Having a good teacher is the most important thing you can do

July 7, 2021, 6:16 PM · After a long time without regular lessons, I started back to lessons with a new teacher. My teacher is a well qualified professional, with a Master's Degree from Northwestern. This young lady has changed my playing life... I've been at lessons for about 6 months and we really started from scratch: Even though I am an intermediate to advanced level player. This is because I have some serious tension related issues that have limited my ability to move on. (My teacher had similar issues 5 years ago and had to rework some her own playing) I did a lot of work with open strings and string crossings for a couple of months and have worked on all aspects of my playing. I am learning to practice slowly with a metronome and realize that you can learn so, so much from Bach. There are a lot of online and printed resources available to a player... but none are as good as a great teacher. My last lesson was so hard, and so fun... we were playing the slow movement of the Bach double and having a seminar on bow speed at the same time. I could see where the open string practice was paying off.

If you are trying to teach yourself, you are wasting precious time. If you can afford it, get a teacher. Don't buy a new violin, switch 10 brands of strings, or worry about shoulder rests. Get a good teacher. You will look forward to your lesson. Each week will not be great, but you will get better quickly.

Once you get a good teacher, bring him/her vegetables from your garden as they really like that... then they teach you extra super secret tips (lol)

Replies (17)

July 7, 2021, 7:37 PM · I took vegetables to Hugh Bean and he said lettuce study the Cabbagelevsky first. This concerto is hard to beet since it goes like a rocket. After I played it though the tips of my fingers were chard. Now I am going to study with Ilya Kaleyer.
July 7, 2021, 8:14 PM · I agree. The beginner who teaches themself has a fool for a teacher.
July 7, 2021, 8:42 PM · Stephen: You are a clever man, I bet you have a collection of dad jokes. We need more of that from thyme to thyme.
Edited: July 7, 2021, 8:51 PM · Christian: I'm not a beginner (a solid intermediate player, maybe a little more than that), I was just working too hard and getting nowhere. I remember playing and struggling and thinking this should not be so hard. I did not sound bad, but knew I wasn't getting any better. A good teacher can get to the root of a problem quickly. It still takes some time for me to get truly relaxed at a lesson, but we are making progress.
July 7, 2021, 10:19 PM · I guess I wrote in a caveated way that undercuts my real point, which is that teaching is absolutely indispensable, but a good teacher teaches us to teach ourselves, which becomes a key skill for improving.
Edited: July 8, 2021, 5:19 AM · Although I agree that a good teacher is important, I would NEVER blame someone for trying to self-teach.

There are many reasons why someone would be forced to self-teach, or why someone would believe it is their only option. I say this as someone who self-taught for 16 years before my first lesson. I was rejected by multiple teachers as a teenager, all of them saying I was too old and that it would be almost impossible to learn a string instrument at that age; after that, I mistakenly believed for many years that no teacher would accept adult students who were not already at or near conservatory standard. Other people don't have a qualified teacher within any reasonable distance, and may not have a reliable enough internet connection for live online lessons. I've encountered one upper-intermediate violinist on Facebook who has to either fly or take a 7-hour train ride (each way) to get to his monthly lesson because he's surpassed every teacher closer than that, and a lower-intermediate violinist who makes do with feedback via video exchange due to living in a remote location without reliable high-speed internet. And, of course, the cost of lessons is prohibitive for many people.

I am currently taking lessons, but I do not expect to be able to take in-person lessons for the foreseeable future because of the lack of suitable options in my area. I took a few lessons with a local teacher in 2016 but was never able to establish a schedule (I had to either take time off work or wait for other students to cancel on evenings or weekends), and searched in my area for years before finally deciding to go online during the pandemic. There are plenty of viola teachers in my area, but I've found none who teach advanced viola repertoire, accept adult students, and have evening or weekend availability. (I've found every combination of two of the three but never all three).

July 8, 2021, 2:59 AM · Andrew, Those teachers who rejected you were absolute fools. I'm glad you were able to get beyond that and just get on with it.
Edited: July 8, 2021, 7:48 AM · I think one thing adult students often struggle with is the idea that you play worse at your lesson than you do in your practice room, and they get nervous in their lessons trying to defeat this axiom. When you get to your lesson, just play the damned piece and don't stop even if you make some terrible mistake. Your teacher knows you heard it. That's why you're paying them a celery.
July 8, 2021, 10:03 AM · You are absolutely right Paul! As an adult learner, it is brutal when a piece that sounds like garbage in front of a teacher, sounded perfectly fine the day before in practice. It almost seems like you have to both ensure the teacher that you did in fact practice, and that you aren't wasting their time.
And just as a question to the tread: why is it that some teachers reject adult student?
July 8, 2021, 10:14 AM · My teacher says his teacher told him she would make a big cardboard cutout of herself to glower at him as he practiced.
July 8, 2021, 10:35 AM · Andrew: I'm so sorry that you had some terrible interactions with potential teachers. Their logic was foolish. Fortunately, I live in an area where the local symphony coordinates teaching with local teachers. Self teaching certainly is better than nothing and I respect everyone who is trying to improve. It's hard work... I still watch videos. But instead of trying to fix myself, I ask my teacher if what I see is right for my situation. We are on the same page. You do what you can because you love the instrument.
July 8, 2021, 12:06 PM · When, as a cellist, I started playing the violin and needed lessons I enquired at my local violin shop, which knew me well as a cellist. The owner listened to me, went into his office, and returned a couple of minutes later with a three-page listing of violin teachers in the city and the surrounding area. The list gave useful information about the levels the teachers taught to, their specialties (classical, folk, jazz, etc), and their qualifications. He had highlighted three names which he felt would be of interest.

The teacher I chose had graduated from the Suzuki School in Japan and was back in England running a successful 4-piece folk band and setting up as a teacher. During the time I was under her tuition she was teaching only adults (late 'teens and up), saying that teaching children and adults are two very different skills. She did not teach to the grade exam syllabus but used the Suzuki books as a very general guide, occasionally making useful diversions into such areas as Dvorak's violin pieces, the Rode Caprices, the Bartok 42 Duos, and Hungarian folk music.

July 8, 2021, 2:33 PM · I was mostly responding to Christian -- it's easy to glibly call self-teaching foolish, but many people who self-teach don't have a choice in the matter.
July 8, 2021, 2:43 PM · My teacher won't teach children by choice - he taught in schools for many years and prefers to teach adults now. There are a few teachers in my area who teach adults, but many don't. After Covid I have to wonder how many are still teaching at all?

I would self-teach if I had no other choice, but am very thankful to be able to afford to work with a teacher. Not all do, and I may not always.

Edited: July 8, 2021, 4:10 PM · Ummm, it's only foolish if you want to get better at the instrument; otherwise it's fine. It may be glib, but I wasn't commenting on the availability of the resources. It's virtually impossible to not bake in very destructive habits that won't take a very long time and a lot of energy to undo when under the supervision of a skillful teacher.

I'm speaking from my experience in self-teaching. If anyone aspires to play at a level that anyone else would want to hear and without eventually hurting themselves, they are best off not going it alone. I see it as a trade-off between long term and short term thinking.

July 8, 2021, 7:00 PM · I think most teachers don't mind teaching adults but are wary of "adolts."
July 8, 2021, 8:08 PM · A good string-instrument teacher is one the student thinks is great
1. at the time because their relationship is inspiring and leads to satisfying improvement
2. and forever after because the student appreciates how the relationship has led to the possibility of continuing self-improvement.

I think there is some level at which self-learning can be moderately successful. It can help one improve - probably better and faster than with the "wrong" teacher, but definitely not as well as with the right one. But self-teaching from ground zero is ill-advised.

I actually consider myself to have been a self-taught "violinist" even though I had 4 teachers from age 4-1/2 to 11-1/2. The only one I really remember was the 3rd, because he was (and remained) a family friend who had just (in time) immigrated from Hungary. My last teacher, from late 1944 to mid-1946 at the MSM was inspiring to hear play but I knew well that he was not inspiring me and I was not happy with my progress - by age 11-1/2 I had not progressed beyond 3rd position.

With fear I told my parents I wanted to quit lessons - it turns out there was no need to fear - the said I should have told them when I knew I wanted to quit (wich was at least a year earlier).

So I stopped playing - about a year later we moved away from New York City to a town in central Maryland and I did play once (just to see if I still could - I could!) and then a year later something inspired me to start playing again and at 13 I joined the high school orchestra.

Once I saw and heard the results of the only local violin teacher on most of the other violinists in that orchestra I knew I would have to improve on my own (I did get help from my amateur violinist father, but only when I asked for it). Our HS concertmaster played Bach's "Air on the G string" at his graduation the end of that year. I thought, "If that's all it takes - hmm" and worked on it that summer - which finally got me past 3rd position. I became the concertmaster and held the chair for the next 3 years. During those 3 years I made great strides and worked my way through several significant concertos, etc. I think having that skill (besides good grades) was one of the things that got me into a "good" liberal arts college, where I would play in their orchestra for 4 years.

It probably helped to improve my violin playing that I took weekly cello lessons for 28 month starting the beginning of my sophomore year of high school from a really good pro cellist - and played cello in the local community orchestra from the day of our first lesson together. For me he was an inspiring teacher - but he was an alcoholic - and that finally resulted in my last lesson (just before Christmas 1951) He was drunk - even offered me a drink of vodka from a slim "Vitalis" bottle he had with him - and (damn it!) I actually played better than he did that day. He never came back to town for another lesson - so that was that. By the way, I was the soloist at my high school graduation - but on cello, playing Saint Saens "The Swan."

I had one more violin "lesson," in 1973, at a masterclass run by Claire Hodgkins who, at the time, was Heifetz's masterclass assistant at USC. Each of us students had to play a concerto movement and she then recommended some scales, etudes and Paganini Caprices for me to work on - and once I got home I continued to incorporate those in a daily 30-minute warmup routine before practicing for at least an hour the things I was in the room to improve - for at least the next 5 years .

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