, and you must treat it as a JOB, something you enjoy of course, but still a JOB.

I am a high school student (a middle school student just a couple of years ago), so I sympathize with the above poster's daughter, but I still agree with what the teacher did. I'm sure she did understand and she probably wanted you daughter to put violin as first priority, so that it shouldn't be brushed aside for sports - sports should be brushed aside for it.

I'm sorry if I'm out of line, but I would just like to comment on this issue, because this teacher motivated me in a huge way to work harder on the violin.

September 7, 2006 at 06:47 AM · But why should sports be brushed aside for the violin? Is the violin ultimately superior? Or is that an individual choice? Some people would rather be the best at soccer and play violin recreationally, and vice versa. And they will probably do both recreationally in the end, anyway.

September 7, 2006 at 11:32 AM · Bobby - Some kids learn better when praised than punished. But I learned the lesson; When in doubt, I adjust the lesson schedule. I don't see it sports vs. violin. I see it more of an effort to carve out her place in their micro society of school that healthy kids get into.

Emily - I think her teacher wanted her to choose violin for profession not recreation. That would be nice, but she is too young in my opinion to choose a career and systematically work for it, not with her temprament anyway. I am just trying to keep her options open if and when she chooses to be a violinist. I am sure you are a much more flexible teacher.


September 7, 2006 at 04:28 PM · Perhaps she was demanding because she saw great potential in your child. It can be frustrating for me as a teacher to invest a great deal of care in getting a student set up to succeed only to watch them move onto something else, even though they possess great talent.

...Oh gosh, now I understand!

September 7, 2006 at 05:39 PM · It depends on the teacher, but I think it is reasonable to ask to move lessons if the teacher is given enough notice. However, it's unfair to the teacher to call up a few minutes before the lesson time to reschedule, or worse yet, after the lesson (not having shown up) to reschedule. I doubt anyone on this forum is guilty of this. It's incredibly frustrating for teachers though because it shows a complete lack of respect for the teacher and the teacher's time. One of the problems I've noticed here in America is that there does seem to be less respect for music teachers, as if it somehow isn't a "real" job. It's a wonderfully rewarding one, but it's demanding, and requires more training than doctors even (I doubt doctors do not start their training between the ages of 3 and 6!) This isn't accross the board, but it is a common attitude I've found. Music teachers are often viewed more as hired help than as a qualified master of their instrument worthy of respect. I do wonder why this is.


September 7, 2006 at 08:17 PM · Sorry, I aced myself out. That was harsher than I wanted it to sound.

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