5 Categories of Beginners
I was recently emailed by someone who was asking about lessons but mentioned they weren't trying to make their child a "prodigy", but just to enjoy music. It occurred to me that many people who aren't familiar with the world of learning music think that there are two categories of players: Prodigy soloists, and everyone else. Since I often receive emails or calls like this, I thought it might be prudent to segment beginners based on my personal experiences. This is so that new teachers can have realistic expectations and not be so hard on themselves, and so that parents who read this might understand what they're getting into when starting a child on the violin.
Before going into these categories, it should be mentioned that I have always received most of my students via my web presence. This means that my student base has always represented a more "average" population. These aren't people that go to orchestra concerts or take music seriously. Generally, they are families that have their kids engaged in a few different hobbies, and music just happens to be one of them. They googled violin lessons, and I showed up first. I also live in an area where there isn't a large music presence (Sacramento), so the culture is less centered on the importance of classical music.
Lastly, it should be noted that these statistics are based on children, and not adults.
From absolute beginners, meaning they just received their first violin for christmas, or haven't even rented one yet, here are my (very rough) statistics:
(~65%) Category 1: Will quit within a few months. No parental support in practicing. Parents show very low discipline, which the child picks up on. Excuses are many, results are few. If we're lucky, they may practice 2x a week for 10 minutes, usually with low quality. Music gets treated as a luxury that we only do when we want to, rather than something that we must work at. Once the child picks up on that, they will always choose to do something easier than practice. Support structure at home is low, and often this is due to split custody situations where the parents disagree on what the child should be doing with their time.
(~25%) Category 2: Parent will help child at home, but in an indirect way. They may help to remind the child of practice, but won't supervise or give specific instructions. Often, these parents will "listen" from the kitchen, and as a result the child won't learn to problem-solve. Practice may occur 3-5x per week, 15-20 minutes. They attend lessons, but won't pay close attention to what we do in them. These students will often last several years, and may get through 2-3 Suzuki book levels, but will eventually quit.
(~9%) Category 3: Good parental support and interest. Active listening from both the child and the parent, so that they can agree on what to do at home. These kids are above average intelligence, and usually do well at more than just music. If told to practice a certain, reasonable amount, they will, and with good consistency. 20-30 minutes, 6x per week. Although quality of practice may initially be low, the student and parent can be coached into high quality practice over time, and they will work together on problem solving at home. These students can eventually become "good" players, with vibrato, good intonation, good tone, and the ability to play into reasonably high positions (< 7th) with a clear sound. They will generally take lessons all the way through high school, but will likely take a several year break once they enter college. Eventually, they may join a community orchestra, or even play small gigs.
(<1%) Category 4: Strong parental support and naturally musically inclined child. Excellent motor skills and comprehension. Usually the parents/family are musical, though not necessarily professionals. Strong work ethic (60+ minutes per day), and usually music is the primary thing they do outside of school. These students could seek musical careers, but may not always be good enough to join a full time orchestra (I think this is highly dependent on luck factors, such as having the right teachers early on). Generally, parents of these students will seek out highly credentialed teachers from the very outset, so I very rarely see them.
(0.00001%) Category 5: Prodigy. I have never had one as a beginner student, but I am aware of their existence.
I'd want to add that student interest and parental involvement don't always correlate. I wasn't a violin/viola student as a child, but I was a piano student, and I probably had category 3 or 4 interest but category 1 or 2 parental involvement (willing to pay for lessons but absolutely not wanting to hear me practice).
They don't always correlate, but they *usually* do. There are obviously going to be outliers.
I feel like it's a lot to ask parents/kids that are just starting out, to fit into something like Cat 3. People tend to invest more in their kids once it seems obvious that there is something there that should be nurtured. And most kids starting out, are too young to have the sort of discipline that it takes to make significant progress.
Erik, I think a 6th category should be what is now your 5th category (i.e., 1 in 10 million, 0.00001%). That would give us about 33 top level virtuosos in the USA.
Honestly Sue, the fact that you were able/willing to become Cat 4 means you were Cat 4 all along. It's not typical for parents to realize their kid is good at something, and then actually try to "catch up" to them to provide adequate support. The majority of parents wouldn't care that much. Thus, the "1%" frequency for that trait.
Like many kids (~32.71%) I fell into an unspecified category since I was mostly away at boarding school and my parents had little or nothing to do with it apart from paying the fees. And I didn't quit!
I think the quality of teaching has a great deal to do with the outcome in student success. And I suspect that inspiration may be more important than any other factor.
Those categories roughly match my estimates: 90% of beginning students quit early, 10% continue and become life-long skilled amateurs, 1% achieve a professional level of technical skills. Of those about half (wisely) choose not to be pro musicians.
I’m a big fan of school programs that make it possible to learn strings and making music, without relying on parental support. Thank you to the musicians and teachers who organize and participate. In Austin, Texas, for example, there are strong programs for orchestra, including strings, and classical guitar, and even mariachi, to name a few. Making music with peers and friends, instead of being forced to choose between practising and lessons instead of being with friends, helps a lot, and takes pressure off of a parent who may or may not be in a position to supervise or transport kids to private lessons. There’s a path forward fir those students who really enjoy and work and excel at it, too, in the form of more traditional training and youth orchestras. No need to categorize youngsters too early. Though I totally understand why a private teacher would want to be clear on expectations and their own requirements before accepting a new student.
Elizabeth, our schools have strings/band programs. The ES ones are mostly populated by children with no prior background; in my DD's 3 years, there were less than 10 that had private instruction in any of those instruments.
Andrew Victor: My statistics are based on starting with a high quality teacher. I think pretty much everyone would drop to Category 1 if they had an awful teacher (which happens way too frequently, sadly). But it's worth mentioning that plenty of students will fail even if they were given the absolute best teacher to start with. The teacher alone cannot force progress; they can only allow it.
I was in my daughter's school, volunteering with a strings teacher, when there was a class going on next door. I said 'Boy, it sounds rough when they're tuning', and the teacher went 'Oh, that's not tuning'. I was so mortified. They turned out to be the lowest level MS orchestra but yeah, really terrible sounding.
I agree with Erik's categories, and with the percentages.
Adrian said: "When a Category 1 gives up, I hope that they try another instrument: if they give up all music, I am devastated.."
It depends on whether Category 1 status is mainly from the student or the parents. If parents are not supportive in music, there's a high likelihood that they would be similarly unsupportive in other pursuits. And if they do support something else much more than music, I feel that becomes a matter of the parent trying to dictate the child's interests. The last is something I have a pretty strong visceral reaction against because my own parents moved from borderline Category 1/2 to clear Category 1 (even actively discouraging practice) as my own interest increased from Category 3 to arguably Category 4, mainly because they actively disliked all music themselves. So it's something I would want to prevent if possible -- I realize that often little can be done about it, but in certain situations there might be ways to find substitutes for parental support.
It's crazy that Sacramento has such little classical music, as it's the capital city of California. The population is over 500,000 but the orchestra's 2022-2023 season looks pretty thin to me. Our local orchestra offers more even though the city it's associated with (Roanoke VA) has a population of only 100,000. There is a youth symphony in Sacramento (and also there is one in Roanoke).
Sacramento is nominally close to civilization in California, but it is a bit of a hike to there from greater San Fran. Different wealth profile and bracket of tastes, no doubt.
Stockton is the real symphonic powerhouse in the area
The Stockton Symphony is one of the orchestras peopled by musicians of the genre shown in the movie/video/DVD "Freeway Philharmonic."
For Sacramento region, good students are from Davis (different demographic and public school system) and many end up just coming to San Francisco Bay Area. It’s not that far.
Eric, I am "devastated", or at least a little sad, if I have failed to release or transmit a response to music, hopefully appreciated by their parents. But you are quite right.
Andrew, my original statement was as such: "(I) live in an area where there isn't a large music presence (Sacramento), so the culture is less centered on the importance of classical music."
I would argue that the Bay Area is the outlier here, and really an extreme outlier. The only other place in the US that seems to have a similar density of performing ensembles is New York. (EDIT: map of League of American Orchestras membership, which includes community and youth orchestras, shows exactly that.)
“Yes, Sacramento is the largest metropolitan area in the US without a full-time orchestra.”
This parent/child combo in the OP is of course Suzuki-influenced. I'm between 3 and 4, taking age into consideration - 4 when I was younger, with my parents between 1 and 2. But due to inattentive ADHD I've always spread myself too thinly and underachieved.
Oh, right. =( I didn't notice San Antonio above Sacramento in the list of MSAs and had been under the impression Sacramento was slightly larger.
Gordon, I am not a Suzuki teacher.
I thought the school discussion sprinkled throughout was interesting. I'm guessing 80% of kids doing violin start between third and sixth grade in a school program, perhaps get a year or two of lessons, and can play lyrical songs on open strings or better by the time they graduate high school. That's okay! Not everyone wants to play the hardest classical repertoire. School programs give an introduction to classical music and popular tunes and students are enriched by it. It's not their sole passion. That's all okay. In many ways the frequent discussions here of "how good /how much $/ how many hours does it take to play X/go to Y school/enter a conservatory" have encouraged me in the belief that the world also needs people who play for fun with the time they have.
Erik, As a teacher of beginners, I love your categories, but worry about the implications, so please excuse the rant.
Rant aside, I'd love to hear suggestions from anyone else for how to keep the level 1/2 kids coming. Piano teachers do lots of improvisation duets, and teach chords for favourite tunes. Should we be teaching accompaniment? Any O'Connor teachers with strategies here?
Anish, I will respond to your points one by one:
Just wanted to point out here that the Miami/South Florida metropolitan area also doesn't have a full time professional orchestra and it has more than double the population of San Antonio or Sacramento. (and no, New World Symphony does not count, they do not have nearly as expansive a season as a full time orchestra). It is a total shame, and all three of these areas deserve one.
Hardly anyone "practices" for sports, right? You go to the practices (can be dropped off and parent's attention spent elsewhere) multiple times per week and multiple hours per practice and that's enough to play and/or compete at the lower levels. For violin, if you were dropped off to multiple "practice lessons/sessions" per week, then yeah, you could get away with no home practice. (2 hours x 3 days per week is not as good as 1 hour x 6 days but it's sure better than 1 hour x 1 day.) My students who come to the lesson, but don't come to the group (which doubles or triples their contact time with me), and parent not providing much support - Erik is right, they lose interest because they aren't playing/improving much, they aren't playing much because they aren't interested (are more interested by other things), and they eventually see themselves out.
Erik, I didn't think Anish was arguing with you?
Kathryn, I wasn't under the impression that any of my or Anish's points constituted an argument...
Erik, I read it that way (not demeaning but defensive)--though it is certainly possible that I projected onto the bullet-list response a sense that wasn't your intent. Internet vs. conversation and all that...I'll reread tomorrow, and apologies if that's the case!
Sorry. Didn't mean to start an argument, and also just realized that my response to Erik's very thorough response got blipped (by my phone while texting in bed, maybe? Hopefully not by the moderator?) so no one knew I read it as an 'argument' in the good way. I'll try to remember what I said...
9) "By book 2 they have all they need to be a fantastic fiddler, provided they have access to a relevant tradition."
9) "By book 2 they have all they need to be a fantastic fiddler, provided they have access to a relevant tradition."
I think being a music teacher of any type must be incredibly challenging and often frustrating. My kids are in a school with a band and orchestra program. The orchestra is mostly kids who started early and has some phenomenal players. The band is the kids who didn't do orchestra and only meets two days a week. I feel like there's a threshold level on instruments where it starts to be more fun. The orchestra at this school uses practice logs all throughout and adds in extra levels of playing. The band is very relaxed and really is pretty terrible until high school. It has been interesting to watch as a parent, because I play a band instrument and my band player has done really well. I also have two on violin and feel like I haven't been able to help them as much. I can encourage them to practice, but I can't demonstrate scales, etc. Anyway... just wanted to express gratitude to the school and private teachers. It's also hard to judge how much impact you might have 20, 40, 60 years out, but it's there.