You Ever Feel Like a Failure as a Teacher?

May 16, 2017, 1:24 PM · So, I've had some great successes as a teacher. I have a handful of students who make me so proud and play very well and always seem to implement my instructions well.

Then, a majority of my students are in the "making decent progress" category where it's not as fast as I'd like it to be and they don't always get exactly what I'm saying, but if I try something a few different ways they'll get the general idea. Their progress is slowish, but pretty steady, and I'm happy enough with it (and they're usually enjoying the experience and not learning to hate music).

But in the third category, I have students that really just struggle. Like, they try, sometimes very hard, and every lesson I try my best to be clever and work around their problems with creative ideas and specific drills. But no matter what I do, they really just seem like they're swimming against the tide.

And I'll try about 100 different ways of coaxing their body into doing what is necessary, or perhaps backing off on the difficulty of music/exercises to give their body a chance to "grow into playing," but it all ends up in ROUGHLY the same result.

Now, I know with a lot of these students that if they stick with it long enough they will get to the point where the instrument is comfortable, and that you can water a tree but you can't force it to grow any faster than it's gonna grow, and some trees grow far faster than others.

But, I can't help feeling like a failure as a teacher with these students. When they mention that they feel their progress is very slow or seemingly non-existent despite practicing, I tell them that "it's a marathon, not a sprint." I tell them that they're learning more than just the violin since they don't have previous experience with ANY music and are just now starting as adult beginners, so the progress will seem slower simply because there's more basics for them to wade through, such as coordination, rhythm, intonation, music reading, etc....

I tell them that violin is a 5-10 year project, but maybe I'm just lying to them and avoiding telling them that they just don't have the motor skills to do this?

I sometimes wonder if perhaps I should send them to a different teacher in the hopes that something will magically change for them, but I know that there's nothing magical a different teacher could do that I'm not already doing, when given students with such inherently bad coordination. Plus, I know for a FACT that they would feel like failures if I sent them off and they would quit before they got to another teacher's doorstep.

The worst part is, they really love the violin, and really want to play. It would be easy for me to tell someone that "this instrument just isn't for them" if they didn't care anyways and didn't practice.

This ended up being a bit of a ramble, but I suppose I'm just curious if this situation is common with other teachers (those who teach adult beginners with no musical experience whatsoever, including middle school band or anything of that nature).

Do you ever feel like a failure because you couldn't sort out their problems or keep them encouraged for enough years for their body to finally get the necessary coordination? Or do you just accept that some people aren't meant to play the instrument and not blame yourself? I know intellectually that's probably the case, but I also feel like perhaps I'm just validating my lack of ability to teach these people? I mean, almost anyone can teach a talented student, but isn't the mark of a great teacher that they can bring very untalented students to a REASONABLE level of playing?

Replies (75)

May 16, 2017, 1:27 PM · We all struggle with this. Ask any professor who works with graduate students! You can teach them, but can't do their learning for them.
May 16, 2017, 5:08 PM · "...almost anyone can teach a talented student."

Absolutely not true. Someone who is not prepared to teach the talented/advanced student may well be wasting that student's time and money. Besides, unless the student is a prodigy who has mastered every technique, the need for experience is even more critical when the teacher has to demonstrate technique or repertoire. You really can't teach Don Juan if you haven't worked out every fingering and bow issue and spent much time actually preparing it.

Edited: May 16, 2017, 5:33 PM · I don't teach Violin/viola, but guitar. Same problem, though.

I had this one student who really enjoyed it, was always looking forward to lessons, etc, but by the end of each lesson he just seemed so defeated. I literally tried everything with this man - but there was just no way to transition him into more advanced concepts. Even after months of working on chords, and finally starting on standard notation after about two weeks he had forgotten most of the chords. Continuing on each week he would forget the previous weeks notation assignments, etc.

Was it a problem with me as a teacher, or him as a student? I suspect it may have been me as a teacher, because during the lesson the ability was clearly there, but I think that once I was not there to guide him and prod along he lost it. So is it him as a student?

The real answer is that it is a bit of both. We had a very honest conversation about his musical progress in comparison to the money he is spending on lessons with me, and we agreed that we ought to take a break in lessons so he can reassess. I am of course always happy to help through email, etc, if he had questions or concerns or if he ever wanted to start back up again. I also offered to refer them to a different teacher if they wanted to try working with someone with a different approach.

Unfortunately while anyone can learn an instrument, not everyone will work out with every teacher. He has now gotten a new teacher and is making progress - something about how their new teacher communicates information sticks with them whereas how I did did not. I'm glad for them!

If you are in a similar situation it is best with adults to have this conversation. You can metaphorically hold their hand and help them make an informed choice. Do they want to continue? - it seems like yours do. Do they want to continue with you, and possibly continue making slow/nill progress? Maybe. Would they be open to trying working with another teacher who's methods and personality might be more successful for them? Maybe also.

As we all know teaching music is not one size fits all for every student, and if they are not making progress with you, but may have the potential for it, it's important to have this chat. Part of being a professional is wanting what's best for your students to succeed and sometimes that is instruction from someone else. The biggest challenge is always presenting the idea in such a way as to not appear you are casting them away - because you are not. You are taking steps to ensure their success.

May 16, 2017, 5:43 PM · To the OP: Have you told your students your struggle with their progress? Even the very fact that you care for their progress to this extent is powerful.

Coming from the other flip side, both in being a student and in being a student that is making satisfying progress, I can't give advice but only sympathize. I hope they keep up their motivation.

@Michael McGrath: It is so refreshing to hear your perspective on teaching. If only all teachers would be honest with themselves, their students and their relationship...

It shouldn't be the student's 'job' to broach the subject of whether the student-teacher combination is ideal, in both cases of being a more advanced and slower student.

May 16, 2017, 6:04 PM · Hi G.A;

Thanks for that. It is important to always remember that it IS a relationship as well as a service. It's much more personal than, say, your cable service or ordering a meal. Sometimes that gets lost in discourse or just time. I like to treat every student as a unique challenge and will do my best to tailor everything to them as best I can. Unfortunately sometimes the best thing is something someone else is offering!

May 16, 2017, 9:43 PM · Scott Cole: of course that was a massive generalization (my post was already getting huge so I had to condense my words).

What I meant was more along these lines: to PROPERLY train a talented student to the extent that they'll be able to reach their full potential, a teacher must be very SKILLED, but not necessarily a natural-born TEACHER (although in a perfect situation, the teacher is both very skilled and both very good at teaching, but that is quite rare, which can be seen in the god-status achieved by notable pedagogues such as Delay or Gingold). Talented students tend to respond well to simply being told/shown what to do, rather than the teacher having to "translate" the concepts into workable cues, as in the case of less talented students.

In my personal experience, it's easier - from a teaching perspective - to train talented students, simply because they pick things up easier. Maybe I only have to restate a concept in 2-3 different ways before they get it, rather than 10 different ways. And since I have to know less cues to get effective results from them, then my experience as a teacher - which allows me to have learned more cues over time - has less of an overall impact on their development than it would have on a less talented student. My skill/experience as a PLAYER, however, is still very relevant.

So, it's not really that "anyone can teach a talented student" so much as it is EASIER to bring a talented student to a reasonable level of playing than it is to bring someone with coordination difficulties to that same level. And even after that point, I would still find it easier to continue them with their progress, but I would just have to have the skill to lead them.

G.A.: Sadly, that would go over pretty poorly. They already feel bad about their progress even with my encouragement. If I told them that I, too, struggled with their progress it would certainly tip them over the edge.

May 17, 2017, 10:30 AM · Erik, I would feel downright touched to hear that a teacher gave as much of a damn about my progress (or failure to progress) as I do :-)
May 17, 2017, 1:14 PM · One thing to consider, Timothy, is that you SAY you would appreciate absolute honesty from your teacher, but you also probably haven't experienced the effects of your teacher being brutally honest. Not to mention, you are just one of the few that would continue trying if your teacher discouraged you. That's certainly not everyone; many are fragile in both their self esteem and how they view their playing, and I can't be brutally honest with those people without crushing them.

In all social forms, including that of a teacher/student, truths are "dampened" for maximum effectiveness.

A big part of being a good teacher means doing whatever is necessary to MAKE THE STUDENT A BETTER PLAYER, and in many cases this means a bit of encouragement even if you, as the teacher, aren't 100% satisfied. It just depends on the situation. Obviously I'll let my students know if they should practice more, if they should change HOW they practice, or any other relevant honest info.

But unless they explicitly ASK me if they're not cut out for the instrument, I tend not to comment. I figure if they're happy with the process, then I'm happy (generally speaking). And if they're not, they'll quit on their own, without me having to be the "bad guy" that was the "reason they quit."

I actually approached one of my long-term students a while back about the fact that it's been several years since we started and it seems like she's totally stalled - keep in mind, this was student that always acted like she wanted straight up honesty, no punches pulled - and she had a pretty bad reaction to it. Maybe I had presented it poorly due to being nervous, but I ended up apologizing later and saying that I'd just try harder as an instructor (code language for: we'll just stick to easier music and I'll lower my expectations). Since then, she's been happy so I feel like I probably did the right thing. And she did start trying harder after that, so I guess it turned out for the best.

I don't know; people are just complicated and irrational generally.... I guess this is why it's often a struggle to find good violin teachers. A lot of the potentially good ones get weeded out and quit because of the "people aspect" of teaching. I know so many good musicians who have money problems and I always just tell them to start teaching, but the story is always the same: "I just can't bring myself to do it. People are too awful."

May 17, 2017, 3:41 PM · As a student I what I feel like I need most from a teacher is their knowledge and their encouragement. While being honest is good, I would be deflated to hear my teacher telling me that I'm not improving after all those hours I'm practicing. Although, I wouldn't want him to tell me I am improving greatly when I'm really not. Lol. My teacher has a way of telling me in not too brutal terms if I need to work on something. He usually says "That's really good. Keep up with that." And for those times I'm having problems he'll say "Not too bad." Then he'll continue on with what adjustments I need to make. Haha. :)

It's nice to see a teachers perspective and their concern about their student's progress. If it were me, and it's been along time and every avenue has been taken and nothing is working I'd prefer to get the absolute truth even though I'll be diaappointed and hurt (most likely.) But better that, than me spending more resources on something that is clearly not working out.

May 17, 2017, 3:58 PM · Erik wrote, "One thing to consider, Timothy, is that you SAY you would appreciate absolute honesty from your teacher, but you also probably haven't experienced the effects of your teacher being brutally honest."

Yes, I agree with you. It takes a lot of trust to be built up before that can happen.

Edited: May 17, 2017, 5:58 PM · Hi Eric, just wanted to share some advice. I am not a teacher so keep that in mind, for what it's worth. Also I would guess you probably tried these things, but thought I would put them out there any way.

Practice- perhaps a practice log or family member can give you a better idea on their practice habits. Do they have any inhibitors that interfere with practicing such as noise limitations or time? Also are they practicing the amount and way you ask them?

Recording- I find video recording myself really reveals (sometimes shockingly) areas I need to work on. Perhaps videoing students and watching the video with them so you can point out areas they may need to work on. Also compare older videos with more recent ones so they can see what you see.

Listening- Put together a bunch of well recorded violin music and put it on their thumb drive. Include the music they are working on. Ask them to listen to the recordings during free time like riding in the car etc.

Playing with others- perhaps organizing students to work together once in a while could create some healthy competition. It may provide them with goals to work for.

Teacher rotation- as kids going to school, usually every year we got new teachers. I wonder if this would be good for music students? Different teachers have different ideas, strengths, weaknesses and approaches that may be helpful at times. Perhaps you know some other teachers and you could create a periodical rotation of some students? Of course this could impact the monetary aspect, perhaps.

I hope I helped. I certainly admire your dedication to your students.

May 17, 2017, 9:30 PM · Hey Timothy, those are all excellent suggestions and of course any reasonable teacher should have those tools in their skillset!

Try adding about 15-20 other tools into that toolbox, trying each of them multiple times with different implementations, and then it still not working, and you have the students I'm talking about. It's really only a handful of them, and those tools would certainly work for 90% of my students whose problems are usually caused by the obvious stuff, like not being motivated, not actually practicing how I asked, or being too chaotic in their mindset or goals.

It really does seem to me that a very select few people are just incredibly slow learners, even when they do everything that I ask of them and I am as creative and clever as possible in their instruction.

I should probably add that it's not like they learn nothing, it's just that they're always fighting uphill against their motor skills; as if their limbs and joints aren't wired correctly to the brain.

My hope for them is that given enough time and simple enough exercises, they will be able to somewhat rewire their neural pathways to be more efficient and accurate.

Edited: May 17, 2017, 10:33 PM · Hi Erik,

Chirping back in here out of curiosity: what sort of issues are your students having? You keep defining them as motor skills. Is it a lack of strength? Power? Accuracy? Are they able to type 'properly' using all 10 digits?

If they can't do the last one, maybe having them learn to type correctly can help as an unorthodox method of improvement. It will help wire their fingers to accurately and quickly move to locations and apply force. The amount of pressure used to depress the key on a stiff mechanical keyboard isn't significantly less hard than a violin string.

Is it bowing issues? Maybe light weight training can help them out - you would be surprised the difference lifting a little weight regularly will make on how steady and the amount of control your bow arm has.

Maybe if your musical toolbox isn't working, it's time to get adventurous and try something a little left field.

May 18, 2017, 4:59 AM · I had a student once who was "all thumbs" in the laboratory. Some projects do involve delicate work -- nothing like playing the violin, but still there is a range. This is not a common problem, mind you, but in the case of my student and one other that I knew, I came to a better understanding once I learned of certain (doctor-prescribed) medications they were taking, which affected not only their motor skills but also their visual perception.
May 18, 2017, 6:57 AM · Not everyone is cut out for the violin. One of my children was obviously never going to be better than mediocre on the violin. He switched to double bass and made Texas All-State three years in a row (those readers in Texas will appreciate the level of that accomplishment). My other children also switched from violin to something else and reached heights that they were never going to approach on the violin. I used to think that musical talent could be equally well expressed on any instrument--I no longer think that.

That being said, nearly every time a student's lack of progress has been frustrating, it eventually comes out either that the student isn't practicing enough (or at all), or the student is not practicing the way I want them to.

May 18, 2017, 7:42 AM · "That being said, nearly every time a student's lack of progress has been frustrating, it eventually comes out either that the student isn't practicing enough (or at all), or the student is not practicing the way I want them to."

Mary Ellen: just curious, are you explicit about the way you want your students to practice?

May 18, 2017, 2:14 PM · Mary Ellen: I definitely do find that when students aren't making progress it is because they're not actually doing precisely what I said. In fact, 80% of the time, the culprit is them playing too fast too quickly, or assuming because they had a section down the day before it means they can start at that speed the day after.

One of the main correlations I have found with this small handful of students that I'm speaking of is that they actually CAN'T play very slowly (the speed at which a song no longer sounds like a song).

By that, I mean even if I've worked up their note reading skills to be proficient, and their mechanical skills are good separately (for example, they can bow well, and finger well), when it comes to playing the music ONE.NOTE.AT.A.TIME, they literally lose their place, or forget what they were supposed to do next. They'll either forget what bowing they were on, precisely which note they just played, or in some cases literally can't bring themselves, emotionally, to play that slowly.

My hypothesis is that they're just wired incorrectly for such a difficult multi-task instrument, through a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental stimulus that they've lived and have been adapting to for XX years; but given 5-10 years of sticking to it, they could theoretically re-wire their neural functions, and that would be the point where they actually "started" to learn the violin, rather than just learning how to change their neural/nerve pathways.

So the hard part is figuring out if it's best to 1) shoot them down now by informing them that they'll always be fighting uphill (and probably have them quit as a result) or 2) Keep encouraging them for 5-10 years in the HOPES that they'll be able to rewire themselves, and hopefully not make myself out to be a liar after all that time. One of my big fears with encouraging students too much is that, 5 years down the road, I'll look like someone who was just out to get their money because I KNEW that they had very little potential and didn't cut them off early. Obviously they would have made some progress during that time, but if they're barely past a Suzuki book 1 level of playing after 5+ years and meanwhile almost all of my other students who have played that long are at a MUCH more advanced level of repertoire, I assume they'd definitely have some bitterness.

In fact, one of the reasons I've strayed away from group classes with my students is because I don't want this tiny handful to be utterly embarrassed when they discover how much more successful everyone else is.

May 18, 2017, 6:07 PM · "In fact, one of the reasons I've strayed away from group classes with my students is because I don't want this tiny handful to be utterly embarrassed when they discover how much more successful everyone else is."

Sooooooo, if I understand correctly, the 90% of successful students in your studio are being deprived of the benefits group classes because you're afraid embarrassing the other 10%?

It's okay to recommend your students to other teachers if it's that frustrating for you. I don't know the students or what goes on in your lessons, but if after 5 years of Suzuki Book 1, you might be relieved if they went somewhere else. There are plenty of good teachers in the Sacramento area.

May 18, 2017, 6:41 PM · Forgive my ignorance, but what could be the possible benefit of a group class except for cost?
Edited: May 18, 2017, 7:01 PM · Hey Christian;

The benefit is simple: You develop the ability to work with other musicians in a group environment while under the guidance of a mutually respected teacher. If you're not playing with other musicians you're missing out on a huge chunk of the experience. This is a vehicle to allow that in a controlled educational environment.

Sort of like a 'teaching chamber ensemble'.

May 18, 2017, 8:18 PM · "Mary Ellen: just curious, are you explicit about the way you want your students to practice?"

Of course. I devote a great deal of lesson time to working with students on problem solving and practice techniques. That's one of the primary goals of lessons--to teach students how to teach themselves. I'm only their teacher one day a week; they have to know what to do on the other six days.

Edited: May 18, 2017, 8:57 PM · Very frequently, when a student is not progressing, the explanation lies in one obvious area: the student is not practicing. They have to practice every day. Every day! Otherwise no one should expect much at all.

So you might focus on motivating the non-progressing students to practice, by keeping them accountable for it.

May 18, 2017, 10:16 PM · Christian, I can't speak for the group classes of other teachers, but mine are designed as a way of

1) Getting people to know other that play (social aspects)
2) Doing supplemental work that would be a waste of time to spend private lesson time on, but is almost as effective when done in a group as it would be alone (sight reading, music theory)
3) Learning the play in front of other people (what I call partner performance, since it's done in pairs, unlike an actual recital), and in doing so gaining perspective on well/badly they are doing compared to everyone else
4) The chance to both play and be teacher-guided on duets (for more advanced students)

There are more benefits obviously, but those are a few of the main ones.

Primary reason is it seems to help with motivation. Everyone is captivated by the novelty of violin at first, but long-term motivation can be an issue for many without the social aspect.

Laurie: I do agree that's the case ALMOST all of the time!

May 18, 2017, 10:36 PM ·

Honesty vs Brutally honest: Honesty is telling them something they need to know. Brutally honest is telling them something based on ignorance.

Teacher: "Your bowing wasn't good in this section"

Honest teacher's response: "here's an exercise to fix it."
Brutally honest teacher's response: "There is nothing I can do for you, you need to practice more."

Basically the brutally honest teacher blames the student instead of their own lack of knowledge.

Learning to play the violin, IMO, isn't a 5-10 year commitment, but 6-18 month project. The basics can be learn in this time frame, and most(80%) are capable of this. Some of these basics are: playing a 2 octave G scale in tune, relatively straight bowing using the wrist, good overall technique, capable of pitch matching notes, able to correct poor intonation without assistance, good sense of rhythm,few tension issues and not playing learned songs at or under their level poorly.

Symptoms and characteristic of some learning difficulties:

Poor proprioception sense- students can learn to pitch match notes and play in tune in the first months, but struggle with consistency. Students with a very poor propioception sense have very poor intonation after 18 months,but can play somewhat in tune at slow speeds; and bowing parallel with the bridge is very difficult for them also.

Poor music memory: students will still struggling with pitch matching notes after 6 months, they are less likely to correct poor intonation on their own and require help finding in tune.I find it takes them about 18 months until you see good consistent intonation. Students with very poor music memory(tone death) are not able to pitch match 'at all' after two months of constant correction.

Dyslexia: very poor sense of rhythm when site reading. They may hang on to last note of a group of notes. For example, if there was a group of 4, 1/8 notes, they would use the whole bow for the last note.

Poor teaching ,or teaching methods and approaches: students become frustrated and struggle, practice less or stop all together, they don't see any advancement in their playing, new music is too difficult to learn, they notice that many other students with less experience play better than they do.

May 18, 2017, 11:13 PM · Charles, I can't really call what you outlined as the 6-18 month goals "playing the violin." Yes, they start to cover what is involved in playing, but don't really even scrape the surface of what is involved.

Playing well is certainly a 5-10 commitment for most, as I'm sure most could attest to here. Except A.0., who apparently can play the Beethoven Concerto after 2 years.

May 19, 2017, 3:21 AM · Wow, just wow! As an adult beginner after reading this thread I'm inclined to just quit my lessons in order to relieve my teacher's suffering ... Oh, wait! I just remembered that he told me he enjoys teaching adults far more than he did teaching children. Must be a flaw in his character then.
May 19, 2017, 5:46 AM · I'd bring a hanky for my teacher for every lesson if I wasn't already paying him. He can buy his own..

Five to ten years is a very long time, and it's acceptable if within that we make significant incremental progress coming to a worthwhile level of playing. However, many students aren't and for them, it's just another way of saying 'eventually' while not really getting there.

I think students should be playing better in every lesson, otherwise the lesson is not accomplishing anything. What happens between the lesson and the next is the student's responsibility though, and many if not most spend a lot of time without much progression, and a fraction of the time with a successful focus of attention on the details through which improvement can be made.

What that detail is supposed to be at a given time and how to work on it is also something the teacher should be identifying together with the means for its solution, but obviously some teachers are better than others in this, with the entire spectrum of quality being present in the field.

Edited: May 19, 2017, 10:06 AM · I am not a violin teacher, I teach something else in a land grant university. As a land grant institution, we accept students of all levels and EXPECT students would make progress at different rates. I don't think it is any different with violin students. It Is NOT a failure.
May 19, 2017, 1:26 PM · Hmmmm Zina, you seem rather triggered by this post. You should probably know: about 70% of my 50 students are over 18 (most of them well over 18), so I do indeed enjoy teaching adults.

In fact I enjoy teaching both children and adults equally, and when I feel like they're happy and progressing, then I find myself happy.

This post wasn't intended as some sort of shaming/discouraging device, but rather as a medium for me to ask other teachers if they ever feel like failures.

May 19, 2017, 1:33 PM · Charles, I strongly disagree with your time frame! There is a lot of depth you can go into on this instrument, and it's not going to happen in that time frame, and most students will barely get the basics in that time. Not even the most gifted students!
May 19, 2017, 2:31 PM · As a non-teacher (but maybe a teacher in the future, you never know), I am absorbing a lot from this thread. Laurie, I actually think setting a time period is dangerous for the same reasons you disagree with Charles.

I have a question for Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen, you mentioned earlier that musical talent is not transferable to every instrument. I agree with you, but I wonder, why? Why, just as an example, could your son who plays bass not play violin just as well? Is it a different body type? Different way of thinking that can't be changed? Is it one of those things we will never be able to explain?

Edited: May 19, 2017, 2:42 PM · Lori, I think you should write an article about reasonable time frames to reach major milestones in progress, all the way up to playing Mendelssohn (or at least Bruch and the beginning of advanced land). Your years of teaching beginners would provide a great basis for reasonable time ranges for each milestone. I would like to know what good to reasonable progress is, for sure, since I was a slacker as a kid and can't use my own experience.
May 19, 2017, 8:17 PM · Lol Jason, you have to consider the implications of such an article; particularly how it might affect those who aren't quite as fast as the norm. She might as well title it "7 signs you should quit violin right now!"

And there are literally so many factors at play. For example, I could take any of my students right now and GIVE them Bruch, but just being on Bruch doesn't mean anything by itself. Is it a GOOD Bruch, a SOLID Bruch? Then there's the fact that I've had students blast into a solid Suzuki book 4 within a YEAR of starting (not many), and meanwhile I've also had many students take 3-4 years to achieve that same result.

So "reasonable time frames" to achieve certain songs or skill levels just isn't really a doable article, at least not in my opinion.

It is funny how many of my students have asked that question though, and they all receive the same, dissatisfying answer: "it depends." (of course I then explain all the factors it depends on, such as talent quotient, practice time, practice quality, practice consistency, whether or not they actually listen in lessons, how advanced their motor skills are, if they have an ear that's already trained, etc etc etc.

Edited: May 19, 2017, 9:16 PM ·

All students will learn at different time frames that really can't be measured, but we should see an approximate pattern occur with teachers.
This is what we are talking about, the teacher's ability, and not so much the students.

And to answer your question? No, I don't feel like a failure at teaching, and that's because I work very hard at solving problems.

May 19, 2017, 9:30 PM · Charles, I also work very hard at solving problems, and would even go as far as to say that my thoughts about teaching and playing combined consume about 80-90% of my thinking time in a day. The reason I can feel like a failure at times is because I care so much, not because I rationally see myself a failed teacher. It's an emotional response to me caring, not because I'm actually ineffective. As I've stated, this is a handful (3-5) out of my 50 students, so the proportion matches up with the percentage that one would expect to not be very successful even with proper teaching. I should also mention I never turn students down, regardless of their initial talent, so this might also add to that proportion being a bit higher than with others. I know some teachers will be quick to redirect less talented students because it risks giving them a bad reputation if they keep those students.

Are you implying that you've never once had a student that failed (by failed, I mean progressed very slowly, to the extent that they were consistently unhappy with the speed of their progress) despite your best efforts?

May 19, 2017, 9:39 PM · "I have a question for Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen, you mentioned earlier that musical talent is not transferable to every instrument. I agree with you, but I wonder, why? Why, just as an example, could your son who plays bass not play violin just as well? Is it a different body type? Different way of thinking that can't be changed? Is it one of those things we will never be able to explain?"

I have no idea. It's probably some combination of physical attributes along with innate preferences. When my younger son switched to oboe, it was immediately obvious that he had found his voice.

May 19, 2017, 10:51 PM · Even if all other things are equal, if you like playing one instrument more than another and that leads to more and more careful practice, then you're going to be better on the favored instrument. I myself like violin and classical music much more than I did as a child, in part because I spent my ten year interregnum listening to a boatload of classical music; I now practice much more intensely because I know what I like and what I want to play (Baroque fiddle music and Brahms chamber music). I would never practice a keyboard instrument as much because it ain't a fiddle, and I don't like the sound as much.
May 21, 2017, 8:52 AM · I don't consider myself to be a failure as a teacher, but I have seen epic fails from many other teachers in my area. These students come to me; sometimes I can help them and sometime not. What are the patterns of failed teaching? Let me count the ways:
1. students with poor setup, especially bow grip
2. never been taught the exact mechanics of the shift
3. never been given a methodical approach to learning spiccato or vibrato
4. never been shown how to master fast passage work with groups and rhythms and the use of the metronome.
5. never been taught to read
6. never had to master the basics of music theory, especially intervals (which goes back to #5 eventually).
7. never been taught basics concepts of musicality. If they can't give a 4-word definition of the word "phrase" then something is wrong.
8. given inappropriate music for their level

To be fair, we've all seen students who have been taught all of the above, but can't retain the information.
Yes, there are students that will never master the bow grip, or simply can't ever remember the fact that the half-steps in C are E-F and B-C, or simply refuse to practice in groups and haven't seen their metronome in years and won't look for it, or are assigned an etude book and week after week tell me "we ordered it, should be here soon...

But I'm talking about teachers who simply don't give students all the basics above. So my philosophy is that if you are giving students the tools to succeed, and in a positive manner suited to each student's ability, then you're not a a failure.

May 21, 2017, 9:42 AM · That makes sense Scott. There are quite a few students, with some, if not all of those problems. And of course, some bad teachers as well. i was only discussing this with colleagues two days ago at a re-union, and especially about an ex orchestral member who was a dreadful teacher (and player).
May 21, 2017, 10:51 AM · I think it is true that people have to find the right instrument for them. Someone may become a fantastic pianist after trying the violin and not getting on. I know of very good singers who were only average on the fiddle. (Of course most, but not all, conductors, are failed instrumentalists). (Thought I would throw that in for a bit of controversy).

I agree with Mary Ellen that often it is bad practising routines that muck pupils up, and teaching them how to practice is very important.

Also, some students make huge progress in a short time, the average student may take longer, and below average may take a lot longer.

May 21, 2017, 1:12 PM · My biggest pet peeve, ever, is bad violin teachers. I can't tell you the number of students that I've had to tell (in the nicest way possible): "the teacher that you loyally stuck with for 2 years has literally been teaching you wrong and addressing none of your technical issues. It's pretty clear that they've just been giving you new songs each week to keep you occupied, without having any idea of how to actually teach." Some of these people could have been reasonably talented and dedicated players, too. So then I get to be the "bad guy" who tells them that everything they're doing is wrong. But it has to be done; oh well.
Edited: May 21, 2017, 2:26 PM · Erik -- two years? In my childhood that was *eleven* years. Scott's list? All of the above! And that's no joke. (Except musicality -- I definitely learned schmaltz.) Example: My "solo and ensemble" judges marked me for "bad intonation" year after year. My teacher basically said that would fix itself on its own. I didn't learn about "ring tones" until restarting at the age of 42. Why didn't I change teachers? Because I simply didn't know better, and neither did my parents, and anyway I liked him, he was a funny guy. And he was a good violinist -- concertmaster of the local orchestra, studied with Elman, etc. When I finally did ask my parents to change teachers there was resistance to that on all fronts. (For starters the new guy was more expensive, farther away, etc.) Why did I finally change? Because a caring, mid-60s violinist named Winifred, who I admired (I played in several pit orchestras with her and kind of she showed me the ropes) took me aside and gave me a stern talking-to about it, I mean she was really frank. Looking back, I can see for her to do that without talking to my parents first was, in those days, pretty brave. So I changed over to a guy who was supposed to be a great teacher, who played with Detroit Symphony and who had prepared students for conservatory, etc. Unfortunately I only had one year left of high school and I basically realized I could never make up for lost time, so I gave up after a year of that and focused on jazz piano (I had a fantastic piano teacher, his name is Barton Polot.)

On the other hand I'm aware of students who faithfully go to their lessons every week but wonder why they don't advance, wonder why they stay on the same pieces month after month, but they don't practice hardly at all, and when they do, they don't do the stuff their teachers told them to do. They just play through a couple of pieces and that's it. Partly, they haven't bought in to the idea that difficult, tedious work that requires close concentration will pay off even if only slowly. In some cases the only place their lesson notebooks are ever opened is at their lesson.

May 21, 2017, 3:09 PM · I try very hard never to make disparaging remarks about a student's former teachers; my approach is, "Here's how I teach it and this is what to do going forward." The closest I will come is to say, "If you were told [specific wrong thing], I respectfully disagree." And then explain on the student's level why I teach something the way I do.

I would never tell a student that their previous teacher had been teaching them wrong or that he/she didn't know how to teach.

May 21, 2017, 3:17 PM · @Mary Ellen: Why though? If the teacher is blatantly incorrect and making hash out of their students' ability, time, and money, I would it prudent to bluntly tell said student so that they recognize it as such.

Ignorance begets ignorance, so it seems a rather evil disservice to not do so.

May 21, 2017, 5:19 PM · AO, because maybe the teacher was not the horrible teacher Paul Deck and Scott Cole describe above. Maybe the problems were more the student's fault and less the teacher's. No one should make a concrete judgment on a teacher they don't know just by hearing one of their students play a few times.
May 21, 2017, 6:04 PM · I'm sure Mary Ellen has inherited students from truly miserable teachers. But disparaging them harshly is first of all disrespectful and possibly counterproductive. Also what you're really saying to the student (or their parents) is that they've wasted their money. Nobody wants to hear that. And finally, if you get a reputation for dumping on others, you're going to wind up getting dumped on yourself, whether rightly or not.

My comments about my former violin teacher are intended as a caution to others. He has been dead for about 10 years. He was a Navy pilot in WW2 and continued to play the violin into his 90s. I only ever met one other of his students.

May 21, 2017, 6:45 PM · @Paul: People are too sensitive nowadays, I of course sympathize that nobody WANTS to ever be told that they wasted their money, but what if a repeat occurs later?


I see a player who says they have been playing for 5 years. Ask them about practice etc, to find out that they DO practice, but the teacher cannot teach.

Do you let such a (hypothetical) person just continue with the teacher? Seems rather mean to do so (not to mention the ears of anyone around them)! :D

May 21, 2017, 6:54 PM · As I said: "In the nicest way possible." I don't actually tell them they've been wasting all their time and money, but they quickly figure it out when I rework their entire technical foundation from scratch because it's so majorly screwed up. I'm not talking about orchestra-player-teachers who maybe just aren't born to teach; I'm talking about teachers in my city who maybe took 2 years of lessons, got to a Suzuki 2-3 level and then decided to start teaching because they knew that SOME beginners wouldn't know any better. I really try not to disparage their previous teachers, but there usually comes a point when they ask why we're doing it so differently, why I'm "moving them backwards" when they're used to the FEELING of moving forwards (due to always receiving new music that is different, but no more challenging or educational than the last music), and I have to be honest with them: their previous teachers literally barely knew how to play themselves, let alone teach someone else. But I break it to them more like "well, I'm sure they taught you plenty of useful concepts like musicality, intonation, and how to enjoy violin. But I'm going to go at your problems from a technical standpoint so we can break through the walls that you've been encountering."

Still, I really can't feel bad for disparaging con-artists just because their con comes in the form of violin teaching. Sorry. There are plenty of good teachers, too, but they're at least equaled by the number of cons, and this majorly irritates me because they the cons ruin so many potentially viable violinists. Very few violinists are going to continue trying after having spent 2+ years doing the WRONG thing. That loss of initial momentum, combined with the bad technique they now have to undo is usually crushing for them.

And I should mention that I can usually tell the difference between student-caused issues and teacher-caused issues. I figure this out by asking questions: "Just out of curiosity, did your previous teacher ever mention that your elbow shouldn't float in the air above your wrist?" "Did your previous teacher ever mention that you pinky should be bent on the bow?"

If they look confused and then I show them WHY the particular technique is relevant and they respond something like "oh, that makes a lot of sense! I never knew the role of the pinky in the bow hold!"

That's when I know their teacher was ineffective.

And besides, if they're switching teachers it's probably because they finally caught on that something wasn't quite right.

Edited: May 21, 2017, 7:24 PM · "I figure this out by asking questions: "Just out of curiosity, did your previous teacher ever mention that your elbow shouldn't float in the air above your wrist?" "Did your previous teacher ever mention that you pinky should be bent on the bow?"

Tempting as this is, I really try my best to avoid asking about the previous teacher.
I'd say just tell them what you want them to do and move forward.

May 21, 2017, 11:03 PM ·
The thing is, if you are trying to get all or most of your students to a specific level, lets say "solid" Bach Partitas, than you are more likely to fail. Most don't have the desire, time or capabilities to reach those levels. Some need to ,or really enjoy advancing to the next levels; whereas, others just "don't want to suck" playing pop songs and folk music. There are a lot of students that want to play easy to intermediate pieces well, and have a large repertoire of this type. After a year or two, you should have an idea if this is an 'advancing' type or 'larger, simpler repertoire' type.

My pet peeve, I find a lot of teachers have patronizing teaching techniques towards new students that stunt their advancement: Tape on bows and fingersboards that stays on for months to years for students over 7, excessive use of numbering notes; not correcting them, but praising poor playing, expectations too low, underestimating etc....
Some would be surprised at what can be learned in the first six months of playing from the average student if the teacher doesn't have this attitude. It's this patronizing teaching technique that kills prodigies.

May 22, 2017, 1:04 AM · Just thought i would throw this in ... "are not teachers failed soloists?" (wink) (Only joking).

P. S. I'm a failed human being - just like old DT.

May 22, 2017, 1:08 AM · "There are a lot of students that want to play easy to intermediate pieces well, and have a large repertoire of this type. After a year or two, you should have an idea if this is an 'advancing' type or 'larger, simpler repertoire' type."

Yes, this is an important distinction to make. Realizing that some students may be more "folk" players vs others who might aspire to be classical players is a great way of avoiding disappointment (on both ends).

With that said, I might have to disagree regarding tape. I tend to only use tape when I deem it necessary and obviously it should never be considered as a one-size-fits-all solution, but most of my students who begin with tape "grow out" of it in fairly short order due to me requiring them to watch the music more than their fingers. Pretty quickly, they get to the point where they don't watch the tape at all, so even if it stays on the fingerboard, it doesn't affect them or stunt them much. Of course, I remove it once there's no use to it being there.

I WOULD argue that it's better for one to have tape and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

But regardless, I think you might be putting too much stock into the idea that one method "kills prodigies" whereas another doesn't. In my personal experience, I have found that gifted students succeed, in great fashion, whether I give them crutches or force them to learn without. In either situation, a successful student will be successful (as long as their teacher has the skill to direct them properly).

With more average students, I think the difference in teaching methods becomes more important, since they might be on a sort of razor edge with their learning process. They're not musical juggernauts, so they're more fragile, and we have to use the MOST effective techniques with them in order for them to be successful.

But in general, I believe the key is balance. If they're using the tapes too much, direct them away. Encourage them to listen, and show them HOW to listen. Basically, you can't teach a kid to swim by throwing them in the deep end. That only works if you've already taught them to swim in the shallow end, and they simply refuse to go to the deep end out of fear.

I tried the "remove all tapes" method a long time ago with many students, believing it to be traditional and better for them to learn "the right way." The results I got were this: students who needed the tapes did WORSE (and not just temporarily during an adjustment period), and the kids who didn't need the tapes did the same. So all I did by removing tapes was filter out the less talented students from having crutches. It didn't make the talented kids better, because they were already not using the tapes (either through having them removed or just not paying attention to them).

But I may be taking your idea too far, and it's probable that we already agree and are simply experiencing a disparity in words, not beliefs.

Crutches definitely need to be removed at some point, whether it's through discouraging their use or by physically removing them. But with all skill-based things, balance and careful titration is key.

May 22, 2017, 1:38 PM · I have to say that I am totally and absolutely against using tape on the fingerboard. You are teaching them to by-pass the ear, and to play the violin visually, and not aurally.

Much better to have them improve their ear training in other ways, and also on the violin play one finger scales. This will teach them how to listen and play in tune much more than any tape.

Edited: May 22, 2017, 4:59 PM · Tapes are fine for a short period, say a month or two. Tapes only get you into the vicinity anyway, so they're not a substitute for listening. They're just a rough guide for finger spacing while you're learning where to put your hands. Tapes on the bow are just a visual reminder to "stay in the middle for now."
Edited: May 22, 2017, 9:26 PM · Guys, it really depends on how serious the student is. Maybe more serious beginners have the initial patience to learn by ear before even being able to play any music, but most of my students do NOT have that. They have to "Graduate" into being serious about violin before they have that level of patience.

I mean, I could be wrong, but in my opinion, it would destroy the initial learning momentum of a lot of my beginner students if they had zero visual reference and had to completely train their ears before they could play any songs. Either that, or their finger positions and thus intonation would be even MORE approximate than if they were using the tapes initially, so they'd be hearing the WRONG PITCH associated with their idea of "B" or "C" and thus not training their ears properly to the Western 12-tone scale.

Obviously this would be different if a student had already played another instrument to a high degree - especially piano - but I think that "no tapes ever" is just such an unbalanced approach to teaching.

All of my students that start with tape end up with excellent intonation after removing the tapes later, because by the time I remove them we've already discussed and practiced the concept of perfection intonation, BUT they have the advantage of being able to compare what they're hearing to what they were seeing: this provides a much better understanding of the physical distance between 1/2 steps and whole steps, and combining visual/auditory senses allows them to have much more redundancy in their overall understanding of what music is and how music theory is specifically applicable to violin.

We shouldn't take for granted that many students haven't even HEARD much music before (or sang, which is fundamental to understanding how to correct pitch on the violin), so forcing them to learn by ear from day 1 is like telling someone to "pick themselves up by their bootstraps." But if we use tapes and proper titration of musical difficulty, it doesn't take long before they accumulate enough "correct pitches" in their "musical toolbox" to be able to replicate those pitches without the tapes.

May 22, 2017, 9:35 PM · "No one should make a concrete judgment on a teacher they don't know just by hearing one of their students play a few times." (Helen)

Absolutely, 100% agree. And I wouldn't want to be judged by my worst students, either.

"I'm sure Mary Ellen has inherited students from truly miserable teachers. But disparaging them harshly is first of all disrespectful and possibly counterproductive. Also what you're really saying to the student (or their parents) is that they've wasted their money. Nobody wants to hear that. And finally, if you get a reputation for dumping on others, you're going to wind up getting dumped on yourself, whether rightly or not." (Paul)

Exactly right, and what goes around comes around.

"I see a player who says they have been playing for 5 years. Ask them about practice etc, to find out that they DO practice, but the teacher cannot teach.

Do you let such a (hypothetical) person just continue with the teacher? Seems rather mean to do so (not to mention the ears of anyone around them)! :D" (A.O.)

As a layperson criticizing someone else's teacher, you aren't bound by professional ethics but you should still give careful consideration to your own knowledge base and the possibility that you could be wrong, if not actually slanderous, in your comments. However, as a teacher myself, it is completely unethical and unprofessional for me to give unsolicited commentary to someone else's student about them as a teacher. Whether it is intended as actual poaching of the student or not, it's rude. And poaching is something beyond rude.

May 22, 2017, 10:31 PM · Guys, some people shouldn't be teaching. I'm sorry this isn't a popular opinion. If you play at a Suzuki book 2 level, you are not qualified to teach anyone. How is this even debatable?
Edited: May 23, 2017, 4:12 AM · Regarding the use of tapes - I have never seen a good string teacher at any level use tapes. If I were sending my child for lessons (as a player myself) I would take him/her away as soon as tapes appeared on the fingerboard and I would immediately find another teacher. (Of course it would be unlikely as I would have chosen a teacher who I knew did not resort to such methods).

This may seem drastic, but that is how strongly I feel about using visual aids of this sort.


I agree that teachers should be advanced players to really teach well, and certainly with a higher level of pupil. I do however, get the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that Erik has got a bit of a thing about other teachers, and maybe, just maybe, he should look to his own teaching methods first before criticising others. My impression is, and I could be wrong, that you are rather inexperienced whereas many of the people on this forum are very experienced teachers at a high level.

I'm saying this in friendship and not as a way to criticise you unduly, but particularly when young we tend to be over enthusiastic about our knowledge, and to be honest, this hardly gets any better with age, as I find I do exactly what you are doing, except I have a tiny bit more experience and have maybe seen the results of dodgy advice. Often that advice has not helped me, so we should all, and I include myself, be more cautious about handing it out.

But your enthusiasm is great, and I can tell you mean well.

May 23, 2017, 4:56 AM · If you can count one or two successful students out of every 10, you are a successful teacher. Playing a violin is at least as difficult as math, if not more in some aspects.
May 23, 2017, 9:52 AM · Reading through, there is something off with some of the posts. I could not have put my thoughts any more clearly than Peter's last post.

Sometimes I put a search term in here looking for advice for some problem I'm working on - Maybe I'm unhappy with my vibrato, or I'm playing out of tune or something, and lo and behold, I'll run into some thread where I'm giving someone advice about their vibrato or how to play more in tune. Of course, I could hold back on the advice, but I'm not sure how fun that would be - I try and be a little more circumspect these days. But I do agree with your thought, Erik, that not everyone should teach.

May 23, 2017, 9:58 AM · Man, I feel like a tape vs not tape thread needs to be started. I've always had such good success with phasing students out of tape usage, before the end of Suzuki book 1 in pretty much all cases. Their intonation never suffers and their aural skills are excellent due to us focusing on them so much from the very start, despite what is on their fingerboard. I really think it comes down to HOW the teacher implements tape usage, rather than the argument of tapes/no tapes. This discussion reminds me of the shoulder rest debates.

Regarding experience, I carry about 50 students weekly and have been teaching in some capacity for about 9 years, with it being my only source of of income for about the past 7 years.

I do agree that when young we are too enthusiastic about our knowledge and we make the mistake of acting like we've discovered the "holy Grail" of violin teaching whenever we figure out something that works. But in this case, I'm honestly just confused, because many good players around me growing up started by using tapes - me included.

That being said, I'll probably research this further since you guys are so insistent on it. I would never deny my students the benefits of a more efficient learning path just out of stubbornness.

Edited: May 23, 2017, 10:55 AM · Nobody is saying that there aren't teachers who shouldn't be teaching. We are discussing professional behavior on the part of other teachers. Do I recommend every violin teacher in my city who has hung out a shingle? No. If someone has a list from a school orchestra director and is asking me for guidance, do I give a fair answer? Yes. But if I get a student whose prior teacher was less than stellar, do I tell that student that their previous teacher didn't know how to teach? Absolutely not. If I hear a student in the context of an audition I am judging, and that student has clear deficits, do I tell that student they need to change teachers? No, I do not say such a thing *unless* a student asks me directly, without any suggestion on my part, if I can recommend other violin teachers. And that has never happened in the context of an audition.

Incidentally, there is experience, and then there is training. A great amount of the former doesn't necessarily compensate for lack of the latter.

May 23, 2017, 10:59 AM · Mary: I'll admit that from the perspective of those reading my posts, it seems like I'm probably an outspoken and rude teacher who lacks proper training and is just bitter in general.

But my candor in this particular subject matter arises from having seen many discouraged young violinists whose money was taken from them by teachers with ZERO training in violin (self-taught).

I try to be professional, I really do, but this sort of situation irritates the heck out of me, so my professionalism when speaking of it goes out the window (admittedly more so here than in front of my students, though.... it's been a few years since I actually spoke badly about a student's previous teacher without them explicitly asking).

I am improving about it, though, as I've aged.


Ok, I did the archive research regarding tapes: I would recommend you guys go and look at old forum posts about tapes vs no tapes.... you'll see many very good players and teachers use tapes, and others don't. Both with good results. This has been hotly debated a million times before so I'm definitely not going to start a new thread about it, but please do me the favor of reading some other opinions on it before so decisively stating that there's "only one true way to learn the violin." I think you may loosen your views if you read others' experiences.

May 23, 2017, 2:57 PM · I didn't read thoroughly through all the opinions about the tapes, but I vividly remember the first time I tried playing without them (I had them for ~2 months). I felt like I had officially graduated to the next level! It was a great boost to my motivation.

I can't fathom having started to play without them. But maybe that's just because I didn't have a teacher at that early stage to show me.

Everyone needs some form of a visual guide to begin finger placement. Teacher, tapes ... either.

May 23, 2017, 3:01 PM · "Mary: I'll admit that from the perspective of those reading my posts, it seems like I'm probably an outspoken and rude teacher who lacks proper training and is just bitter in general."

I don't think you're bitter, and I think your enthusiasm and obvious dedication to your students is laudable. I just think you don't know what you don't know.

Edited: May 23, 2017, 4:15 PM · Thanks Mary, I do appreciate that recognition and I definitely have learned the principle of "not knowing what I don't know" in the past few years.

And on that subject, I will say this: 80% of the times that I've received a student from another teacher and they weren't progressing before, they don't have a tremendous amount more success with me. To put it simply, "it's usually the student.'

Of course one might wonder if that's partially because by that point the student has lost too much momentum to recover, but I digress...


To you guys speaking about tapes: do you see your students more than once a week? I may have figured out the disconnect between the tapers and non-tapers by reading through old forum posts. It seems the ones that swore by no-tape also tended to see their students very frequently, and thus could correct the intonation with a frequency that made it viable. Either that or the kids had a parent that was willing to closely supervise and correct the intonation at home, which is not the case with most of mine. I only see my students once per week and they are only loosely supervised at best.

May 24, 2017, 12:00 AM · "But, I can't help feeling like a failure as a teacher with these students. When they mention that they feel their progress is very slow or seemingly non-existent despite practicing, I tell them that "it's a marathon, not a sprint." I tell them that they're learning more than just the violin since they don't have previous experience with ANY music and are just now starting as adult beginners, so the progress will seem slower simply because there's more basics for them to wade through, such as coordination, rhythm, intonation, music reading, etc...." (OP)

"But my candor in this particular subject matter arises from having seen many discouraged young violinists whose money was taken from them by teachers with ZERO training in violin (self-taught)." (OP)

"To put it simply, "it's usually the student.'" (OP)

So the OP's thread seems to have moved from the shortcomings of adult starters to include young violinists. Is the last statement intended to include both groups, or just the adult beginners?. Anyway, with it, you seem to have let yourself (and other teachers) off the hook. No more need to feel like a failure. Good for you!

May 24, 2017, 10:59 AM · Zina, my thread was about the shortcomings of like THREE adult starters out of 50 students (maybe 35 of whom are adults varying in age from 20-70. How is this not clicking? And even in those cases, my thread was directed at teachers and how they feel when they can't make a student progress. So I'm not sure why you're getting so insulted by this thread.

It wasn't my choice to move the thread away from the original topic, but it happens with pretty much every thread.

I love my young and old students (and they love me), and neither of them have what I would describe as "Shortcomings." I literally don't even know how you're ascertaining your conclusions.

As I said, 80% of the time that a general failure occurs, it's the student.... young OR old. This means that either they weren't practicing enough or they weren't practicing CORRECTLY, and in very rare instances they just aren't cut out for violin. It's important for teachers to realize it's not always their fault. Seems like you want teachers to always blame themselves (and I do, trust me), but this can lead to some seriously depressed instructors, given that many students simply aren't even doing what the teacher told them to.

Anyways, I'm happy that you found a teacher that you like and who likes you. But maybe you need to reexamine your fragile views on your own progress. Do you enjoy playing?

Edited: May 24, 2017, 11:41 AM · Erik, I love playing and both me and my teacher are perfectly happy with my progress. Thanks for asking.

Oh and being a teacher myself (though not of the violin), I'm basically way more interested in my teacher being able to teach me than whether we like each other (although, as you correctly assumed, we do).

Did you at any point realise that your question may be directed at other teachers, but you're discussing this in front of anybody, possibly even those among your students who inspired this question?

May 24, 2017, 1:28 PM · Zina, an important part of teaching is transparency. A lot of teachers probably avoid making - or responding to - threads such as mine because they feel that they risk either alienating their own students, lowering their potential future students, or just making themselves look weak to other players/teachers. However, these threads are important because other teachers who are discouraged might have the opportunity to stumble across this and say "oh, apparently others have this same sort of problem. Maybe it's NOT just me."

And in that same line of thinking, I will openly discuss with my students my own past failures and how I often feel that I failed myself as a musician when I was younger. I am genuinely glad I ended up in teaching instead of being a performer because it allows me to share my knowledge with others without the pressure of performance/auditions, but there are often times I feel like the stereotype of the "Failed performer that became a teacher." Or the classic "those who can't do, teach."

So the transparency extends in all directions and I don't pretend I'm something that I'm not. I am very aware - as are all of my students - that there is a certain skill level of student that I wouldn't feel adequate to teach above. If someone is looking to become a professional musician, I wouldn't have the connections or knowledge to lead them down that road until the very end. But I could give them an excellent start if they were just beginning, and potentially lead them to a very solid, somewhat advanced stage of playing (and more importantly do it in a way that didn't make them hate music).

One should also take note that NOT many teachers have responded to this thread - mainly students have - and the ones who did claimed that they've never felt like failures (and perhaps that's true for them). But who knows how many "lurkers" have read this and were given peace of mind that someone else is going through a similar thing? Maybe they have a bit of relief and can adjust their expectations for their slower students, which allows them to teach them better overall?

And yes, perhaps students who are struggling will read this and think that perhaps their teacher feels discouraged with their lack of progress. What's so wrong about that? If that alone stops them, then they were probably on the verge of quitting anyways. Perhaps this sounds harsh, but it might be a relief to certain students, who may have just felt obligated to continue because they don't want to be a failure in the eyes of their teacher (and yes, that is a thing that happens).

It just depends on the person reading the thread. Yes, this thread could insult some, but in the same light it could relieve others. Maybe some students are afraid to talk about the very notion of failure with their teacher, and threads like this would make them feel comfortable with being a bit more open about it. In doing so, they might both be relieved and accept that slow progress is ok, as long as both parties are aware of it. Or maybe that it's NOT ok, and then the student can go and find a teacher that jives better with them.

All information can be both hurtful and helpful depending on the light it's read in and the individual reading it, but honestly, I'm just not the type of person to hold back posting relevant, honest experiences simply because someone, somewhere, might interpret it as directly applying to them and take it as a personal offense.

My students are quite aware of my...personality... and in fact they all seem to enjoy it. I don't know, maybe it comes across as more friendly in person, rather than translated into text. But I'm quite confident none of them would be surprised if they read this thread, and it probably would help a lot that they could "read it in my voice" rather than having to imagine how I would be speaking everything that I've said. Text always comes across as rude and dry somehow, unless the poster adds 100 smileys and "just kiddings! WINKY WINKY WINK."

Edited: May 26, 2017, 6:53 PM · Actually, several teachers have responded, at times more so than students, but as a student myself who has struggled and is still struggling greatly, I find the OP's apparent perspective to be discouragingly one of resignation and disavowal.

The gist seems to be that it's the student's problem (in some such cases); teachers have done all they possibly could, and should take heart in that other teachers have the same sort of problems with other students, and that's what it is.

Concretely, my own playing problems as an adult beginner therefore need not be solvable, and teachers should not expect them to be. While I would love for that to be a sarcastic expression, I can't logically defend any other position, and am left with gloom in this view.

I don't meet all of the criteria of the OP's struggling students -- I've had previous musical experience and am not on Suzuki Book 1, but I've also had years of going to lessons and walking away feeling bad about lack of success and satisfaction from the teacher.

I also struggle with changes required by the teacher during the lesson -- I can get lost in passages I could more easily traverse by myself when faced with changes in technique and timing during the lesson, though going slower.

But I have a certain drive which feels that despite my struggles, and despite the almost certainty of not achieving what I would like to in my life, that I want to try, and am willing to sacrifice some other things I might be doing instead, and to struggle to take the time needed for practice. Let me say however that it isn't all doom and gloom for me, there is some hope which drives me, and I love at least some of it.

I've had four teachers. (One teacher for a day -- it was a good day but I decided that I wanted a restless one instead then.) At least two of those teachers have more experience than the OP, and one has lead a very successful program with several other teachers for several years. I like my current teacher (as a teacher), and am not looking for a replacement, but sometimes I feel that I make progress only when I take the lead, to some degree despite my teacher. The point I'm trying to make here is not that my teacher is somehow a bad one, but rather that all teachers are inherently limited, and are also unaware of those limitations, which the student may have to make up for somehow or the other in order to succeed.

And the point I'd like to add is that it doesn't have to be that way. Even though the teacher doesn't have the proximal advantage of being in my body and mind, some of the things I find I have to learn for myself could have been taught to me, might have been, and might be, with different perception, attitude, and knowledge.

May 27, 2017, 12:37 AM · J Ray, let me offer my perspective here:

We're ALL students. Even teachers have their own hang ups about their playing and how they wish they could progress easily past a certain level. In fact, I'm pretty sure they're the exact same hang ups that you have about your own progress, just at a higher level.

The idea that somehow there is this line between "teachers" and "students" is honestly a fallacy. There are, however, some who have played longer, some who teach to make money, and others who perform to make money. There are some to whom the music comes faster but then they just hit a wall at a higher level. Then there are those who whom the music comes slowly, and they have their own walls.

But I promise you the walls you're hitting are no less forgiving than the ones I hit.

When I was last took lessons I was pretty decent, but I still felt like a failure every week. Just the same as you. Recently I took a lesson, and felt like a failure, despite being better than I've ever been before. Because there's always someone better than you, someone that learns faster and has been playing longer.

But we just keep trying, because there's a part of us that needs to play. And failure after perceived failure, we eventually find that we've climbed the tree a bit further.

Edited: May 27, 2017, 5:50 AM · Erik, I agree that we're all students and even the 'best' might be better, and that's a good perspective to have in mind. But there is a big difference between teacher and student in the typical relationship, and there the teacher's awareness of the particular student's perspective, and efforts to learn to be a better teacher are more relevant than the level of the teacher's playing, assuming that it's sufficient for the purpose. I suppose teachers of the greats have that rare problem -- that the student is a better player than the teacher, but the teacher still has a purpose, and applies it to the student's benefit.
Edited: June 1, 2017, 5:57 PM ·

We often question what talent is. I use to think it was how fast someone was able to learn something new: the faster you learned it, the more talented you are, I thought. This is one aspect of talent, but there are many more.
In my early years of teaching the violin a women in her fifties approached me for lessons. She had already been playing for 8 years, mostly self-taught. She didn’t play well at all: couldn’t play a single note in tune, had no sense of rhythm, very poor technique etc….She said she didn’t have the talent to play the violin, but she did enjoy trying. To make matters worse, she was very dyslexic (incapable of reading music).
Teaching her was very difficult, and I wasn’t her first teacher. Others tried, but they found it too stressful, because of the dyslexia. I was persistent and treated her like all my other students. When she played out of tune, her intonation was corrected; when her rhythm was poor, it was corrected; and her technique, that was completely overhauled. Everything was changed and she had to relearn how to do things the easy way and play with control.
At first things were a real challenged for her and I, but overtime there was improvement. After about a year and a half she started to play with good intonation, good technique, good rhythm etc….Overall she had a good sound and played well. At the 2 year mark she developed her own style and played with a good tone.
One night she was playing music in a small local military pub with a group of friends. Some Irish and Newfoundland tunes with her husband, who also sang a bit. People were having a good time listening and talking at the bar. She did notice one character having too much fun. She could tell he was a soldier that just got back: He had fresh bandages over wounds and it was obvious he saw action in the Middle East. While she played, she would watch him at the bar, laughing while he’d spilled his drinks.
During their intermission, the man came up to her and asks her, “Miss, can you play me a nice slow tune.” She picked up her violin and started to play ‘Blind Mary’, and old Irish melody she taught herself. The bar fell quiet, and all you could hear was the violin. She played the simple melody with ease, even though all eyes were upon her. For the first time in her life, everyone was listening intently to her playing. The soldier stood over her as she sat and played, and with his solemn look he never uttered a word. After all was done, she received a grand applause and a few men at the bar bought her some drinks. With a tear in his eye the soldier thanked her dearly, and then he left for the night.
That’s when I learned what talent was: the quieting of a room, the simplicity of song, a truthful appreciation, the calming of another’s mind.
Now that’s talent

Charles Cook

I am sure you have success stories also.

June 1, 2017, 6:27 PM · Hmmmm in my personal observations I've noticed that there are multiple forms of talent. These are what I have noticed:

1) Talented in their ability to stick to something and keep trying even when challenged.

2) Talented in their ability to love music and thus put the "soul" in their own playing even though their technical skills might not be terrific.

3) Talented in their motor-skills, and able to learn physical motions quickly and easily.

A player could have any of those 3 forms of talent and still be called "talented," but those who have all 3 are very rare and thus I tend to reserve the word "talented" for them. Of course, I will always take note of any talents I notice in a student and let them know that they have that advantage, but they'll still need to develop the other facets of their playing.

I definitely have a few stories like yours, although none quite so dramatic. It's always a beautiful thing when a student is able to share their work with others. As a teacher, that is my legacy, essentially.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Find an Online Music Camp
Find an Online Music Camp

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine