Violin Lesson

Edited: July 31, 2018, 2:16 PM · Hi all,

I would like to ask about how lessons are, according to your experience as a teacher or as a student, structured and paced, the latter touching on the density of material taught within one lesson.

I've had different experiences wherein with one teacher, I would play, say, one whole etude while the teacher gives corrections here and there until the end. Same with a musical piece. With another teacher, I would play a part of the etude until the teacher stops me and then we work on a few very fundamental things. The teacher would assign a few different bowing and exercises to tackle my problems. One etude can then be turned into more than one etude. The teacher did not see that it was worth waiting for the end of the etude given that my problems were self perpetuating; he wanted to use the hour is a more efficient way.

I find this latter way much more dense and gives me more material to work on. I don't have the time during the week to look through different books for exercises or what not.
The point of the lesson becomes not to play the whole etude (with the repetition of the same fundamental errors and erroneous habits) with intermittent corrections, but rather to use the lesson as a diagnosis/prescriptive hour that fills up the next week.

I have had a few teachers who will say: "you have a problem here and a problem there, you can fix it that way" but will not provide dedicated exercises to tackle these problems, thinking that these would be resolved within the practice of the etude or musical piece on hand, or that somehow, with time and practice, proper technique will sort of sediment.

I wonder how you as teachers and as students view the violin lesson, how you see it is best to be as efficient as possible within its limited time.

Replies (19)

July 31, 2018, 2:40 PM · The structure and pacing of lessons changed over my childhood, both to accommodate a child's attention span, as well as the length of lesson, complexity of material, and the amount of material covered.

At an advanced level (both as a teenager and as an adult), the structure and pacing of a lesson varies from week to week, depending on the material, its current state of preparation, and probably my degree of focus and concentration.

Historically with etudes in particular, the first couple of measures are usually a pretty decent indication of whether or not I've managed to learn the skill being taught, or at least have made reasonable progress towards doing so. Once the basic skill is learned, then the rest of the etude is worth looking at -- i.e., particularly challenging bits, trickier variants on the skill, and so forth.

A big exception: If the student can't be trusted to learn the notes (and rhythms) correctly. In that case, the teacher needs to hear the entire thing in order to correct careless errors (or various cognitive errors that the student has missed).

For me, a lesson is good if I received assistance with something I couldn't have easily noticed/corrected myself, and/or if I received a new skill or insight. When I was younger, "what to do next week" was also helpful, but at this point I have a clear enough idea of what I need to do to not need that as much, plus I don't have enough time to do everything I need to. (However, it can still be very useful to know what to focus on this week.)

July 31, 2018, 4:25 PM · I suppose those different styles reflect different goals that teachers might set themselves.

The "stop at a problem and work on it" approach is primarily about technical skills (and hence appropriate in etudes). The other style--allowing a whole piece (or movement) to be played through--is a more holistic and more musically (as opposed to technically) focussed approach.

So the "ideal" teacher will use both methods depending on the situation.

We should never lose sight of the fact that technique is a means to an end, namely music making, and not an end in itself. Given how hard and complex the technique is it is easy to overfocus on it (especially if you are going for repertoire that stretches your limits). So I like at least a good deal of the second approach. And anyway, playing a piece all the way through is a skill that also must be learned; I remember that it took quite some time for me to play through an etude without interrupting myself.

Edited: July 31, 2018, 6:28 PM · Even though I'm not half the violinist, my experience lesson-wise has been essentially the same as Lydia's. I think a young teenager might think their week's effort was wasted if their professor does not hear the whole of their etude, even though, as the OP noted, that's usually pointless.

With repertoire I am in the driver's seat, so to speak. If I've worked mostly on the last page of something that week, then I'm not starting on the first page because chances are we might not even get to what I worked on.

And very often during the week I'll get the idea that I need help with some very specific issue, such as "vibrato in double stops, especially thirds." And I'll find something to work on for a few days that requires that issue (such as Beethoven G Major Romance Op. 40), and I'll bring that to my lesson. I'm trying to prepare a recital so I'm cycling through a lot of material (of which the Beethoven is one).

Sometimes also I've been working on a movement of music for my trio and I'll ask for advice on fingerings, articulations, and style.

I'll never forget the lesson I had after I had been working on Fischer "Scales" when I just bought the book. Fischer explains how to change strings cleanly and I sort of knew that but I decided to work very hard on it. I spent a little time in my lesson showing off what I learned, and then opened up some repertoire piece. About 30 seconds in, there was a scale-like passage that wasn't clean, and my teacher stopped me and said, "Paul, you know, you could use what you learned [from Fischer]." As usual, he nailed it.

Edited: July 31, 2018, 7:08 PM · For me as a student, the best lesson is one that is densely packed with problem identification and solving moments. Running through a whole piece is useful only when the piece is learned and ready for performance, otherwise, it's not a good way to spend precious lesson time. I had a teacher in the past did that to me. I never understood why she did that way.

A good teacher teaches you how to teach yourself; i.e., she/he should demonstrate to you how, or at least help you to learn to identify problems and how to fix them so that when you can help yourself when you practices on your own. In this sense, I consider a good lesson is like a really good guided practice, and as Lydia pointed out, without such guide, I wouldn't notice the issues and their causes, and/or wouldn't know how to fix them, now, in a timely manner. (As a student, we usually have a lot of issues could be dealt with, so it's a matter of choice what are the most important issues to be dealt with during each lesson/practice session and that choice might require certain skills and experience that a student doesn't have).

OP wrote:
I have had a few teachers who will say: "you have a problem here and a problem there, you can fix it that way" but will not provide dedicated exercises to tackle these problems, thinking that these would be resolved within the practice of the etude or musical piece on hand, or that somehow, with time and practice, proper technique will sort of sediment.

Some teachers like to assign etudes to fix problems, some don't. For adult learners, the latter make more sense to me. The most important thing for progress is awareness -- knowing an issue in the right context, once pointed out, adults can be trusted to be mindful of these problems to work in the context and progress bits by bits this way. Etudes and scales are like gym workout, very important, but they are not quick fix for fundamental problems.

Edited: August 1, 2018, 8:09 AM · Yixi wrote, "I consider a good lesson is like a really good guided practice." I was so glad to read that, because I have one piano student and this approach consumes most of his lesson time.

"Etudes and scales are like gym workout..." That's a good description and I find they're still valuable for me, because sometimes you want to feel like you're getting the workout when you're practicing at 10 PM and it's been a long day. But see the point, which is that once one develops enough maturity and discipline, the hard passages in one's repertoire become the etudes. My sense is that this starts to happen for most violinists when they reach their late teens. Do conservatory professors still assign etudes? Or do they mostly expect that you've done them all already?

Edited: August 1, 2018, 8:56 AM · An complete etude won't fix a problem unless it's basic technical content have been addressed point by point. It may increase stamina and concentration, or the other hand it may deaden awareness and confirm our shortcomings.

Playing through an etude - or any other composition - should allow us to bring forth its musical form and content once the basic techniques have been assimilated.

And many conservatoire teachers (at least, here in France) give only etudes, with "real" music as a tiresome distraction..

Edited: August 1, 2018, 2:48 PM · In most cases my lessons have been the same up until recently. My teacher tells me to play something from memory and I begin the piece. Then she stops me with a word of technical advice. The last lesson involved relaxation techniques in loosening the shoulder/arm muscles and right hand/arm. I'm so glad she seen this and pointed it out because it gave me something to focus on and it has REALLY helped my playing.I also played a tune or two.

This is mostly how my lessons go: I play a part of something and my teacher tells me something to correct.I like this approach.

More recently as a part of my lesson the teacher lets me play the tune all the way through. Comments on playing a tune all the way through have been centered around the feel of the music with respect to timing which has less to do with minute technical instruction.Giving the tune a vibe.

Edited: August 2, 2018, 5:02 PM · Lydia: "Historically with etudes in particular, the first couple of measures are usually a pretty decent indication of whether or not I've managed to learn the skill being taught, or at least have made reasonable progress towards doing so. Once the basic skill is learned, then the rest of the etude is worth looking at -- i.e., particularly challenging bits, trickier variants on the skill, and so forth. "

I think that's a really clear conception of a methodical and efficient manner of teaching of the etude. And having experienced the "play the whole etude" approach no matter what, I find this approach more efficient and wastes less time. Of course I do not think that teachers who ask that the etude be played in its entirety, even though its mired with fundamental problems, are doing so malignly but it seems to be an accepted tradition of sorts. Like Yixi , it also puzzles me why do so.

Albrecht,in the absence of good technique, good music making is impossible. As such, it is not just that it is a means to an end, it is a necessary means, even part and parcel of the end. Can you really draw a line between music making and the technique that allows it? Honestly I cant play a baroque piece with plenty of martelé strokes nicely if I havent worked, repetitively and methodically, on whole bow and partial bow martelé strokes, controlling the bow direction and contact with the strings, discovering what the arm does in the process.

Yixi: "A good teacher teaches you how to teach yourself; i.e., she/he should demonstrate to you how, or at least help you to learn to identify problems and how to fix them so that when you can help yourself when you practices on your own."

Yixi, I am not so sure here. It is somewhat of a good motto that a good teacher teaches you how to teach yourself but Im not sure that can be made into a general principle. There are so many intricacies in violin playing, many of which are too subtle to be observed by the non expert eye, that I would say that 'teaching a student to teach oneself' is not a reliable motto. in my opinion a good teacher is one who is able to diagnose the problem, give a clear explanation and offer effective remedies that aim at inculcating good/proper habits, and the remedies are often quite banal (in the sense that they are quite physical or process based: dont raise your wrist too much, try putting your finger here not there, do this bow division exercise at this metronome marking, etc. these remedies are not usually obvious to the student.

I agree that adults we shouldnt need to be reminded so often not to repeat a certain mistake or erroneous habit, but I would actually suggest that kids, being more malleable, might actually have an easier time being moulded in their playing than an adult. Hence my interest in finding what makes for an efficient teaching method/lesson. Is it simply enough to go through an etude or a piece and give singular advice here and there without the benefit of having worked -in a dedicated, repetitive (which does not mean absent minded) and methodical manner- on exercises and etudes that target the techniques being employed.


Of course I also recognise, as Lydia stated above, that it is highly dépendent on the level of the students skill and requirement. My personal concern is of course on those earlier stages of basic technique building and consolidation.

August 2, 2018, 5:39 PM · Adrain, how to these teachers get by without assigning any musical pièces to their students and only etudes?

Paul Deck, that would be at an Advanced stage of playing, and would goes back to Lydia's point about the nature of the lesson being dependant on the level of the student. but even at that Advanced stage, professionals still practice their scales and Advanced etudes tailored to tackle the challenges that they face, no?

August 3, 2018, 1:43 PM · Tammuz, so, the question is what do I mean by “A good teacher teaches you how to teach yourself”?

First of all, just because I have a regular teacher doesn’t mean I don’t also teach myself. In fact, I'm self-teaching during each practice session and performance. This is partly why I wrote above, and I’m glad that Paul agreed with me, that a good lesson is like a really good guided practice. It took me a while to realize that my practice is much more focused and productive if I treat it as though I'm taking a lesson while "channeling" my teacher. It is not mere semantic to link practice with lesson in this way.

Let me put it another way: a less ideal teacher, instead of giving student the tools to practice/self-teaching, he'd teach his student how to play songs/edutes, piece by piece. They might give students the drills (etudes) to work on their fingers and bowing variation, but the mind of students are staying relatively inactive. I've seen this type of teaching here and there. It might work well with students who prefer not so intense lessons or parents want their kids to "just have fun".

This summer I've so far been to three different string and chamber music workshops with pro-oriented and semi-professional young players and I got to work with some really great players and coaches. What's in common among them is that they watch student like a hawk and clarity in showing students how to spot and fix specific problems. It makes me think they must have been practicing like this for decades and it becomes a second nature. In other words, one's teaching and practicing is inseparable in that it's all about intensely listen to oneself/one's student and super aware of the pitch, rhythm, tone production, bow division, color, etc.

When a student is encouraged/inspired by a teacher in this way from lessons and the teacher's performance, she/he gradually grows up and becomes self-sufficient and/or eventually become teachers themselves.

August 3, 2018, 1:52 PM · "How to these teachers get by without assigning any musical pièces to their students and only etudes?"

Only the most motivated, (or the most boring) of such students continue the violin. And a few of my colleague's victims come over to me!

My director even said that for the first four years one is only building technique; musicianship comes later. I feel like a missionary!

August 3, 2018, 2:12 PM · Studies are intentionally repetitive. They're drill-work. (I really like them, by the way.) I know what Lydia means when she says you can get the sense of the problem by listening to just the first few measures. Isn't it some kind of miracle that every Mazas and Dont and Schradieck study is exactly one page or two? Beethoven and Mozart did not get to within three inches of the end of the paper and say, "Better add one more incongruous harmonic diversion to stretch this out." But Kreutzer surely did.
August 3, 2018, 9:30 PM · Adrian Heath - A student can always learn and practice an actual piece on their own outside of the lessons they're learning, as long as the piece is at the level they're playing. Because I agree with you, just playing études only would drive me crazy.
August 4, 2018, 6:10 PM · Yixi, thank you for that response. Much food for thought. I would like to just seperate three things you said.

"Let me put it another way: a less ideal teacher, instead of giving student the tools to practice/self-teaching, he'd teach his student how to play songs/edutes, piece by piece. "

"They might give students the drills (etudes) to work on their fingers and bowing variation,"

"but the mind of students are staying relatively inactive. I've seen this type of teaching here and there. It might work well with students who prefer not so intense lessons or parents want their kids to "just have fun".

The first part is where I see myself completely agreeing with you.
And if the jump to the third part had been immediate, I would not have any doubts about whats being said.

However, it is the second part -which I sensed in another of your posts- that I find puzzling. I think there is no contradiction between creative, active learning and learning based on etudes and bowing variations, drill work that could be quite mechanical and repetitive in nature. We do this in Schradieck, Sevcik, scales with bowing variations, etc. But there is always a challenge in all of this material that one needs to be attentive to and it is not intellectualy deadening. So why relate drill work directly to a student's inactive mind? In such a case would you say that it is rather the teacher's method and knowledge which might be lacking, rather than the drill work per se?

For example, my new teacher is working with me on scales/bow division exercises, and he is insistent on producing a consistent continuous sound, telling me to listen carefully to my own playing. Although the material seems so repetitive (Im playing the same 2 octaves up and down), each of the bowing exercises based on this scale has me paying attention, adjusting, correcting, etc. But I would not have been able to find out many of my faults without the teacher's input and his prescriptions. I have found that this has helped me, technique wise, far more than jumping straight into playing Vivaldi A minor for instance.

Yes, in a general way, one can say that a good teacher will help you in the lesson be able to apply and improve your playing and avoid the same mistakes. But I would not go as far as saying help you teach yourself. But perhaps Im quibbling over semantics here :)


Edited: August 4, 2018, 8:08 PM · Dear Tammuz, in case it's not clear. "They might give students the drills (etudes) to work on their fingers and bowing variation, but the mind of students are staying relatively inactive." is one sentence and it is a single one point I tried to make (with the "but" part to qualify the first part of the sentence). LOL. If you read them together, you'll see we are not in too much disagreement, other than that I consider that I'm teaching myself during practice time and you apparently don't see it that way. :-)

Self-teaching and other-teaching are not mutually exclusive. I'm in no way suggesting self-teaching should replace one's teacher. What I'm trying to point out is that when viewing practice as self-teaching, we can be more mindful, creative and focused, as though we were having lessons. For a long time I separate lessons from my own practice and often got less focused or frustrated during practice because my teacher was not next to me to fix my problems. During each lesson, I am always super focused and always learn a lot. So I started to wonder, how much learning is what teacher says to me and how much is due to my focus and active thinking process? Ha! You don't know the answer unless you have tried to be your own teacher. I did and thus my belief of practice as self-teaching.

True, a good lesson is when teacher points out the problems you don't notice. But teachers are not the only ones can find problems in our playing. We can find all sorts of problems that we might not be aware of by recording ourselves or playing in front of a mirror to check our posture, our bow arm and to check how the bow is doing, whether our left hand and arm is relaxed when we play, especially tricky sports, etc. If we do this on a regular if not a daily basis, we are teaching ourselves. I find recording in particular gives great feedback for me, especially on intonation and musicality because when I'm playing, sometimes what sounds under my ears can be quite deceiving.

Incidentally, I've taught myself a lot of things over the years, including English and violin playing when I was without teacher, knitting, making soap, etc. Naturally, I see the continuity of other-teaching and self-teaching quite readily. Also teaching and learning often goes both way, as many teachers will tell you that the best way of learning is by teaching.

End of my idle thoughts. :-)

August 4, 2018, 11:36 PM · One of the most valuable skills a teacher gave me was how to analyze -- i.e., to figure out why problems occur and to pursue remedies that addressed that root cause.

Previously, I would notice, hey, I played that note out of tune. And then I would dutifully drill that passage the way I had been taught -- in rhythms, chunked, with a metronome gradually speeding it up, etc. Or I would practice a shift over and over, etc. It was something of a revelation to be asked, "What is leading to that note being out of tune?" And that's really a question of, "Am I failing to hear the correct pitch in my head sufficiently far in advance to properly aim for that note?" or "Is my hand out of place?" or "Am I anticipating the next note, which has a sharp, and therefore my brain wants to play this note too high too?" and so forth.

That taught me to not only understand my own playing, but to analyze other people's playing. It made me realize that a huge part of accurate playing actually was rooted in my brain, rather than being a physical issue.

The other useful skill, from my current teacher, is the recognition that when you break down something in practice, you should muck with it to find the thing that's hard, which is not necessarily where things actually go off the rails. Once you can find the thing that's hard, you can invent a little exercise to tackle that, and then the problem will solve itself.

August 5, 2018, 6:25 PM · Lydia, what you said are exactly what I’ve been taught by my current teacher and some good coaches I met.

The most important message I’ve got from these lessons is that problems in violin playing are usually not physical but mental. For instance, if I’m not crystal clear about each note and/or passage I’m playing, chances are it will sound off, at least to a trained ear. When a note is out of tune, the problem is often in the preceding note(s) or I couldn’t find an “anchor” so that a note or a group of notes landed not exactly where they should be. Yes, first thing is to have the correct pitch in my head. Since I don’t have perfect pitch (not that it is necessarily desirable to have perfect pitch), I’m very much relying on relative pitches and if I play one note a bit sharp without immediately noticing or correcting it, chances are I’ll play the whole thing sharper and sharper until it landed on a different key! Lack of solid hand frame is another cause of shaky intonation. Once made become aware of these issue, all can be monitored and corrected in my daily practice.

Another thing I’ve learned from lessons which have transferred into my practice is that whenever a sport that makes me uncomfortable to play shows up, my teacher would be able to stop me and figure out why it doesn’t work and how to find ways to quickly fix it. So I don’t only listen for problem but also feel whether I’m comfortable in playing something, if not, stop and investigate and fix.

Edited: August 6, 2018, 12:48 PM · I try to let them play through the entire piece or etude if possible, while formulating a hierarchy of priorities that I can address afterwards. Usually no more than 3 of the biggest priorities.

Habitually stopping them at first reading may cause them to become neurotic. They'll expect you to jump down their throat for every mistake. This could, with certain personality types, encourage the development of a poor attitude towards performance in general.

Having said that, I'll admit that when there are just too many wrong notes or rhythms (or the piece just hasn't been practiced), I will just cut them off.

We teachers, like our students, evolve over time in our methods. At least we should...

Edited: August 20, 2018, 10:27 AM · My teacher is not a fan of etudes. But he is very much the same as the second example you gave. I will begin to play one thing, and he will stop me if there's something to improve. Depending on how long said thing takes to improve, I play a bit more and the process continues

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