At a Crossroads...

Edited: September 11, 2021, 8:57 PM · Hello, all. I'm an adult learner playing violin now for about four years. Unfortunately for me, my initial teacher has retired. I should also mention that before her retirement I'd stopped taking lessons with her for most of the last year due to concerns with Covid-19. However, since vaccines have become available we're both vaccinated and we've been comfortable playing together. These days though, she simply isn't up to getting together regularly due to her health.

A few months ago I began working with another teacher. The advice I've gotten has been enormously helpful with questions I've raised but I'm questioning our focus together.

My first teacher moved me along from piece to piece in the Suzuki books, as well as bringing other pieces along from time to time. After working together for a few months, last week I asked my new teacher what she thought I should be working on going forward. Her reply was that she felt her role was to assist with any questions I had, but not to suggest any particular areas I should focus on.

What is the role of a teacher? At this point should I expect more structure in my lessons or should I attempt to go forward in my own direction? Left to my own devices, I suppose I could continue through the Suzuki books piece by piece, work on Wohlfahrt etudes and study scales and shifting, which may or may not be the best way for me to progress.

Again, what should I expect the role of a teacher to be? Any thoughts from this very knowledgeable group would really be appreciated.

Replies (17)

September 11, 2021, 9:09 PM · That just sounds like an awful thesis statement from a teacher!

A good teacher will know pretty well what your strengths and weaknesses are, and how to move you along in order to address those weaknesses in a systematic way. A good teacher will have a plan for you! Some teachers may have doubts that their adult students really want to work in a systematic way and really learn how to play violin, but if you've expressed that you want to put in the work, the teacher should respond with a map.

It sounds like someone you are paying to listen to you play. I would find someone that expresses a real belief in your progress and can explain exactly how you are going to do so.

Edited: September 11, 2021, 9:40 PM · I agree with Christian. I am 65 years old but my teacher and I have a plan for me to progress as much as I can and we joke about how I have another 20 years or so to get to Planet Hilary. "We'll get there," is our phrase. He's basically treating me like a very impaired Juilliard student. And I have greatly improved over the year we have been working together. The key word being "work." I offer this just as an example.
September 11, 2021, 10:37 PM · I think "assist with any questions [you have]" may be appropriate for a one-time coaching but an ongoing teacher ought to be more organized and more forward-looking about things that you don't know that you should know, as well as take into account your requests.
Edited: September 11, 2021, 10:53 PM · Don't agree with the second teachers approach at all. The basic problem is that the learner does not know what they can't do.
One of the main roles of the teacher is to evaluate and prioritise within the context of a systematic approach.
I think you are wasting your money.
September 11, 2021, 11:12 PM · I agree. I think that a teacher should understand your goals and help you figure out a plan to achieve them. Note that most students have fluid plans -- whether students or adults -- and some flexibility over time will be necessary.

For instance, as an adult, my goal is to gradually get better over time. But a lot of the time, I have short-term projects that I am driving towards, and those projects generally take priority over the long-term goals, though my excellent teacher is helpful at finding a way to blend those things.

September 12, 2021, 10:36 AM · Just like anything else…. There are good and bad teachers. To hold oneself out as a professional violin teacher one is not required by law to hold any formal education, certification, or licensing. At least this is true in the US. As such, this places the responsibility on the student to perform their own due diligence in finding good, competent instruction. For most beginners that is difficult because you simply don’t know what you don’t know, as they say.
Edited: September 12, 2021, 4:59 PM · First of all, a teacher should have enough knowledge and experience to be able to spot what things each student is doing wrong and how to fix them for that student - if that is possible! Fixing will involve both corrections to the students' body dynamics and assigning appropriate etudes ("exercises") that are available from hundreds of years of pedagogy. You have to realize that some people have bodies or minds that will limit how far they can go in specific areas - this is is one of those areas. (I know for sure - I have one of those bodies and one of those minds - but I have played string instruments for 82 years for my own enjoyment and, for a time, even that of some other people.)

Second, the teacher should have a "track" for each student to follow to particular goals. Some teachers may work along limited tracks so if an adult student has particular goals in mind the teacher should know and agree to them - or find a teacher who does. (A "lazy" teacher may try to get by with a single track and force all students to follow that track. In a sense Suzuki teaching might be regarded to be that sort of track - so is much public school teaching with overcrowded classrooms. But when Suzuki has been well done it has had marvelous successes.)

I think that for the average adult student at "lower" or beginning levels the track available from the Suzuki books can work quite well as long as it is supplemented by appropriate etudes. The goal for these students might well be the 2 Mozart concertos in the last two books (although I suggest using different editions for this music as well as for the Vivaldi concerto in book 4).

(Is this music still in the Suzuki books?? I have not bought the latest editions.)

For those students hoping to have a career in music a good Suzuki program may typically direct them to leave the Suzuki track and enlist a "professional" violin teacher with a track record for launching professional musicians. At least this is what I have seen happen with "kids" who went on to major in violin at college and/or professional careers.

September 12, 2021, 11:23 AM · Could it be that the teacher wants to help you reach your goals?

If your goal is to be able to play in a community orchestra as soon as possible then the lessons could have a different focus then if your goal is to become the best violinist you can be. Likewise if your goal is to have an enjoyable hobby but your goal is fun rather than becoming the best violinist you can be the lessons would have a different focus. If your goal is to learn to play pop, fiddle, jazz rather than classical music the lessons would have a different focus.

In all the above cases the teacher will still be teaching you the skills of playing the violin but the lessons would not be same because of the different goals of each.

Edited: September 12, 2021, 8:42 PM · Adult learners tend to be more goal-driven than children, so it may well be that the teacher is trying to avoid dictating your goals to you. But, in general, you are better placed to know your big-picture goals, and a good teacher is better placed to understand how to get there.

I see two potential ways it could have broken down here: one would be on the teacher, but the other would be on you. If you've discussed longer-term goals with your teacher, then your teacher really should be the one suggesting steps that will move you in that direction. On the other hand, if you are asking about what to work on next without ever having talked about your big-picture goals, it may be too vague for your teacher to give you a good answer, especially once you are past the raw beginner stage.

September 12, 2021, 2:10 PM · Andrew, the Suzuki books are still like that, the last 2 books the Mozart Concerti. The same with book 4.
September 12, 2021, 2:59 PM · This teacher has no clue. Find a new one.
September 12, 2021, 4:16 PM · Teacher should be able to spot what you need to work on in 5 minutes...bowing, intonation, rhythm...and by looking at your instrument, should assess your knowledge of upkeep (strings, bow hair, bridge placement. This new teacher does not sound good. Try recommendations from friends or call a local college for some referrals. Have fun! and good luck. Glad you asked here...
September 12, 2021, 4:31 PM · Agree with the others, you need a new teacher. One who will support your goals and take an active interest in your development and progress.
September 12, 2021, 5:30 PM · Ah, the 'I'll listen to you, and then you pay me' teacher variant. I am an adult returner and have had probably 6-8 weekly teachers now. As a kid you pretty much have to stay with the teacher that is assigned to you but as an adult you get to change teachers if its not working out. Teaching failure can be due to many reasons - I've had ones that were excellent but that treated the lesson period as their chance to dump stresses (some even said that it was so nice to talk to an adult for a change) - and in the process teaching became a second string. However, a common type for the adult is one that really does not believe there is much they can do - they are used to teaching children or young adults with possible careers ahead of them and that is the goal. They do not realize that an older adult can be as serious about learning as a dedicated conservatory-targeted youth. They can't distinguish achievable goals from personal ones.

What to do? Immediately look for another one - and keep doing so until you find one that is willing to push you towards YOUR goals. However, the proviso there is that you have to be very clear with them what those are. As mentioned above, if you want to play in a fiddle group those goals are very different from playing solo with a piano to people that actually want to hear you perform.

How to find that teacher? I have not found a method that works except to ask around a lot. If you have access to a community orchestra the violinist there may well have good suggestions because they will recognize your enthusiasm and drive.

Good luck!

September 12, 2021, 5:50 PM · The luthier here maintains a list of teachers on the shop website. You might look for something like that. That's how I found my current teacher.
Edited: September 12, 2021, 6:20 PM · Thank you all for your input, which is greatly appreciated! I've decided that I will move on and look for another teacher. I'd gotten to the point where I wondered if I had the correct perception of what the role of an instructor should be. I will clearly communicate my goals in going forward, which are to play with others or in a community orchestra. I'll be looking for greater guidance from a teacher on what's required to achieve those goals.
Edited: September 12, 2021, 11:31 PM · I guess I can only relate to my current teacher. We together look through the RCM conservatory program to see what I'd be expected to perform as I progress in time. It is not necessarily linear and we digress as needed either to address something I might have failed to accomplish in my technique, to focus on something that has grabbed my interest, or to test where I crash and burn to set new goals and objectives, then go back and address the necessary skills that I must develop to progress further either through etudes or appropriate repertoire. We also spend considerable amount of time going through the more difficult parts and discussing/demonstrating ways to best practice them. Sometimes it could be just a scale or study, other times orchestral parts, concertos etc. We also sometimes play duets sight reading, where he teaches me how to approach it and anticipate.

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