Why do some teachers insist on giving students too hard pieces?

April 27, 2019, 6:13 PM · Today I was sitting in the hallway while my daughter had orchestra and I had the misfortune of listening to an entire lesson for an adult student echoing through the door of one of the rental studios. The lesson consisted of about 15 minutes of three-octave scales, with the student demonstrating struggles in intonation, especially in the upper register. After that, the teacher had the student playing the Fugue from Bach sonata #1. Now, this student could not even play scales in tune, or even the Fugue subject in tune, so you can imagine how the triple stop chord parts went. The rest of the lesson consisted of absolutely painstaking practice on literally every single chord. The kind of practice that makes everyone want to quit the violin.

Why on earth would any teacher give a student a piece that they will never be able to play well, that is so far beyond their level? This isn't the first time I've seen this. There is one teacher (of kids) I know who does this all the time (though not quite as egregiously) and then keeps her student on that one movement for a year or more.

I understand that the student may be the one insisting on playing this repertoire, but isn't it the teacher's duty to talk them down? How does this benefit anybody? Is this really common? Is this why a lot of people end up quitting? If that had been my lesson, I would have wanted to throw my instrument out the window.

Replies (31)

Edited: April 27, 2019, 6:18 PM · Sometimes a student or the student's parent will be pushing to the harder literature. But I agree with you Susan that this is quite a common problem with teachers. Based on what I have seen, I would guess that the majority of teachers do this.
Edited: April 27, 2019, 6:26 PM · "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"
In my opinion, the best progress happens when the new peace is 1 step out of student's comfort zone. 2 steps.... may lead to so much stress and frustration that they do not facilitate smooth progress.
On the other hand, I have heard / red somewhere that Heifetz considered that one is supposed to be able to sight-read a concert before serious study. This, I can only assume, requires that the student is already on certain level and does not have to learn technical aspects along the way- he/she can focus solely on music.
Back to your original question: why do you challenge teacher's ability to asses the difficulty of peace and your child's ability? There, in my opinion, can be a bigger problem.
Edited: April 27, 2019, 6:47 PM · If it was an adult student I assume that's the piece they're insisting on.

But if you can't play the nine note fugue motive in tune, especially when the first four notes are the same, it might not be the best choice.

April 27, 2019, 8:38 PM · Well, they are two different skill-sets here -- the high-positions skillset of the scale, and the low-position double-stops (and a pile of other technical difficulties that don't require shifting up) of the Fugue.

I think the situation for adult students is a bit different than for children. Adults can afford to go down pedagogical blind-alleys as long as they are properly advised that it's not necessarily a good idea. I'm guessing the adult Susan heard might struggle with the Fugue for a week or three, and then ruefully write off the time spent and go on to something else. Sometimes the stretch can be instructive in its own right.

Edited: April 27, 2019, 8:59 PM · One of my older teachers did this (sort of). Not pieces which were necessarily beyond my skill level, but which definitely required a higher level of focus and work that he was not putting in, nor encouraging me to put in. My lessons went a bit like this:
Three octave scales (as long as I didn't completely botch it, it was "good")
Some intermediate study (intonation need not apply)
One piece of "fun repertoire" (refer to above)
BACH (one new movement of the D minor EACH WEEK---including the chaconne)
And, of course, my lessons were an hour long, so we spent about 15 minutes on each subject. Needless to say, I switched teachers. Then my next teacher started me on Vivaldi's Autumn and meticulously ripped every aspect of my technique to shreds... and I loved it! i was actually getting my money's worth.

Yeah, good teachers are hard to find.

If I had to take a guess at why, I'd say maybe burnout in many cases (particularly with evening lessons at busy schools). In most cases a lack of knowledge from never having had a good teacher themselves, combined with a longing for "the student" and to move on to a higher level.

Edited: April 28, 2019, 2:49 AM · People take lessons for different reasons.

More recently, I had a student who was taking lessons and expressed a desire to achieve a specific level of technical ability to pass an audition for a specific youth orchestra...but they never practiced anything I assigned them despite detailed written instructions, references to recordings, technology assistance (recording and feedback), and then had the audacity to complain that they "weren't going anywhere" and that they needed to switch teachers. I found out they were simply going through the audition music which was way too difficult for them, and were hell-bent on doing it despite not having any of the required skills to execute most of the passages. Of course, my admonition to practice basics, scales, and etudes to solve specific technical challenges were ignored. Clearly, they were not upfront and honest about what their intentions were for taking lessons, and really only wanted my signature on their audition form. Yeah, no. That's not happening!

My experience here is not unique, and many of my colleagues have reported this exact same issue coming up with increasing frequency over the past decade. I have noticed some of the younger teachers in my area simply giving in to the pressure to maintain a studio and a paycheck, and letting students fail their way through impossibly difficult repertoire, in a misguided belief that piece difficulty-level is more important than whether a student can actually play or not. Combine that with audition processes in some places where the people making decisions don't know "what end to blow into a violin," and it's all a gigantic mess.

On the flip side, my adult students have been a delight to work with.

The ones who are able to commit significant practice time make measurable and delightful progress, because having already been in a career, most of them are much better at time management and self-criticism than the kids are.

April 28, 2019, 1:32 AM · Whenever I read these horror stories I start to feel better about my own teaching. I also have that problem of assigning things too advanced. It's partly based on the parents' report on how far along they are in the Suzuki series, and my assumption that the student actually wants to learn the violin and put in some practice time. After a few half-wasted months I find that I often need to back up on the technical level. I am trying to train myself to follow the advice of one my somewhat famous teachers; That technique should Not be learned on the repertoire. Technique should be learned with the scales, exercises, and the etude series. Pieces and concertos intended for public performance or auditions should be at one grade/ one year lower than their current skills.
April 28, 2019, 1:45 AM · I have to come back to this. I gave a flippant answer before, but It's been been bugging me.

Why are you judging someone without knowledge of the circumstances? That's no way to live life.

Let them do what they want, explore what they want, and find satisfaction in what they want. Judge yourself.

April 28, 2019, 6:51 AM · I think Susan's question is legitimate, whether we're talking about kids or adults. This has been a good discussion thus far.

April 28, 2019, 7:37 AM · Why would a person's thoughts be so depressingly negative based on what they heard standing outside a studio? Especially from an adult student.

Maybe the violinist inside is striving for something?

April 28, 2019, 8:39 AM · I think there are many reasons both understandable and not that this sometimes happens. I think I generally do a good job of assigning pieces at a good level for the student to master, but I know I occasionally misjudge a student.
Some of the more understandable reasons:
1. The Student insists on playing repertoire that is too difficult and will quit if not allowed to play the music they choose. One could argue that the teacher should let them leave, but teachers need to eat too, not every situation is ideal.
2. Despite the teacher assigning appropriate repertoire the students's school orchestra teacher (also insert parent, YO conductor, church music director, etc..) decides to assign something too difficult and override the private teacher's plan. The private teacher has the choice to create an uncomfortable situation with the school teacher, let the student flog and flail on their own, or simply do their best with what was assigned.
3. Sometimes the teacher just misjudges the ability of a newer student, the difficulty of a piece, or the student's commitment to practicing and accidentally assigns a piece that is slightly too difficult (even good teachers are human and make mistakes in judgement!). When I've occasionally done this, I sometimes just say "oops, my fault, let's move on to a different piece and come back to this one later." If I have a student who is sensitive to the level of the piece and would feel like it is a demotion, I try to assign a piece to work on simultaneously and either gradually just stop working on the too difficult piece or continue it at a slower pace.
4. As long as it is not the only piece a student is working on, and they are also doing scales, etudes, etc, having a "stretch piece" can be very motivating for some students. I've occasionally assigned pieces that are slightly "too hard" for a student and had them really step up their practice and actually learn them to a high level. I've also had students attempt to learn audition repertoire that is way above their level and either surprise me by getting in, or not get into the group, but improve their playing exponentially by attempting to learn the harder repertoire. This really only works well if the student has good basic technique and set-up.
5. Transfer students who come in with poor technique but think they play at a higher level than they do. Teaching is part pedagogy, and part psychology. Maybe a student should be taken back to book 1 because they have so many bad habits, but if they think they are playing at a book 4 level assigning music that is "too easy" can be devastating. I might choose to assign a student a piece at their perceived level and work on it incredibly slowly and in painstaking detail in order to attempt to correct years of bad habits without demoralizing the student.

The not so great reasons:
1. Teachers who want to brag about how quickly their students are moving through the Suzuki books or about how many of their students are playing Bruch/Mendelssohn etc.. but don't care if their students can actually play them well.
2. Teachers who mistake having the correct progression of method books, scales, etudes, and pieces and assigning them in order, with the student learning. I've gotten transfer students who's previous teachers assigned all of the "right" method books, scales, and pieces in a logical order, but who never made sure that their students were holding the instrument and bow correctly. They might assign an entire whistler positions book, but never actually insists that the student learns correct shifting motions or uses the correct hand shape. They consider that if the student can play most of the right notes and rhythms that they have learned to play something despite playing with a poor tone, bad posture, and questionable intonation. I think often these teachers mean well, but perhaps just need some pedagogy training.
3. Teachers who were poorly trained players themselves and with the best of intentions are just perpetuating the way they were taught. If they play well themselves, they may have gone through extensive technical rehab in college, and not realize that it isn't necessary to wait to build a good technical foundation.
4. Teachers who were naturally gifted players and have no idea how to relate to or address the issues of a struggling student. They could probably be good teachers with some solid Suzuki or other pedagogical training.
5. Teachers who really don't care. I haven't met many of these teachers, but Imagine that they are out there. Frustrated musicians who really wanted to be performers but can't make a living just playing so they teach.

April 28, 2019, 9:05 AM · I was just about one year into my cello studies when my teacher performed the Haydn D major cello concerto (No. 2) with our community orchestra (this was 68 years ago, before Haydn's C major cello concerto - No. 1 (which would have been a better and easier concerto for my level at the time) had been rediscovered). Right afterwards I expressed a desire to study it and so we worked on it for many months and made it through all three movements. There were many technical things I had to learn and I learned them "in situ" - but it worked pretty well. I've never performed it, but to this day I can still warm up on the first page from memory (that is, on days when my memory is still working!).

There were some weeks when my progress in the concerto was limited to a couple of lines of constant practice. I know it is not the way to develop a professional performance level, but it can work for technical development toward a lifetime of enjoyable music playing.

April 28, 2019, 10:44 AM · @Ryan Smith, I want to make clear that I am NOT judging the student -- my criticism is of the teacher. I should also make clear that I've sat in this hallway off and on for years and this is definitely not the first time I've heard questionable things coming through that particular doorway. I think, if anything, I felt incredible sympathy for the student because I started with numerous poor teachers, and I don't wish that on anybody.
April 28, 2019, 11:05 AM · " Now, this student could not even play scales in tune, or even the Fugue subject in tune, so you can imagine how the triple stop chord parts went. The rest of the lesson consisted of absolutely painstaking practice on literally every single chord."

One interpretation is that the student doesn't know how to play in tune or care about it (enough) or a combination of the two, and that the student is doggedly aspiring to play the most advanced and impressive piece they (or the parent) can then brag about playing - and that maybe they were talked down from the Ciaccone, and what the teacher is doing is painstakingly working on intonation using the chords and that aspirational piece as the medium.

The truth is probably more complex, but might have some of those as elements.

Of course I agree that a piece far out of reach is far out of reach, and trying to play it in this manner is a crime against the music, but as technical elements when one doesn't really want to work on technical elements, maybe it's not entirely crazy.

April 28, 2019, 11:15 AM · "One could argue that the teacher should let them leave, but teachers need to eat too..."

Teachers should not abdicate their responsibility for good teaching to make a buck.

Recently, I had the chance to teach a very talented student who was also taking some lessons out of town with a former Heifetz student, who was letting her scrape through the Chaconne and other advanced material that was a poor choice for this student. The mother argued with me for a half-hour about having me teach her daughter, but I stood my ground: either my way or forget it. Only one pilot should fly the plane.

Maybe some people will tolerate spoon-feeding every bar of piece that is too advanced for a student. I won't. That's sheer torture for me.

Edited: April 28, 2019, 11:39 AM · I think you framed your question in the wrong way–unless you know more than what you overheard. My bet is that it is not the teacher insisting, but rather the student.

I know several adults who are taking lessons in music that is miles out of sync with their technical/musical capacity. One is a retired professor, a titan in his field, who aspires to play chamber music with friends. He may not manage all the notes–but for him, I suspect, the joy is in the trying. Another wants to fumble through solo Bach. Unlike most young students, a desire to play specific repertoire (Chaconne! Brahms sextets!) was the catalyst for the lessons–and they pay for the lessons with their own hard-earned cash. There are many teachers (including those who have posted here) who wouldn't suffer through hearing someone who should be playing student concertos hashing up solo Bach. And my emeritus faculty friend learns his chamber music parts painfully, slowly, and imperfectly. Should he be working on Sevcik and Suzuki? I doubt it would bring him half the joy. And at his stage in life, with his record of accomplishment, I think he's decided that he gets to do what he wants with his time.

Of course, teachers also have the right not to indulge such students,
but also
a) musicians have to make a living–housing costs out here are insane, and
b) perhaps (for some) it's refreshing to have a student or two who come at the music with burning love/motivation, an interesting counterpart to the more typical kid who has been enlisted in music education and is marching through the appropriate paces.

I'm glad there are people out there who have the patience to support this kind of "learning"–even if at the end of the day, the product is painful to listen to.

April 28, 2019, 11:51 AM · @Ingrid, last year I had a teacher whose claim to fame was how quickly she could get kids into conservatory: 18 months vs 4 years.

She didn't seem to have a different game plan for an older adult not going to conservatory.

I felt like I was just continually rammed through the repertoire.

April 28, 2019, 11:52 AM · Susan - clean up your own house before criticizing someone trying to learn a Bach fugue.

Or for that matter - teaching a Bach fugue.

When you're perfect you can judge anyone.

Edited: April 28, 2019, 12:35 PM · "I'm glad there are people out there who have the patience to support this kind of "learning"–even if at the end of the day, the product is painful to listen to"

I think they're badly misguided, and part of the responsibility of music education is to guide them better. And this misguidance stems in part from greater music being equated with greater difficulty combined with egoism which ignores the actual results for the supposed accomplishment.

Is a butchered Ciaccone better musically than say an accompanied Bach Sonata which is played well? Is playing an "advanced" piece, however badly, actually better than playing a "Suzuki" piece well and in tune? How does playing an "advanced" piece very badly benefit anyone?

IMO ABRSM does a good thing in including accompanied Bach sonatas in their program, and notably, face criticism for including sonatas, which are undoubtedly more practical and realistic targets for the vast majority of their students, than concertos and other "advanced" pieces.

April 28, 2019, 12:59 PM · "I think they're badly misguided, and part of the responsibility of music education is to guide them better. And this misguidance stems in part from greater music being equated with greater difficulty combined with egoism which ignores the actual results for the supposed accomplishment."

Nope, not in the cases I cited. It's probably the inverse, actually. In the cases I cited–which I highly doubt are unusual–the point is playing specific music, however badly. It's really not about accomplishment, or some ego-gratifying difficulty level.

Look, here's an analogy for you: I've never had piano lessons. I fumble around from time to time in the privacy of my own home with piano music that no teacher would ever assign me. Why? Because I can happily delude myself and no one else is listening. Because the amazing harmonies of Chopin and Ravel thrill me and I can pick them out, haltingly.

Would it be cynical for a teacher to encourage me to work on those pieces as opposed to, say, easier Bach or Schumann pieces that would be a more appropriate pedagogical tool? Maybe. Maybe it's a complete abdication of responsibility and character. And I'm not asking anyone to make that choice. But again, having played chamber music with the fellow who is shaking his way through Brahms, and seeing the joy that it brings him–-and knowing that somewhere, a struggling musician is $600/month the wealthier for patiently pacing him through the notes in their weekly lessons--I can empathize, and choose other things to get torqued up about.

April 28, 2019, 1:28 PM · I agree with Ingrid’s post.

I have gotten transfer students from other teachers who are known for assigning material that is too hard. I clearly remember one excellent student who put the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 on the stand at his first lesson— this was after I had already heard him play so I had a fairly good idea of his level. I told him bluntly that I would not teach him that piece. It was too hard for him. Honestly, he seemed relieved. He knew.

Choosing appropriate material is one of the core skills of being a good teacher.

April 28, 2019, 3:11 PM · We teachers must be careful not to create confusion about what "progress" actually is:

a) practicing a new piece that is more difficult than the previous piece, or
b) playing more in tune and with a better sound?

A difficult piece is stimulating and challenging if slightly too difficult for the student (as has been suggested above);
a far too difficult piece might actually worsen intonation and sound quality and make the student play worse.

If there is a particular reason to practice a far too difficult piece (challenge, or the student's own request) the teacher should add simple daily exercises of intonation, shifting and tone production, giving importance to these exercises, to avoid bad habits.

April 28, 2019, 3:41 PM · I had many teachers give me repertoire that was too difficult when my primary challenge was physical discomfort on the instrument. One of my teachers, very famous, gave me the 2nd Vieuxtemps Concerto while I was struggling with tension. I learned a lot from this teacher. But first I had to stop playing for 5 years and re-build my technique from scratch. I figured out my physical issues and am very careful about my students' physical relationship with the instrument. Lots of time wasted, however.
April 28, 2019, 6:55 PM · "I fumble around from time to time in the privacy of my own home with piano music that no teacher would ever assign me. Why? Because I can happily delude myself and no one else is listening."

I solemnly swear not to call the pedagogical police on you for noodling in your home. Outdoors might be a different matter. Where's that number?

Edited: April 29, 2019, 1:15 PM · Ryan wrote, "When you're perfect you can judge anyone." Well I suppose that's a fair comment, but my guess is that Susan, who has been around the block when it comes to violin instruction, has seen plenty more evidence than just the one individual teaching far-too-hard material to an adult, and that is why she asked her actual question in general terms, "Why on earth would any teacher give a student a piece that they will never be able to play well, that is so far beyond their level?" You can call that class-action judgmentalism if you wish, but after reading the entire thread, one can clearly see that it actually is a problem -- or at least something that others are concerned about too. Ergo, it's suitable fodder for discussion in this forum.

Joel wrote, "Technique should be learned with the scales, exercises, and the etude series. Pieces and concertos intended for public performance or auditions should be at one grade/ one year lower than their current skills." And while I agree that's probably the best way, the downside is that most people -- young and old -- are aspirational in their approach to hobbies. Perhaps to a degree that's pathological. They want either to be great at it, or to stay home.

There have been a lot of magazine articles and blogs such about why people don't have hobbies any more. But partly it's because people don't think they can be the very best painter, or violinist, or surfer, so why bother? Or because they don't think their hobby or engagement therein will be likely to impress their friends. ("I started collecting stamps. Here are all seven of my 3-cent commemoratives so far ... no, I don't have the stamp with the upside-down aeroplane ...") Hobbies used to be about fun and arcane learning and fellowship. Now they're about prestige.

April 29, 2019, 1:58 PM · I don't know. I think it can be hard to tell. I'm not always at my best at my lesson - Maybe I didn't practice that much, or the music is really tough, or I'm just not quite locked in. I think it can be hard to know whether a teacher's method is correct for a student based on even a lot of snapshots, but on the other hand, I've thought many a time about how completely off a teacher must be after hearing their student perform.

I know almost everything I play feels like a stretch, and I can see the logic of that, in that it pulls me forward, sometimes in ways I didn't think were possible, and it also asks a lot of me in terms of time, energy and commitment. Someone who doesn't have the time to put in may not be served well by that approach, but I'm not sure a mismatch of student and teacher is entirely on the teacher if the solution is to ask the teacher to not push the student when the teacher's method is built on pushing the student. I am of the opinion that playing even simple music well is too difficult for the hobbyist player, so that world is something I have trouble understanding and I think my empathy is a bit lacking.

April 29, 2019, 2:03 PM · I think a trained listener can easily discern the difference between a student who is a bit underprepared for a particular lesson and a student who is trying to play a piece that is beyond them. It's like judging an audition. We can tell the difference between nerves and lack of ability. Both might sound bad, but they sound bad in very different ways.
April 29, 2019, 3:21 PM · Sometimes I think the issue is a mismatch of student and teacher (I've transitioned from teachers when I realized their teaching style did not suit me in the long run), and other times I think the issue is with the student insisting upon learning pieces that the teacher has already deemed too hard. (I won't even noodle with pieces that my teacher has deemed too hard for me to be learning/playing at this time.)

Not to get too far off-topic, but this might be relevant: I'm regularly asked by friends and family members if I'm going to try to be a professional violinist because I enjoy my hobby so much. Sometimes I'm asked what I plan to "do" with the violin (in terms of making money), and receive quizzical looks when I say that I do it because I love it. With all of this seemingly outside pressure to perform, from that standpoint alone I understand why folks (subconsciously would) want to work on more advanced rep than perhaps they should. I know I've been there in the past, though am perfectly happy working on reasonable rep at the moment.

Christian - I feel I am rarely at my best in lessons, no matter how much I have prepared, it stinks.

April 29, 2019, 4:57 PM · Imagine you're and adult starter and NOT a one-out-of-millions genius, and you're just starting with the violin. You're not able to tear a good tone after three month, and your intonation in 1st position definitely sucks. But your teacher thinks it's time for 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th position now - all at once. How's that... - Happened to me with my first teacher, no joking.
April 29, 2019, 5:25 PM · "I am of the opinion that playing even simple music well is too difficult for the hobbyist player, so that world is something I have trouble understanding..."

I can see and appreciate that perspective, but have a strong disagreement - respectfully, it's your own playing; I don't know it and you can play it however you like - with the idea of giving up on quality because it's unachievable. My perspective is the opposite - that one only really improves by paying great attention to the details which make the playing not good, and that by glossing over that and trying more and more "advanced" material, one doesn't play better.

Nobody aims to play badly, but without the specific effort to not do that, which also means slowing down, listening, observing, correcting; playing simpler material with more attention trying to do a better job, I don't see how it would get better. And the converse, that the playing does actually get better when one tries that, is something I attest to from my own experience, despite many challenges and issues yet to be resolved.

April 29, 2019, 11:02 PM · I didn't read Susan's comments as judgmental, either of the teacher or the student, and I don't think there's any harm in questioning the behavior, especially in this highly anonymized context.

I think that a student and their teacher should always have a mutual specific understanding of what their goals are. It's possible that both might also have secret long-term goals, but those secret goals should not be ones that interfere with the openly-communicated ones, and it's usually better if all goals are out in the open.

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