A question for teachers

December 18, 2018, 2:13 AM · I saw a photograph the other day of my eleven-year-old great nephew playing the viola. I don't get to see him very often (he lives a long way off) and have never seen or heard him play.

He's been playing for two years and what struck me about the photo was how poor has position was. His shoulders were rounded, he was slumped forward (he was seated in the picture), the scroll was pointing down at the ground (almost at a 45-degree angle), his left writes bent at 90 degrees.

Also in the picture was his six-year-old sister playing the violin. She's been playing a similar amount of time but had a much better posture.

I've seen other pictures of my nephew playing and they all show a similar position so this wasn't a one-off moment - it seems there's a pattern.

Now, my nephew has some considerable musical talent - he plays the piano and also won a scholarship as a chorister at a prestigious cathedral choir school in the UK a few years ago (sufficient to pay his not inconsiderable school fees until he's eighteen).

I'm tempted to have a word with his parents and ask about the viola teacher, as it seems he/she isn't doing that great a job. I know I've only seen photos and not heard him play, but I don't see how he's going to progress playing like that.

But before I wade in, I thought it prudent to ask the opinions of teachers to see if they think ensuring good posture is desirable two years into tuition?

Replies (10)

Edited: December 18, 2018, 3:14 AM · I'd look at a video rather than a photo, personally. It may be that the photo was taking too long so he just slumped while waiting for it.

With that said, it's also possible that his viola is way too big for him, but the teacher can't control that:

For example, I've had viola students whose parents bought them far too large of an instrument (before I was ever their teacher) and then when I informed them it was way too big they were unwilling to buy a new one. Thus, things like bad posture became a necessary compromise, but it was out of my control.

Also, in these photos, is he sitting, or standing up?

EDITED to add: something bothers me about your post... I find it odd that you're so interested in his posture (and consequently the quality of his teacher), and yet you haven't even heard him play in 2 years' time. Apparently you're getting pictures of him but how have you never seen a video of him playing, or heard him over the phone? I suppose I'm just confused about why you're suddenly so interested in his posture after 2 years' time? Why not sooner?

December 18, 2018, 6:15 AM · I would say have a word with the parents but then leave it alone. This isnt your battle.
December 18, 2018, 6:25 AM · I would just stay out of it completely until you have heard him play. In fact even then - don't comment until you actually play together - and even then - be careful!
December 18, 2018, 10:20 AM · Posture is extremely important for beginners. That said, I can think of many factors that can cause the student of an otherwise excellent teacher to have poor posture.
1. Student is reminded repeatedly, lesson after lesson, to fix their posture, hold the viola up, etc. and simply ignores the corrections.
2. Student needs a better shoulder rest/chinrest and the parents continually forget to purchase one despite repeated reminders.
3. Correct shoulder rest is purchased, but the student loses it or neglects to take the time to put it on before playing except during lessons.
4. Student uses good posture during lessons, but immediately reverts to poor posture when not in the presence of the teacher.
4. Lessons are taken standing up and sitting down causes poor posture habits.
5. Instrument is too big and the parents refuse to buy/rent a smaller one (see Erik's post above).
As a teacher, the majority of my students play with good posture and position, but I always have a few that are either in the process of fixing bad habits caused by years in school orchestra without a private teacher or caused by one or more of the factors listed above (I'm sure there are more too). It could be that your nephew has a poor teacher, but it could also be because of many other reasons involving him and/or his parents. I would refrain from judgement without knowing the details. Also, 11 is an age where many boys are resistant to posture corrections and may also be growing very fast, which means that their physical relationship to the instrument can be changing rapidly, thus making it even harder to correct posture.
December 18, 2018, 11:55 AM · Thanks for all your answers.

As to why I'm seeing pictures but haven't heard him play, the pictures are posted on Facebook by his parents. As I explained, I live a long way away from him. And as to why I'm only taking an interest now, they only started posting pictures of him a couple of weeks ago when they bought him a new viola.

There's nothing to be suspicious of or I hope to be bothered about by my post. I'm just a relative concerned for the welfare of a youngster. I'm an experienced violin player but not a teacher and my beginner days are a long way in the past.

On the subject of viola size, he's just had a new one bought for him because the teacher felt that the previous one was too small. It didn't strike me as being too big from the pictures I've seen.

I will, of course, take your advice and not say anything - there's no point in asking for advice and not taking it.

December 18, 2018, 2:35 PM · Ingrid is spot on.

Keep in mind, nven the worst teachers at least attempt to correct posture. It's such a basic necessity for beginners (mainly because of the effects of gravity on the bow, and consequently the tightening of the bow hand and often the "kickstand" right pinky). So it's extremely unlikely that his posture hasn't been mentioned to him on multiple occasions, probably resulting in it improving for 30 seconds before reverting to the downward slump.

One of the hardest aspects of teaching isn't knowing *what* the student needs to do, but rather getting them to care enough about doing it correctly for them to take over in those corrections at home.

December 19, 2018, 9:32 PM · Two lines of thought:
- Something "being taught" is different from something "being retained" (on a consistent basis).
- You know best your relationship with that branch of the family, if it's "there goes great uncle Tony, who isn't even involved in our regular lives, nosy-ing in from who-knows-where again" or if they will appreciate genuine praise and (possibly unsolicited?) comments. If it's the latter, then perhaps start by expressing interest in having future videos shared. After you see a few, you can offer a specific point of praise for each child.
Edited: December 20, 2018, 6:36 AM · Tony, Does he wear glasses or maybe he needs them and doesn’t know it? Perhaps he is unconsciously compensating for a vision issue by leaning forwards towards the written score. An 11 year old boy is likely not going to call attention to a vision issue because he doesn’t want the “four eyes” and other quasi bullying comments from his peers.
December 20, 2018, 9:02 AM · When I was a kid my posture was terrible. My violin teacher wanted me to be able to hold up my instrument with my chin, but he wouldn't let me use a shoulder rest. You know how hard that is for a five-year-old? The collarbone of a small child is very tender, it was painful. So all the pictures of me showed my playing with a low scroll, terrible posture.
December 20, 2018, 10:58 AM · Thanks for the further answers.

@Mengwei - I'm pretty sure that my great nephew can retain the information consistently, he's a very intelligent, and in many ways gifted child. I won't discuss the specifics of my family relationships here, but suffice to say had I not known that my advice would be accepted in the spirit intended, I wouldn't have bothered posting here.

@James - he was playing from memory (they were playing Silent Night) so I don't think poor eyesight could be an explanation.

His parents have since posted a video of them playing and my observations from the photo were reinforced. His much younger sister played her very small violin quite beautifully, by the young man in question failed to impress - despite having much more musical knowledge and education. He's a chorister at a major cathedral in the UK - although he's a child, in many ways, this is a professional engagement. He has a punishing schedule of performances and in return, he receives schooling at a private school the value of which is many tens of thousands of pounds.

So, as this school has an outstanding pedigree in musical education, I kind of expected to see a more polished performance. I realised that I have nothing to support this expectation, hence me seeking opinions here.

As I said in my last post, I'm now going to assume that his viola teacher has the patience of a saint and will keep on correcting his posture. I guess that at some point, he will be asked to play something his poor posture prevents so he will have to improve it or fail to play the piece. Looking back, this may have been how I improved.

I also think having reflected on the nature of teaching a bowed string instrument that people who have a vocation for this are truly remarkable individuals as I'm pretty sure I couldn't do it.

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