Can a student tell if their teacher is good or bad?

October 3, 2019, 8:46 PM · Is there any way for a student to know if their teacher is good or bad, or is it only something that can be diagnosed by another teacher? The specific issue brought up in another thread was one where the teacher rushes the student through repertoire they aren’t ready for.

In my experience, the pieces my teacher gives me all feel harder than I can play well, but I feel like I am learning from them and improving. That said, because they are hard, I know I am not playing all the notes in tune and often can’t play up to speed. But I do work on intonation with slow practice and have practice techniques for problem areas. I just don’t think I can play any of the pieces really well or beautifully.

I have experience in another instrument, but violin is so much more complex that I can’t tell whether my progress is good or not. I can detect my own imperfections but don’t know how much a “good” teacher would force me to “perfect” those things before moving on vs incrementally working on those things over multiple pieces.

Replies (19)

October 4, 2019, 1:37 AM · Find a teacher with good qualifications. If good technique has been drummed into them, they will drum good technique into you.
October 4, 2019, 2:39 AM · What are your current teacher's credentials?

Seeking out a teacher from the closest decent orchestra would be a good bet to ensure that your teacher at least knows how to play, although many of them don't teach adults.

On the other hand, if you're a slow learner, you may find that a somewhat less qualified teacher will be more patient with you. Sometimes, you need to strike a balance by finding a teacher that plays well enough to lead you effectively, but doesn't play so well that they've lost touch with what it was like to be a beginner.

Edited: October 4, 2019, 5:25 AM · I’ve been to four different teachers and I feel like I can easily tell which one is the best. Not surprisingly it is also the only teacher of the four to have degrees in both performance AND teaching. If you have only ever had one teacher I doubt you would be able to tell their worth unless they were outright full of it.
Edited: October 4, 2019, 6:25 AM · If a teacher makes you feel worthless or like you hate the violin, then they're definitely a bad choice.

Good teachers aren't just good because they play well; they make you excited to learn and adjust so that you learn at the best pace for yohr abilities.

October 4, 2019, 6:39 AM · It seems from what you've written that you don't necessarily have a "bad" teacher - just that you have a failure to communicate. Apparently you don't know his motivations and he doesn't know yours. Is he moving you through repertoire quickly to familiarize yourself with new techniques, or because he thinks you might become bored by working on the same thing too long? Have you mentioned to your teacher that you think you're going through pieces before you've had a chance to polish them, and you'd like to spend more time working on intonation and getting them up to speed?

Many teachers are used to teaching children - you're an adult. You probably have more self-awareness and self-motivation than many of the beginners they usually teach. But it's up to you to communicate (at least in a general sense) what you want to get out of your lessons. Depending on the situation and comfort level, it can either be a nice sit-down about lessons in general, or simply saying "I'd like to spend more time perfecting this piece" when he suggests you move on.

What I really like about my teacher is that we have that level of communication. At the beginning of every lesson I'm asked what I want to work on that week. What techniques are giving me trouble? What's the best way to bring this piece up to speed, or get the best sound? It's a mutual decision of when we move on from a piece or even an etude - have I gotten out of it what it was assigned for, or would I like to perfect it some more? But that's only because the two of us both talk and listen.

You should feel comfortable talking with your teacher about your concerns. If nothing else, it helps make his job easier. You only have a "bad" teacher if he refuses to acknowledge what you're trying to get out of lessons.

October 4, 2019, 9:58 AM · Does your teacher give you:
Inspiration that propels you into the next week of practicing?
Very specific instruction on technique?
Advice about how to play more musically?
Organized guidance on your trajectory as a violinist?
The answers to these questions need to be "yes".
October 4, 2019, 10:38 AM · I don't think most students have enough experience with a variety of teachers to be able to tell who is good or bad.

Every teacher has their strengths and weaknesses, and every student has aspects with which they will jive better or worse with their teacher. The chemistry is important. I have studied with highly respected teachers who clearly output outstanding students whose teaching approach has not worked for me.

I have been lucky enough to be exposed to an unusually large number of teachers. My mother was aggressive about switching my teachers every couple of years when she felt my progress with one teacher had stalled. My teachers, throughout my childhood, went away every summer. Each summer, they recommended one or two people that I go to for lessons (generally impossible to study with a single teacher the whole summer due to vacations). Each summer, it was different. I played in masterclasses (and attended some without playing) with visiting teachers. My teachers also sent me to take one-off lessons from various people.

In my early adulthood with my first return to violin, I continued to do that. I don't any longer to the same extent, but I do get some varied exposures through camps/chamber/orchestral coaching/masterclasses. And these days I'm doing a lot of Suzuki observation in an effort to choose a teacher for my son.

A handful of lessons is not the same as a continuing relationship with a single teacher, but it has been extraordinarily useful to see the variety of focuses and teaching styles. I can have a general idea of a teacher's strengths and weaknesses, but even after all that exposure to dozens of teachers, in most cases I can't tell you categorically if a teacher is a good or bad one, especially if that's in relation to a particular theoretical student. There are some teachers who are clearly outstanding on a general basis but it can be hard to tell if they're good for someone in particular.

And there are some teachers who are just terrible but again they may have skills that might make them fine for some students (i.e. someone can be terrible at teaching technique but great at making kids enthusiastic about playing, and as long as the kid is more a "come to my lesson and enjoy a bit of music" student and not a "practice frequently and improve materially" student, that's fine).

October 4, 2019, 10:43 AM · One useful thing my teacher taught me after a year or so on the basics was how to really listen intensively to my own playing, analyze it for faults, identify them, work out what was going wrong, and then that would be a fair indication of what needed to be done to correct it, based on what I had already been taught. Effectively, as I eventually realized, I was being taught how to teach myself. Also, how to analyze technically difficult passages to identify the point of failure, and then mend it by very slow practice either side of that point.

October 4, 2019, 11:25 AM · Not to be bigheaded, but I think I could tell (as a student) whether my teacher was good or not. When I first started, my teacher taught all instruments at our school. So i struction was not "pure" i.e. she was not a violinist (I think she was a clarinettist). Second teacher was better, but we didn't get on at all, so I missed most of my lessons with her. Third teacher was one of the ones who wanted to get through pieces, not really concentrating on technique etc. Teacher at sixth form was better, but he was primarily a pianist so was sort of lacking. The one after was very very good, its just a shame that I didn't see him often at all. He was good at explaining things and making things as simple as possible.
My current teacher has seen a lot of my holes, and we're gradually filling them in. Its just a shame that none of my teachers before had done so. But oh well. Fast progress is being made :)
October 4, 2019, 11:41 AM · I haven't had a "bad" teacher. At age 11-12, at the beginner's stage, I instinctively knew that my first two teachers, both clarinet players, were inadequate. Later, 3 out of 6 teachers were "good" and I made rapid progress, technical break throughs, the first year with them. With 3 others, they were not "bad" but the fit was not quite right, and one had an eccentric approach to bowing.
October 4, 2019, 1:20 PM · I think it's easier to say when a relationship with a teacher is working than it is to say why a relationship with a teacher isn't working. Looking back at my own history, I begin to think that the people I've thought of as "bad teachers" were actually maybe okay teachers, and I was either a difficult student or just a clueless person. I am aware that I can be difficult and/or clueless.

My current teacher (my fourth in total; I am an adult returner, and she is my third teacher as an adult) is inspiring and has fundamentally transformed my playing, but there was a rough patch last winter when I considered leaving her. For a decade I'd been playing material well over my head, my second teacher as a returner having assured me that I'd improve my technique by hammering my way through the repertoire. That doesn't work, as we all know. My current teacher had broken down all of my bad playing habits and we were slowly building a better technical foundation, and at that time my pride was wounded because all of my ill-founded confidence was gone and I was convinced she'd ruined me as a player. At that point, if anyone had asked me, I would've said she was a bad teacher. But she is an excellent player and humility is not a bad thing, so I just kept going on, doing whatever she told me to do, and now I'm playing my favorite repertoire again. This time it sounds like music, and I will tell you that my teacher is an excellent teacher.

So I think no, most students cannot objectively judge the ability of their teachers. We only know how we feel about the relationship.

October 4, 2019, 4:44 PM · I believe that; like every individual, teachers also have their strengths and weaknesses. Therefore pursuing an ultimate teacher in the hope of matching all your current and future needs is not a good idea. In fact this is a lost cause...
October 4, 2019, 6:29 PM · Yes. You can tell rather easily. Either it clicks for you or it doesn't, and if it's not working for you, don't hesitate to move on. Why waste your money and time?
October 4, 2019, 9:39 PM · One big thing I’ve noticed that separates teachers is if I do something incorrectly, I need to be told exactly what I’m doing to make the error. Ive found that some of the teachers I’ve encountered keep showing me over and over again how to do it correctly, but I find it INFINITELY more helpful if they can pinpoint what exactly I’m doing that is wrong. It is very hard for me to correct something by watching someone else play, but if they can point out specific details that I am doing incorrectly, then I can fix them...eventually at least :).
Edited: October 5, 2019, 6:15 AM ·

When you stop seeing improvements and advancing is becoming more and more
difficult. Having a lull in advancement is fine, but we don't want to see a six months to a year period of stagnant playing. Every teacher has their blind spots and one teacher will fix a problem in months; whereas, a different teacher is still incapable of repairing the problem in 5 years.

It is really important to understand this, and not (never) blame yourself!!

October 6, 2019, 1:19 PM · yes, you can tell. Number one, you should end with a good sounding piece. If you end up playing pieces out of tune, then you are perpetuating bad habits. No one wants to hear an out of tune piece. A better way to tell, shop around, seek out other teachers and request “trial lessons”. see what each teacher points out as problems. Then assess if what they are saying or want to do makes sense. This way you have a comparison. much better then reading posts from people that dont know you or have not heard you
October 6, 2019, 4:47 PM · I would argue that you can tell if a teacher is bad for you if they aren't giving you what you need. In my opinion, the purpose of a teacher is to help bridge the gaps between your potential and your current understanding of the instrument. A good teacher won't necessarily have all the answers for you, but they know how to push you in the right direction. The fact that you have concerns about your teacher's quality indicates that they are probably not right for you. You should be able to play your pieces well and up to tempo before moving on to new repertoire, and you certainly shouldn't feel that you have obvious technical flaws that just aren't being addressed. You can definitely try asking your teacher about these issues, though I don't know how helpful it will be at this point. How old is the OP? I only ask because I feel strongly that a teacher's role and responsibility varies considerably depending on the student's age and/or skill level. In any case, a student should always feel that their concerns are being addressed, and that they are gaining something new and useful from each lesson.
October 7, 2019, 3:28 AM · I am curious on one thing. Let's say you feel that your teacher's teaching method is not working for you (instead of just saying he is a bad teacher), and there is no alternatives in the area, what do you do? Is no teacher better than having a bad teacher?

I think even beginner can tell if the teacher is very bad. For example, if they are abusive, and if you hardly make any progress in a period of time. However, I don't think beginner can tell one teacher is better than the other. Or he/she can make better progress if he/she take lesson from someone else instead.

October 7, 2019, 10:26 AM · I find it so curious that many people say that teachers will not take on adult learners. When you say this Erik, do you mean beginners? I ask because I have not had this experience as an adult returner (and lord knows, my teacher has their work cut out for them). Maybe folks receive "no's" because of the way in which they present themselves to the teacher? I understand why a lot of teachers don't want to work with adults (and it's been discussed here in the past).

On topic:
I find that leaving lessons frustrated is an indication that something's up, and if you feel like you are given too many "big" things to work on that are WAY out of your comfort zone (you may be excited about them, but the stretch feels massive - the stretch should not feel massive with learning many new techniques and whatnot!) then something is awry.

I tried addressing this with a previous teacher (especially being expected to play things at performance tempo immediately), but they could not adjust to working with my learning style.

So... I think a lot of this is personalities: learning and teaching styles don't click. There's an example of stylistic differences on the new MindOverFinger podcast that I found rather poignant.

I agree with Erik re: working with someone who remembers what it is like being a "beginner", who is capable of breaking things down in an understandable way, and understands how long some things take (ie not rushing students through repertoire, or technique in general).

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