Importance of physical contact when teaching the violin

June 10, 2017, 3:15 PM · I want to get your opinions on a topic, that occupies my brain lately.
How much of physical contact in a violin lesson is NECESSARY and how much of it is APPROPRIATE when you teach playing the violin.

I personally find, that sometimes showing a movement not only optically but through feeling and touching can be a shortcut to understanding it and not be mislead by the meaning of words or problems of understanding. Especially with very small children but also with adult beginners and persons with a bad body awareness and coordination.

The controversial discussion has been around for many years, to what extend a teacher can, should and should not touch his or her students.

How much physical contact between a student and a teacher do you find appropriate for better understanding and faster learning and do you think, that today's pedagogic is in that terms where it should be?

I will hold back my detailed opinion and thoughts and wait for some of your answers, because I don't want to lead the direction of the discussion. I am very curious, what your experiences with this are and how this topic is generally handled, where you live.

Also do you find it even an important aspect of teaching or is it to be ignored and overrated to guide the movements of a student physically?

Replies (38)

June 10, 2017, 3:35 PM · Important, but not to an extreme degree. If a beginner lacks understanding of what a smooth bow is, I see no problem with (after having asked, of course!), overlapping their hand and pulling the bow slowly as they get a feel for it.

However, I see it as limited in use for strokes like staccato, where you doing the replicating would be a bit helpful but also misleading, since each person usually has a specific way their own muscles work for strokes (particularly bouncing ones like spiccatto, ricochet etc). :)

June 10, 2017, 3:39 PM · I think it depends on the way that a student learns. I've always had a lot of difficulty translating what I might see and feel from a teacher, into my own motions. But I've seen other students for whom that works great.

I think the more subtle the motion or the more it depends on the mental frame for it, the less useful physical contact is. But for big things, especially for beginners / young children, it can be quite useful. I remember my teacher physically correcting my bow arm by putting a hand in place to stop my arm from moving the wrong direction, for instance, or re-adjusting my left-hand position.

June 10, 2017, 3:59 PM · Hahaha, I'll talk from a student perspective. As a student, I personally utterly HATE when my teacher takes my bow hand and bows up/down for me. It's so annoying and I don't usually learn nothing about bow strokes when they do that, may be because I'm blocked at the moment, hahaha. I don't care about any other thing, like putting my wrist correctly, or the fingers in the bow... but for bow strokes, I prefer to listen, see examples, explain to me what I do wrong, imitate me, etc.

About the topic itself, I think it depends, if you see the student is not making it, then you should probably move fingers and other parts of the body. I don't think Galamian touched Bell when he was a kid, I've watched videos and he was in a chair talking to Bell and explaining all the things he wanted to teach. I felt that he was a teacher that taught students how to learn by themselves, really interesting.

Edited: June 10, 2017, 9:44 PM · Well, for Glamian - I don't think he wanted to put down his cigarette to stand up or to touch anybody! In the video I've seen of Bell with Galamian, Bell was his best student in 5 videos and he did not need touching (or much teaching).

And I used to touch students when I taught (don't teach any longer) - at least in early years, but later (and especially in this century) I realized it was far more important for a teacher to observe students muscles under their skin and plan improvements based on that more than anything. Sometimes touching was still necessary, but not without first asking permission - from parents first if the students were minors.

For those who have not figured it out - there is the legal issue of "assault" here.

For straightening bowing and also adjusting the violin position relative to body, arm length, etc. those wire contraptions that confine the bow to motion relatively parallel to the bridge and over the f-holes can work wonders in a could of days without touching the student at all. This device, for example: ( http://www.sharmusic.com/Accessories/Teaching-Aids/Bow-Right-fits-3-4---4-4-size.axd#sthash.Sb3Sz9eg.dpbs ) can give the student the input for straight bowing, right hand hold, arm angles, direction to point the scroll for the week after a lesson far better than a few tugs on the arm by the teacher at the previous lesson.

The right hand has to be correct from the start or the sound will not be there. There is more time to work on the left hand and following examples of the teacher, youtube, or whatever can be useful. I think touching the left hand is annoying to the student - I think I remember that sort of thing, but I was so young (pre-K) I'm really not sure.

June 10, 2017, 4:23 PM · A.O. "I see no problem with (after having asked, of course!)"

I once heard someone say, that this what you say makes it sometimes even worse, because usually students don't even feel uncomfortable, when being touched, but find it strange, if the teacher asks, if it is o k. What do you think?

I personally think one has to be very sensitive here, because you never know, what experiences a student has had and decide from case to case with a lot of empathy and sensitivity.

But isn't it so, that physical contact can sometimes become necessary when words fail completely. The question is:
Words over physical contact, or, if proven, is it viable to do the shortcut with physical contact right away to save time? If it is ok with the student of course!

I also noticed, that for example piano teachers are usually much closer physically to their students, especially when they teach on one piano. Out of necessity of course. But how do you feel about that?

In my lessons when I was young I always found it very helpful, when my teacher showed me a movement, which I couldn't understand by word, but when I got older I was very conscious about being touched by my teacher and found it sometimes even distracting.

When I was beginning to teach I was uncomfortable with touching my students. But I learned, that some students really need those kind of guidance and when you don't physically touch them, you waste years of time talking to a wall which could be made clear very easily otherwise.

With advanced students encouraging them to experiment with their movements and find their own movements seems to me to be totally viable. But if there is a necessity I think physical contact can save you and your students so much time!
But the fact, that it can be sometimes a controversial issue seems to me that it makes teachers hesitate sometimes in cases where it would be totally fine and appropriate.

Edited: June 10, 2017, 4:35 PM · "I don't think Galamian touched Bell when he was a kid"
Yes, that is true, but his mother certainly did, and probably he wasn't practicing always alone. Many of those talented musicians had students, who practiced with them. We cannot judge from one lesson in front of the camera to how it usually went.
But yes, I think, that Galamian was more a teacher with words, but that may have been different when he was younger and more agile.
I heard from russian colleagues, that their teachers were very physical in the beginning. Also I once witnessed a lesson of a polish teacher, who was basically playing with the fingers of the young students and placing them note by note on the violin. I found that very odd! :)

Tim, I also made the observation, that some students react strangely if you attempt to touch them, some seem to get very stiff and can't give the control away, some even just drop the bow. I take that always as a sign and not try to push it more. It is very personal indeed.
Sometimes I ask them to loosen up though and some understand then, that I take care of the movement and the bow will not drop. But usually at this point the whole meaning of the physical contact becomes obsolete because the attention isn't there anymore.

June 10, 2017, 7:10 PM · In those old videos, Josh Bell was waaaaay past the point of needing a teacher to touch him. I wouldn't be touching a student at that level, either.

The younger the student and/or the less advanced, the more likely I am to touch while teaching, usually to correct a bow hold, a left wrist, or the angle of the elbow under the violin.

June 10, 2017, 8:13 PM · I'll give my input as a student as well.
The only time my teacher touches me is to correct my violin position and feel if I'm tense.
I'd feel awkward to have my teacher reaching over my hand or shoulder to help me... maybe that's just because I'm an adult and like to feel independent as well. I'd think that children require more physical help, even just to place their fingers correctly.
June 10, 2017, 9:40 PM · Simon, I didn't react weird when my teacher corrected my fingers, put my wrist straight. I didn't care if the teacher touched me, but I hated when they took my bow hand and bowed for me, it's nothing special, simply that I didn't find it helpful at all.

By the way, none of my teachers have ever asked? me if they could touch me, they did it just like that. Indeed I find it quite weird to ask that, it's just another tool, a natural method to teach.

June 10, 2017, 9:54 PM · Everyone has good points. Another group of people who need to be physically corrected more than anyone else is those with a vision impairment or other disability. Otherwise, a combination of descriptive words, visual demonstrations and physical correction are reasonable depending on differences in learning styles.
June 10, 2017, 11:14 PM · Here in France, where folks shake hands and give pecks on the cheek when they meet every day, I can still touch hands and elbows without being arrested! But I always ask ("Je peux?")

I have other ways to guess tensions:
- how white the left hand nails become while playing (a 1/16" is usually enough);
- how indented the fingertips become;
- taking the student's bow, and asking them to hold it and resist while I move it or roll it to varying degrees.
- shaking hands at the beginning of the lesson tells how sticky (slippery) their hands are: difficulty in shifting or vibrato is not always due to thumb tension.

Any other ideas?

Edited: June 11, 2017, 5:01 AM · I agree with Mary Ellen. For certain things and with students at a certain level, a certain amount of touching is necessary. Usually, even after I've done this many times, I'll ask permission. I'd prefer that a child's parents be there - if they are not disruptive.

I know that now-a-days we need to be careful but certain things just need some touch or physical adjustment. Obviously, a doctor, massage therapist, Alexander technique teacher, chiropractor etc. needs to quite a lot. Sometimes we do, too.

June 11, 2017, 6:53 AM · Raphael, chiropractors are not respected in the medical community, many doctors state that they are not professionals and that the things they do and believe are not supported neither proved by science.

So, are you telling me that in a lesson with a kid, you need to call the parents to ask them if you can touch the kid?

June 11, 2017, 8:12 AM · I personally would ask beforehand for all lessons as a catch-all, I in my 20's find it weird if a teacher does so with no warning, so what the average 5 year old think?
June 11, 2017, 8:36 AM · I try for an absolute minimum. For one thing, I'm a non-touchy guy from the midwest. My personal space approximates Class D airspace (about 4-5 nautical miles radius).

I like to use my bow to poke people. (It's the only reason I don't teach guitar...)

I'm thinking of getting one of those plastic Maui Magical fish hooks (Target, $16.99) that my 5-year-old covets, and mounting a taser on it.

June 11, 2017, 9:45 AM · I use my bow too, sometimes.
June 11, 2017, 10:00 AM · My teacher touches rarely and generally just little kids. But one time he was trying to tell me what to do with my elbow and I just wasn't getting it so he just grabbed my elbow and moved it. Sometimes it's just the most efficient way to teach.
June 11, 2017, 2:48 PM · "I like to use my bow to poke people.":D
Thank you all for your answers, I would agree that it is more often necessary with the smallest students and sometimes could be inappropriate with older ones.
I think at some age the gender plays a role too I think.
But what I think trumps it all is the intent. If the intent is to clarify something, then it should be o.k. in most cases.
Edited: June 11, 2017, 3:25 PM · Tim - do you really think it matters in our context here whether doctors respect chiroprators - or for that matter, say Swedish massage people or Shiatzu people or not? The point is that it would be laughable for someone to go to one of those people and say "don't touch me". It's intrinsically about touch in those examples. In our field it certainly is not as intrinsic but it is also a physical activity that can sometimes benefit from a hands-on adjustment.

In an ideal world where every teacher has total integrity and every student is well-balanced and would never take a right-minded adjustment the wrong way, there would be no concern. Very sadly there have been a tiny handful of teachers who have acted inappropriately and a tiny handful of students who have cried wolf where there is no wolf. A musician who is also a lawyer once advised me to always have the parents in the room with minors. I haven't always done that. I've had cases where the child actually insisted on keeping the parent out! My policy is usually to let parent and child work that out.

Where a gentle bow tap does the trick I will also do that. There have been times where a student or parent has touched ME and it really helped. One of my 9-year-old beginners has recently started to work with her 4th finger. She has a tendency to be very tense and stiff - especially with her left hand. Once, with her mother in the room, who also does some supervising of the girl's practicing, I asked the mother to gently put her fingertips on her daughter's hand as she played like she was rock climbing and then on mine as I played something similar: "OMG!" exclaimed the mother, "your fingers are like wet noodles!"

June 11, 2017, 3:50 PM · Yes, this is a good point. Sometimes things look different than they feel. Especially relaxation is sometimes hard to spot.
Edited: June 11, 2017, 5:20 PM · Oh, sorry Raphael, I didn't get your point, now I get it.

Well, I sense some phrases here are trying to bring up the sexual topic/abuse.

In what kind of society we live that we need parents to be present and watch us to get our back in case the kid/teenager wants to... demand us for touching his body during a violin lesson?

Sinking we are. It's not your fault, teachers out there. We've gone from old school days were they say teachers would hit kids to teach them, to a world where we need to ask permission to touch someone during a lesson. It's a shame.

I'm probably one of the least touchy guys in my friend circle, I shake hands and all, but don't like to touch when it's not necessary. You know and you feel when it's not necessary at all to touch. I don't have touch-fobia at all, but I respect the personal space of others. If I face a touchy person, I deal with it. It's almost always girls, but I let them be. Many would agree with me that a touchy person that constantly touches you when there's no need at all is quite annoying. Nevertheless, here we are talking about teaching violin, where posture/bow hold, etc... is essential and in that context, touching is very natural and should not be treated as a special permission request.

Only if you are "weird", I mean, you don't like to be touched in a lesson where touching is natural and totally understandable thing to do, it's you the one that should step forward and say something like:
- I'm a little sensitive about being touched, I'd like if you could explain things using just words and showing me how it's done.

Because it's you the one that is not doing the logical thing, which is accept as a totally natural and understandable thing to be touched during a violin lesson.

June 12, 2017, 12:51 AM · A student who needs their "space" (for whatever reason) will recoil if touched, and we know not to do it.

A while back, the French Minister of Education put out a directive that no teacher should touch students at all: e.g. I see teachers pulling on their clothing, but not grabbing their arm. This to avoid any doubts about intentions... Sad. Of course violin and guitar teachers were up in arms.

June 12, 2017, 4:56 AM · I'd dare to say that we live in disgusting times. That's really pathetic, Adrian, how can that even happen. The World is going bananas.
June 12, 2017, 8:10 AM · Tim, the World simply has too many lawyers!
June 12, 2017, 11:03 AM · I'd love to hear a lawyer say something like:

-Sorry, but we do not accept to study an analyse such stupid demand... a teacher touching a student during a violin lesson, my God, drama.

June 12, 2017, 11:48 AM · I read once that piano teaches get accused of inappropriate touching the most and I wonder if it's because they sometimes push down on or massage student's shoulders when they are tense. When I taught more I would use a bow to tap elbows resting on sides, lift a drooping scroll or tap the shoulders to get them to relax when they were up around the ears. The bow hold and arm are where things get a little tricky. -M
June 12, 2017, 1:02 PM · Is a ballet instructor or choreographer allowed to touch the students?
June 12, 2017, 1:33 PM · I don't know, each teacher is different, but it is as simple as understanding that getting touched in a piano, violin, oboe, triangle I dare to say, whatever instrument lesson is totally normal, comes natural when they need to correct your position, bow hold... I don't know why would anybody make such a big deal about this. Some teacher would touch, others don't, just like some teacher would teach you more baroque and others more romantic.
June 12, 2017, 2:02 PM · Simon - did some of this come up because of the issue of being trauma sensitive (especially sexual trauma, and other types of PTSD)? If so, there is a simple way to address this with the student: communication. Give the student an option to accept or reject the touch, and go from there. As a student, to the teacher, the only way is to be communicative with what is okay with you and what is not. You don't need to explain why it is not okay, you simply say so. The teacher should be empathetic and willing to work with the student.

My teacher touches me from time to time. I don't mind.

June 13, 2017, 8:40 AM · Well there may be too many lawyers in the world, but it is fair to say there are too many perverts too. Fortunately they do not seem to be attracted to violin-teaching as a career. Every music teacher I've *ever* had has been extremely professional in this regard.

When I was taking piano lessons back in Evanston in the early 1990s, my teacher (Jack Hubble) required his students to bring a blank cassette tape to every lesson. He'd pop it into a little tape recorder that sat on top of the piano. Then in the middle of the week you could listen to it again -- that was the point. I did that many times and I still have the tapes!

If I were teaching seriously (like, for a living), I would do the same thing but with a video camera mounted on a tripod in the corner of my studio. Then require each student to bring to the lesson a blank SD card to pop into the camera so that every lesson would be recorded. Those things are pretty cheap now.

June 13, 2017, 3:14 PM · Pamela: Why I posted that question was mainly to get opinions about the necessity of touching in a violin lesson. But on that regard of being "trauma sensitive" I know that I had students in the past, who had that kind of problems. I teach around 80 kids and teenagers each week so the possibility is high, that there are some, who we sometimes never know, why they react different to touching (from a man). Some strong signals I can talk with social workers from the school about and did so in the past, but it is not often so specific. Usually the social workers already know about the students problems and usually there is not much a school can do, when things have gone wrong at home.
We just can be there being communicative as you say. Between colleagues and also as far as appropriate to the student and family as well.
But when I sense a small touching phobia of a student I don't panic right away and sometimes I ask the student directly, if he is uncomfortable with me touching him/her. If I ask a "yes" or "no" question, it is usually for a student pretty easy to be honest and straight to the point. I mean, I can teach also with words only and did that for many years, because in the beginning when I started teaching I was very young and I was touch sensitive myself. It is just good to know if there is a barrier like that between the student and you or not.
When the students get older and when they are girls I don't dare to touch them anyways, also there is not much need to do so, when they can follow clear verbal instructions.

One other reason why I asked this question is, because I encounter on my YouTube channel more and more visitors, that learned just via Internet... and some very successfully. So I thought it maybe could be a lack of verbal communication skills when a teacher feels the need to physically correct a student. But as we already worked out this is a different story with differently aged students and sometimes a very personal question.

Paul: That is a great idea in any case! I think of it this way:
- good=writing down what the teacher says in the lesson
- better=recording the audio of the lesson to revisit at any time (I wish I had done that with some of my lessons as a student!!!)
- the best=recording audio and video

That way teachers can make sure the students doesn't "forget" things. The student can learn much better and the parents will also know what goes on in the lesson.
It is a great Idea to have the camera ready set and have the students bring SD cards! That would be something for a private teaching studio in the future. At the moment I am at different schools.

June 13, 2017, 5:02 PM · Simon yes it's really for the private studio.
June 14, 2017, 5:17 AM · Well, I think this question can be asked from 3 points of view:

1. I want to teach via Internet and I won't be able to correct posture, fingers and bow hand physically.

2. I want to know if good teachers correct physically the student's posture and fingers/wrist... or if they only use words because is not good from a teaching point of view to correct yourself a student's bad posture (not because something else, AKA abuse, trauma...)

3. Abuse and trauma

The first 2 points have been discussed here. I think it's up to the teacher if he/she wants to touch the student to correct wrist angle, fingers, back, shoulders... If I were a teacher, I'm quite positive I would correct myself the wrist, fingers on the bow, elbow touching the body, etc... Hecks, I'm sure I've touched students in my math lessons when I was teaching how to plot equations. It was maybe 1% of the lesson when I "needed" to show them physically (not in the paper) a concept, and sometimes this would include "touching" the student, for example arms being axis, and they would get it instantly. You know, touch is one of the 5 senses, and it's just another source/way of learning, and for example, I've found very helpful sometimes that in math lessons, where it's always a lesson on a paper, if you think "outside the box" and try to teach a concept not using a piece of paper but using your hands or objects around (this is when "touching" the student may happen), the students react very well, as they can actually feel and see the concept right in front of their eyes.

This is an instrument lesson, this is practice, it's all about physical contact, you're holding an instrument, so EXPECT to be touched if the teacher feels it's going to help you get his/her point easier. No big deal, some teachers will correct your wrist by moving it themselves, others will tell you to put your wrist right instead of curved. I've had 3 different teachers since I started, all of them corrected my bow hold (fingers) physically. All of them touched my hands, corrected my wrist too, etc. As I said, no big deal, it shouldn't be even discussed if it's appropriate or not to touch a student that is learning to play an instrument, from the "respect point of view" I really think it's a very dumb question.

Actually, one of my former teachers (a woman) asked me the first day that if it's OK if she touches me. I almost felt offended by the question. She was trying to be nice, and she was a nice teacher, but it's sad that she felt the need to ask. After listening to my answer ("What?! Of course you can, what the..."), she noticed that I thought the question was really stupid, and at the end of the lesson she told me that she had to sign a paper before giving lessons (it was in a music school) accepting that she was not going to abuse sexually or physically any student. Pathetic.

The 3rd point is an exception, if I ever feel that when I touch a student (never ever has happened to me), he reacts badly, I'll try not to touch him again since that makes him feel uncomfortable. But this is due to a bad experience in the past, or just a weird personality. Fortunately it's not the case in the vast majority of students.

June 14, 2017, 7:38 AM · Coming from a purely practical standpoint touching is simply another method to show how to do something. I see it as no more or no less valuable than any other way. Different people learn in different ways.

We are talking about only touching arms and hands here. I fail to see how this could be a conflict unless the student is uncomfortable.

My teacher uses some touching to help me understand how to do certain things. I have never had a problem with it. If anything, I would think the discomfort would be more on her since she is female. She has no problem with it and I suspect this is the way she was taught. It has really helped me grasp certain concepts.

If I were a teacher OTOH I would likely say something like " Do you mind if I show you how to hold the bow?". of " If you don't mind I'm going to position your fingers so you can see how this is done"or " would it help if I show you how to do this?"

While I think it makes sense to be sensitive to others, I believe this can go too far the other way and paranoia can develop.

June 14, 2017, 11:23 AM · Exactly Timothy - if you were the teacher with a new student, you could simply ask "do you mind if" (or announce) that you were going to correct the bow hold and so on.

There definitely can be a hyper-sensitivity that bridges into paranoia.

June 14, 2017, 2:17 PM · I agree Pamela and Timothy. If a student needs me to physically correct them, I ask and try to word it carefully. "I will need to move your elbow to it's correct position, is that okay?" is a lot better than "do you mind if I touch you?". I've never had a problem.
June 15, 2017, 3:29 AM · I wonder how teachers like Luis Persinger, the teacher of Yehudi Menuhin and Rugiero Ricci, taught in that regard and in general. I think he must have had a special way to teach besides great ability on the instrument and a great personality. Having so young children play as advanced as they did. Quite something
July 1, 2017, 8:22 AM · It's not just about abuse triggers. There's all kinds of reasons for people to avoid touch, includes cultural things like coming from a non-physical family.

If you have students - especially children - on the autism spectrum, they'll either respond badly to being touched in a my way at all (may not even want you standing close) or love being touched and possibly cuddle up inappropriately. Parents or schools should let you know about this so you can check. Adults will generally let you know if there's a problem and are usually okay if you explain why touch is necessary.

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