Do Bad Students Stay With Bad Teachers?

September 19, 2019, 4:21 PM · A trend I have noticed:

Good students tend to find their ideal teacher quickly (assuming there is one in their area) because they are driven. If they take a few lessons with a bad teacher, they care enough about their progress to leave and try another teacher, and they will repeat this process until they find what they consider to be the best teacher for them. Even with no musical experience, they do research and figure out the basic signs of a good teacher and how to find one. Once they are with that good teacher, that same initial drive will carry over into their lessons, and thus the good teacher will benefit from a good student. Good student, good teacher.

Bad students will find the most convenient teacher and stay with that teacher regardless of how the lessons are going. They might spend multiple years with the teacher before thinking "maybe this isn't the best teacher." Clearly, the student didn't care enough about progress to even consider trying out multiple teachers, or to research what constitutes good teaching. Bad student, bad teacher.

Thus, through this system of natural selection, it tends to be that the more experienced, higher-expectation teachers tend to get the best students, and the less experienced, lower-expectation teachers tend to get the worst ones.

There are always exceptions, so I'd say 10-20% of students don't follow this pattern.

Has anyone else noticed this? The reason I bring it up is because I used to lament about how I'd receive a student from another teacher and their form/technique would be royally *screwed* from years of being shown the wrong way. And I'd blame the previous teacher, saying to myself, "if only they'd been shown the right way, they could be 100x better than they are now!!"

But I now realize: even if that same student had me as their first teacher, they'd still suck. Why? Because as soon as I insisted they do things correctly (in a nice way, of course), they would lose interest. The only reason they managed to squeeze out multiple years with the previous teacher was because that teacher had zero expectations, and so the naturally un-driven student didn't have an incentive to give up.

So I no longer lament these students and their solidified bad technique: if they managed to stay with a *clearly* bad teacher (and there are objectively recognizable signs of bad teachers, even if you have no musical experience!), then there is a 90% chance they are just a bad student.

Good students don't stay with bad teachers! That's my belief.

Replies (26)

September 19, 2019, 4:35 PM · I think for this to be true you would have to live an an area that features a sufficient number of teachers for students to change teachers, especially if these students are children with limited geographic reach who maybe have parents with limited budgets.

I had my violin lessons as a child from an outfit called Social School for Music. It offered music lessons to the children of people of limited means at a discounted rate. They had a (small) number of teachers one of whom would be assigned to every child. I have to say that the teachers were generally good* and well selected but if a child had wanted to change there would have been limited choice inside the school.

* Mine certainly were very good (at least for beginner students).

September 19, 2019, 5:03 PM · That's kind of a reductive way to look at it. Who knows how many factors affect why a student does or doesn't progress. If a student has at some point internalized an idea that work doesn't result in progress, then maybe they stop paying attention. Maybe they don't have support or structure at home. Sure, there are limits and boundaries that teachers should have. There are probably periods of variable maturity for everyone, and a wise teacher can recognize that and cut their losses if they don't think a student is putting in their part.

As a teacher, you badmouthing your students is not a good look, Erik, and it hasn't been all the other times you have done it.

September 19, 2019, 5:11 PM · I have known good students who would be better students if they switched teachers.
September 19, 2019, 5:41 PM · Unfortunately, geography matters quite a bit. Even completely ignoring money, a large percentage of the American population does not have multiple local string teachers to choose from, and that is true of an even higher percentage of the world population. I mostly grew up in a country that, as far as I've been able to find since then, had no Western string teachers until the year before my family returned to the US; the nearest orchestra of any kind was 6 hours away and on the other side of a national border. I've met plenty of string players since then who do not (or did not) have a choice of teacher, at least not within reason for a beginning to intermediate learner. It was either the one local teacher or no teacher. It may be worthwhile to travel for lessons as a pre-professional student (as noted in another thread), but it probably isn't worthwhile to travel for a better teacher at beginner level.

And although it's easy to say a good teacher over Skype is better than a mediocre teacher in person, that's probably only true for students who have already reached a certain level of comfort with the instrument. It's difficult and time-consuming to teach unfamiliar physical movements through 2-dimensional video with no opportunity to reach through the screen and correct problems.

September 19, 2019, 5:57 PM · Schedule matters too. Even a mid-sized city like Sacramento isn't necessarily big enough to find a teacher with a workable schedule. I've been trying to find a regular teacher for the last five or six years.
September 19, 2019, 7:06 PM · I was a good student who started with an absolutely horrible teacher, and I didn't switch for an entire year (actually, I took a break after that and resumed a few months later). This was for a number of reasons, not the least of which being transportation and travel time.

It's a complex problem. Although, yeah, the students who don't care about anything won't actively seek out a better teacher... As long as someone is getting them to play for an hour a week, the parents are happy.

Edited: September 19, 2019, 7:37 PM ·
September 19, 2019, 7:43 PM · i had a fabulous teacher at first growing up, but scheduling was very difficult so i ended up with a one that wasn't as great as the 1st but her schedule was more workable. had i stick with the better 1st teacher and be better off? maybe, but i found if i didn't have the motivation to do it for my self interest i wouldn't push myself regardless how good the teacher is.
September 19, 2019, 7:44 PM · I don't believe "good" students gravitate towards "good" teachers (or "bad" to "bad").

Who gets paired with who results from a multiplicity of factors: geography, price, parental perception (such as those that, not knowing what else to ask for, will always ask for a Suzuki teacher) websites, word of mouth, aggressiveness of the teacher's recruiting and/or student stealing (often by bad-mouthing the other teachers), or just plain luck. And many, if not most, students stay with a particular teacher out of inertial or a vague sense of loyalty.

The fact is, there may not be a clear-cut difference between a "bad" and "good" teacher: everyone contributes to the student in some way. I learned from all my teachers, whether I liked them or not. No one teacher has it all. So one person's definition of a "good" teacher may vary from someone else, depending on the background of the definer. For example, someone who was rigidly taught a Russian bow hold may feel that those who teach a Belgian hold are "bad" teachers, and vice-versa.

There are also very effective teachers who might be limited in some repertoire. Not all teachers, for example, have extensive knowledge of the symphonic repertoire and could assist a student in getting a job.

Edited: September 19, 2019, 8:46 PM · Furthermore, many people have no clue what constitutes a good or bad teacher, and there are no absolutes -- some teachers and students are a better match than others.

My local community music school has a great reputation, for instance, and many parents don't get why they shouldn't just send their kids to the private teachers there. (Especially since this is DC and people are obsessed with reputation and what other parents think of their choices.)

I've taken lessons from teachers with phenomenal reputations and great student products, whose style of teaching -- very rooted in "feel my muscles and try to do the same thing" absolutely didn't work for me. My physical motions are generally rooted into some kind of mental analogy that somehow translates to my body doing the right thing. (For example, "imaging painting the string" works for me in a way that "use these muscles to move your wrist" doesn't.)

Edited: September 20, 2019, 2:28 AM · Christian, I don't recall badmouthing any of my students, either in this post or in others. I simply enjoy having open conversations about teaching.

I actually really love my students, for the most part. But of course there are bad students out there, and I'm not going to walk on eggshells and pretend that everyone makes a good student or pretend that everyone can be a good player. I believe in honesty, as it's far more informative than candy coating things (at least in the context of an online forum).

Plus, as I noted, this is just a trend I've noticed, which is why I'm asking. Sometimes our own data set is skewed and it's nice to have alternate opinions to diversify our beliefs.

EDIT: a side note: when I originally said "stay with bad teachers," I was referring to when students (or students' parents) stay for *multiple* years with a teacher that's clearly contributing nothing, despite having other teacher options in the area. I didn't mean staying for a few months or even just a year, and I also didn't mean situations where the student has no other accessible teachers.

September 20, 2019, 5:04 AM · Teachers and parents that over exaggerate progress are not doing their students or children any favors: creating narcissistic behavior. So when others get them, and they start correcting them and pointing out flaws they are unable to cope and will quit.
A good approach is to praise the attempts, not the successes as much. And yes, they will stay with the "bad" teacher because the rewards are great. Then one day they will be listening to a younger violinist who's only been playing a year, and is far better than they are, and come to this realization and quit all together.

Edited: September 20, 2019, 6:16 AM · Eric, respectfully, I find that a bit too simplistic and black or white

About finding good teachers: It takes coming across a good teacher to know what a good teacher is. And for people not coming from a musical family/background (ie in the know), it's more challenging and more subject to luck and circumstance. Or else good research and experience.

About good/bad students: People are not consistently uniform across time. It took me quite some time to know how to practice. I would say I was a bad student when I first started, then a much better student before I had to stop recently. It took time for me to discipline myself.

Personally, judging from my experience,I think that good efficient teachers for beginners, within the pool of available teachers, are not that common anyway and are a complete blessing when found . A good teacher for beginners should ensure that the student will not have her or his whole technique reworked at a later stage with a teacher of advanced levels (or with same teacher). This is something most teachers, in my humble experience, cannot ensure.

Edited: September 20, 2019, 11:10 AM · I think another factor, at least in my case, was that when I was a young student I was not the most driven/effective student in part because I did not (and was not taught by my parents) to advocate for myself to my teacher, to say things like "I want to improve X, Y, Z, how do I do that?" - the assumption was that the teacher knew best and if I failed it was my fault. It's a bit naive to assume that all the students have that self knowledge/cultural perspective.
September 20, 2019, 11:49 AM · How does one judge "good"? For instance, many parents are attracted to teachers who move kids through repertoire very quickly, rather than emphasizing technical perfection. How much emphasis should there be on setting a good foundation versus progressing enough to keep the kid interested? Etc.

At the moment, I'm trying to search out a Suzuki teacher for my son, which means mandatory observation of lots of teachers, since teachers typically want you to do 5 to 10 observations of them before the possibility of being considered for lessons. I am trying to watch each teacher at a variety of levels -- Twinklers, book 2 students, book 4/5 students, and the most advanced student they have -- in order to get some idea of their strengths, weaknesses, and apparent student progression.

It's really freaking tough to figure out what is the teacher and what is the kids. I try to talk with the parents to find out how much the kid is practicing. If a kid is a 15 minutes a day kid and in five years seems to have made very little progress, well, that's that. But if a kid is practicing an hour a day and after 5 years is still in Book 2, I have to wonder. If an advanced kid looks well set-up but isn't progressing much, I worry about that too.

To me, a kid who started at age 4, is now 13, and has gone from 30 minutes at an early age to 2 hours a day in middle school, should be at least Bruch-level or pretty close to it and have done a good chunk of Kreutzer -- not doing Suzuki 6 and still working through the first book of Wolfahrt, even if they're playing nicely but not exhibiting the kind of effortless technical fluency that suggests that their next stage of advancement will be very fast.

(If you live in the DC/MD/VA area and know someone who's great with young kids and does a good job with balancing progression and interest with a decent technical foundation, please let me know!)

Edited: September 20, 2019, 1:31 PM · I have a spreadsheet with a list current students and a twice as long list of former students. They did not all leave because they were bad or I was bad. Some have quit violin entirely, others have gone to other teachers, and sometimes students of those other teachers have come to me (on their own initiative). There is an aspect of "fit" involved. And who or what decides that a student or teacher is "bad"? It's been said that most drivers of cars consider themselves to be above-average drivers; are there really teachers who consider themselves bad?

I used to have low(er) confidence about teaching on my secondary instrument. At one point, I was watching a colleague's child play this instrument (not taught by the parent), and I could not help but think, my student is not worse in terms of posture and intonation, therefore I must not be doing too badly. However, it would not be right to judge the teacher, who I'm sure has contributed greatly to the child's learning. Also, who knows what my students are showing when they are playing outside of my presence!

The Karate Kid (first movie): "no such thing as bad student, only bad teacher" - but Mr. Miyagi then says: "teacher say, student do." In a way, that is a good student, doing what the teacher says! (despite that what was being taught was to be ruthless, bully, etc.)

September 20, 2019, 1:15 PM · I would certainly hate to be judged as a teacher by my most frustrating students--I know they're not practicing much, but outsiders may not know that. They're nice kids who enjoy playing but violin isn't first, or second, or third on their list. Thankfully most of my students work hard and progress well, and it's not unheard of for someone in the former group to catch fire and move over to the latter group.

To Erik's original point, I have to disagree. I have seen no evidence that the majority of students or parents have any idea of how to judge the quality of a violin teacher. Many choose their kids' private teachers based on proximity and price, and neither know nor care about how more knowledgeable people would rank the local teachers. Recently the parent of a couple of my strongest students (siblings) was telling me that another parent had asked her--after hearing them play--if her boys were students of [one of the most utterly unqualified local "teachers" whose main attractions are a low fee, a pleasant manner, and a convenient location].

Sometimes a dedicated student will notice that their peers are passing them up, and will ask their peers who they study with. Occasionally a more knowledgeable parent will notice that their child is not progressing well and will ask around for other recommendations. Some of the local orchestra directors have a very good grasp of who can teach and will steer kids to those teachers when they can, but there are lines that cannot be crossed. And for so many, it's hard to determine whether it's inertia or convenience that keeps students with less-qualified teachers, but either way, it's the norm in my observation.

September 20, 2019, 2:06 PM · Lydia - there was a time when a bunch of my students were leaving around end of Suzuki 1 / early 2 and that is why right now I have students in 1-2, three in 5, one in 7, and none in 3-4. I suspected that a contributing factor was me being "slow" with the repertoire. A book 2 student left earlier this year, and I'm sure it was the same.

My teacher trainer who is in your area (you've likely heard of the name at least) has said that a typical 5 year old beginner practicing 6 days per week, presumably starting with a few minutes and working up to 30, can do book 1 in two years and with increasing practice time, one book per year thereafter. The math is consistent with my observations: two years is on the fast side for my students because the vast majority don't practice 6 days. My top four are all around 6-7 years with me, and you can tell which one practices an hour a day and spent one year rather than two or three in book 4. Practice time vs. Suzuki book isn't the whole story though. These four also have youth orchestra, and my current book 2 students, for the last two years, are doing roughly a book's worth of supplementary/ensemble repertoire per year (not to the mastery level of their Suzuki pieces but still takes up lesson and practice time). On the flip side, there are some book 1 students who have been around 5-6 years and counting...

About the aforementioned book 2 student - they said they were listening, they said they were practicing, yet it didn't seem to be coming through in the lesson. Every time the parent asked, I would say, in X piece I'm looking for this, in Y piece I'm looking for that, these skills are needed in Z piece, in general I would like to see more accuracy on a certain finger pattern, progress on a certain bow stroke (not perfection but a reasonable effort coupled with self-awareness), I would like to see the practice chart filled out, and so on.

About this - "if a kid is practicing an hour a day and after 5 years is still in Book 2" - I guess the question would be what kind of practicing. Specifically thinking of a book 5 student but it could apply to others, this one likes to play through pieces and has enough note reading skill to just manage. Suppose last week we spent time practicing a particular rhythm/articulation/phrasing/whatever, achieved it, then this week it's gone, and she didn't notice - that means she didn't practice or "practiced" by playing through without paying attention. Now we spend time practicing again (clearly, assigning it was not enough), and next week we see if there is any change. Could I let that spot go? Perhaps, but how often should I do that? At what point does an accumulation of let-go things come back to bite you? It can be a tricky balance.

I'm sure there are students in my studio who have stayed because of inertia or convenience, not necessarily for my qualifications, but I've never really thought about that...

September 20, 2019, 2:36 PM · I should probably add that by "Good students," I meant ones that try to do well. I don't necessarily mean students that have made it very far in technical progression. I have personally taught plenty of adult students and a select few child students that practice sufficiently but still make very slow progress. I still consider them "Good" students, though, because they are trying their best. Usually a learning disability, short term memory loss, or motor skill dysfunction is at play (and these seem to manifest, to some degree, in a surprising amount of adults).

When I started, I was a "bad student." By that, what I really mean is that my mom didn't really understand that learning the violin was a pretty big task, and she needed to be pushing me to practice. So I wasn't really trying, because I didn't know that's what I was supposed to do. And on that note, the first teacher I had was terrible, and hammer-threw me into a chair in group class. As I grew into caring because my mom realized she needed to push me a bit (let's be honest, kids are naturally lazy and need to be pushed a lot of the time), I graduated to better and better teachers. This also coincided with my mom realizing she needed to be willing to drive farther to have a better selection of teachers. We lived in a very small town in the mountains (which weirdly has like 5 violin teachers), but she chose the easiest teacher in the first place. Perhaps she just didn't realize yet that some teachers are better than others.

So when I say "bad student," I mean any combination of factors at home that leads to the student not trying very much. When talking about kids, we kind of have to consider the parent/child to just be one person, because it doesn't matter if you get through to the kid unless you get through to the parent as well.

I definitely wouldn't want to give the impression to people that just because a teacher has some relatively unaccomplished students that it means they are a bad teacher. All that means is that they are a *forgiving* teacher. Plus, if the student has just recently transferred from another teacher, it's hard to judge how much of what you're seeing is from their previous training.

September 20, 2019, 2:38 PM · Mengwei, I'm curious who your teacher trainer was and what you thought of them. Feel free to email, or to PM me on Facebook, if you don't want to post that publicly. Thanks.
October 1, 2019, 1:11 PM · Mary Ellen said, "Many choose their kids' private teachers based on proximity and price, and neither know nor care about how more knowledgeable people would rank the local teachers." This captures exactly how my parents decided upon a teacher when I was growing up. Their frame of reference was a classroom teacher with a textbook, and they figured I'd pick it up if I had the talent, since I always did in school no matter the quality of the classroom teacher. This was their implicit reasoning; if they'd ever thought carefully about it, they would have realized the error, I am sure.
October 3, 2019, 2:37 PM · I respectfully disagree with the argument in the OP.
Erik, you're expecting kids to:
1) evaluate their teacher's competence
2) convince their parents to end the teaching relqtionship - or end it themselves
3) find another (better) teacher

In any pupil-teacher relationship there is a power imbalance. There will be certain demographics where musical activity is alien to the family, where paying for lessons is a struggle and where the power relationship is more asymmetrical. Do you really expect these families to fire a weak teacher, turn up at Symphony Hall and ask the assistant concertmaster who has a reputation for conservatoire preparation to take their kid on?

October 3, 2019, 6:50 PM · Jack, when I speak of "students" in the context of kids, I'm referring to the combined effort between child and parent -- primarily the parent's efforts.

With young kids, obviously I'm expecting the *parent* to try and evaluate the teacher's competence, yes. No, I'm not expecting the child to make any of these decisions.

I also teach a lot of adults, though, so in their case I am exclusively referring to the student's own decisions. I'm not sure why everyone assumes "child" when they hear "student".

October 3, 2019, 9:11 PM · I had lessons for 11 years with the same teacher as a child. I was diligent about practicing. (When I wasn't diligent, my parents were diligent for me.) I didn't realize until the age of 45 that this teacher was terrible. In my 2nd or 3rd lesson my new teacher realized that my childhood teacher had never taught me intonation. Imagine having 11 years of lessons without learning what "ring tones" are.
October 3, 2019, 11:52 PM · Based on the responses so far, it seems that "bad students stay with bad teachers" was not a correct assessment.
Edited: October 4, 2019, 1:23 AM · The bad teacher may be creating the bad student by praising everything they do (love bombing). I've read about that on other forums. Your task, Erik, is to decultify them.

I have AndrewH's problem - good teacher, bad schedule. She has cancelled the 10th and isn't free until the 31st. Otoh, I can't afford better (mates rates, and she feeds me, lol), and I was a scholarship piano student, so I'm not so bad left to my own devices. I've just got to start recording our lessons so I don't forget what has been said.

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