5 Categories of Beginners

November 10, 2022, 4:09 PM · 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.

Replies (43)

Edited: November 10, 2022, 4:22 PM · 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).
November 10, 2022, 4:40 PM · They don't always correlate, but they *usually* do. There are obviously going to be outliers.

But yes, it's definitely worth noting that you can have a situation where you have a category 3 student but a category 1 parent, or the other way around.

I am probably an example of an outlier: my parents were somewhat musical, and I loved music, but they never taught me the importance of discipline in practice until I'd already been playing for 4-5 years. We also had a run of bad teachers from the beginning (first teacher threw me into a chair).

So I most likely had category 4 potential, but ended up on the upper end of category 3.

November 10, 2022, 9:17 PM · 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.

I think we're parents from Cat 2 (no musical background, and no way to help even if we wanted to), with a Cat 4 kid. We have grown into Cat 4 parents, but it took a few years, and a couple of instructors going 'Where did this kid come from?' for us to get there.

November 10, 2022, 10:23 PM · 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.

And your 5th category should be 1 in a million (0.0001%),which would cover 10X more players than that - a number of very fine pros.

Both are very fine player categories, very distinct from your 4th category.

November 11, 2022, 3:58 AM · 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.

I also don't think it's *that* much to ask for Cat 3. As long as the kids don't have a bunch of other extracurriculars, doing 20-30 minutes 6x a week isn't a crazy commitment. And I think it's good for parents to know what to expect if they do less than that. If they remain in a Cat 2 situation, they will get Cat 2 results.

Andrew, you are right, but I tried to avoid making too many categories because this is mainly about what a *beginner* teacher should expect, and the first 4 categories were the most relevant ones. I wanted to paint with a rather broad brush stroke, so I also avoided sub-categories.

In addition, I feel like much of the time, the difference between someone who just makes a career out of music, versus someone who becomes a very fine player, is simply luck. Having all the right teachers, family having money to invest in enough lessons, identifying talent early on, etc.... So I might argue that perhaps that the "career" players versus the "very fine" players is simply the two extreme ranges with the Category 4, rather than two separate categories.

November 11, 2022, 7:40 AM · 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!
Edited: November 11, 2022, 8:13 AM · 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.

I knew the violist in my string quartet ran the local Suzuki violin school in the small city (pop. ~ 25,000) where I previously lived, but I had little idea just how good it was until I returned to the town in 1996 (for business reasons) and just happened to be there for the first (and only) Suzuki concert I have ever attended. In addition to all the current students there were also 2 former students (back from college, where they were both violin performance majors, just for that event) - quite a full stage. This was also the Suzuki school that had launched Anne Akiko Meyers in the mid-1970s (definitely one of the 0.00001% violinists in the USA).

It was my opinion that the students who came out of that school represented the top 10% of Erik's categories. A number of those students who had reached high-school age joined our community orchestra in the early 1990s.

The usual practice for that Suzuki school was to send the most promising students off to Los Angeles (150 miles to the southwest) about the time they got to Book 6 or so, including the 2 college girls who played in that 1996 performance.

Edited: November 11, 2022, 9:59 AM · 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.
An apocryphal story attributed to Leopold Auer; when asked by one of his not famous students how well was he progressing, Auer's reply was something like "there are three kinds of students, those that can play, those that play badly, and those that can't play at all. You have advanced to the second stage."
Success happens when all of the positive factors are present: starting young, talent, good teaching, daily practice, the right kind and amount of parental support, financial support, being in or near an urban cultural center, and one more important thing; internal drive, ambition, self-discipline. There is no substitute for that one. A leading college football coach said that football does not build character, it tests for it.
When I had a beginning level violin class I had the suspicion that some parents were using it as cheap child care.
November 11, 2022, 12:00 PM · 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.
November 11, 2022, 2:14 PM · 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.
In our years through ES, we have met one student who had only ever had instruction through school, who continued to play through HS. She was in 10th (maybe 11th grade), playing Suzuki 5 level repertoire (but very well). She was being provided opportunities by her music teachers (such as masterclasses), but you could tell that she was hitting the upper end of what they could do with her.

I don't know her story, or why she didn't pursue her instrument in any other capacity, but I wish she had had the opportunity. She has great potential.

Edited: November 11, 2022, 5:16 PM · 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.

Joel Quivey: I imagine anyone that has taught a fair amount of beginners from various backgrounds would find these statistics to be about right. If a teacher receives a more selective subset of beginners, then of course it will skew the numbers (this is how we get the "anyone can reach Bruch level in 4 years" myth"). I like the football quote; very relevant.

Elizabeth Crosby: I wonder what the statistics are like for kids that start with school programs. The reality is that parental support is basically a requirement for exceling at anything, whether it's music or otherwise. I do think people put a bit too much faith in what the public school system can reasonably provide.

In addition, I never noticed that the kids made friends within the orchestra program. I would even encourage some of my own students to make connections and play duets with the students there, but it just never happened. Perhaps this is different at other schools. However, I have found success in my own studio by making "quartets" of students. They have formed semi-friendships. I do think a social element is important.

The idea of categories isn't to limit anyone, but to provide reasonable expectations for the *amount* of students that a teacher can expect to succeed in the long term when teaching broad-spectrum beginners, as well as to provide some basic guidelines for the parental factors involved in long-term success.

Sue Panavally: You just answered the my question that I proposed to Elizabeth, lol. I have seen similar success rates. A school near me had an orchestra program; pretty much all of the students that started in that program quit within a year or two. And some of my least dedicated students managed to be in the very front of the sections, due to the extreme advantage provided by private lessons.

The problem with school programs is that they don't develop very good technique in a student, and it's really hard to enjoy something when you're not good at it. I think momentum is a very important factor in string instruments, specifically. So if we spend a couple years learning inadequate technique and then hit a wall, it's not fun to play anymore.

November 11, 2022, 5:24 PM · 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.

My daughter has made friends within her orchestra program. But, the more advanced the orchestra, the less time there seems to be for socializing, so this year, she's not so happy. Chamber is different. She has absolutely made friends within small groups.

I wonder if the categorization is similar for something like piano, where the initial learning curve is not so steep.

Edited: November 13, 2022, 1:42 PM · I agree with Erik's categories, and with the percentages.
I have found that a few students can "grow" into a higher category if the parental support "grows" too! And not only from No3 to No4.

If talent is manifest, we know it is there. I not apparent, we don't know, and must dig to find out. Parent and teacher can be pleasantly surprised!

When a Category 1 gives up, I hope that they try another instrument: if they give up all music, I am devastated..

November 13, 2022, 4:34 PM · Adrian said: "When a Category 1 gives up, I hope that they try another instrument: if they give up all music, I am devastated.."

I am of a different opinion on this: some people genuinely are happier without continuing to attempt music. There seems to be a socially popular belief that everyone would benefit from music, but I've met plenty of families that are better off sticking to sports or regular academics. There are other art forms to pursue, too, like dancing or visual arts.

Not everyone has what it takes to thrive on music, and I do believe for those people, they're better off spending their time on something they actually love, and are naturally better at.

Edited: November 13, 2022, 6:34 PM · 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.

And a good school program may be that substitute. Not as a substitute for private lessons, but as a source of motivation and support -- and even possibly providing a space to practice if the home environment is not conducive to practice. There is probably a noticeable subset of Category 1 parents who are like mine: willing to spend money on lessons, but not willing to put in any of their own effort outside of financial support. School programs would be helpful for this group.

I would like to note that a substantial number of string players in Northern California regional orchestras started learning their instrument in public school music programs, as per musician bios I've read over the years.

November 14, 2022, 9:23 AM · 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).
November 14, 2022, 10:07 AM · 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.
November 14, 2022, 10:28 AM · Stockton is the real symphonic powerhouse in the area
November 14, 2022, 10:59 AM · The Stockton Symphony is one of the orchestras peopled by musicians of the genre shown in the movie/video/DVD "Freeway Philharmonic."

Several of these acted as our coaches early in my current chamber orchestra's evolution. These musicians often rehearse and perform with other Northern California regional symphony orchestras such as Marin, Oakland and Santa Rosa as well as other professional ensembles such as the New Century Chamber Orchestra.

I don't know if the Sacramento Philharmonic relies on similar staffing.

November 14, 2022, 11:09 AM · 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.
November 14, 2022, 12:22 PM · 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.
Edited: November 14, 2022, 4:31 PM · I would strongly dispute Erik's characterization of classical music in the Sacramento area. It's not nearly as dire as Erik has frequently suggested, and even the poor condition of the local professional orchestra is a bit deceptive.

Yes, Sacramento is the largest metropolitan area in the US without a full-time orchestra. (And that part is worse than the city population makes it look; it's just one regional orchestra for a metropolitan area population of over 2 million.) The former Sacramento Symphony was a full-time orchestra, but went under in the 1990s (similar situation to San Antonio recently) and was replaced by the part-time Sacramento Philharmonic. The Philharmonic does, however, often have to compete with an extensive slate of touring orchestras at the Mondavi Center in Davis. It's been thinner since the pandemic, but prior to 2020, the San Francisco Symphony actually played at least as many concerts in the Sacramento area each year as the Sacramento Philharmonic did!

However, Greater Sacramento has an unusually large pool of excellent amateur musicians for its size. There are three top-notch community orchestras that have high-end budgets, are loaded with string players who have the chops for major concertos, and can play even the most challenging repertoire on 5-6 rehearsals.

(I will admit that the amateur scene is unbalanced, though, which is probably the reason for Erik's past complaints about the lack of decent community orchestras here. There are the three elite orchestras, and then the next best community orchestra in the area is a non-auditioned ensemble whose upper limit is the easier Beethoven symphonies. There's nothing that's really satisfying for the upper intermediate to lower advanced range that many serious amateurs land in.)

Sacramento also supports its classical radio station more than many much larger cities.

November 14, 2022, 4:39 PM · 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 still stick to that statement. You see things through the lense of someone who is already interested in classic music, and who surrounds themselves with other like-minded people. I see them through the lense of the average family I encounter. Sacramento is a very guitar + drums + vocals area. Most of the students I teach for the first time have never even seen a violin in person.

If you look at the Bay Area, you'll find a wealth of community orchestras of different levels, many different freeway philharmonics, and at least one major professional orchestra. Practically any kid you talk to there knows another kid who is taking violin lessons.

Here, we have one freeway philharmonic, 3 amateur orchestras, and a couple community orchestras that I almost can't call orchestras. In a population of 2 million+.

And even if I agree with your claim that we have an unusually large pool of excellent amateur musicians here (I don't have an opinion on this), that doesn't mean the culture here is centered on classical music. I bet the percentage of families here who have considered classical music for their kids is substantially lower than somewhere like the Bay Area.

Edited: November 14, 2022, 6:51 PM · 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.)

I've also lived in Los Angeles and Houston. Parts of Greater LA and Greater Houston have as much exposure to classical music as the Bay Area, but there are also large swaths of those metropolitan areas with virtually no exposure to classical music. It depends a lot on socioeconomic status. The same happens on a smaller scale in the Sacramento area: there are outstanding school orchestras (Davis Senior High is perennially rated as one of the best in the state, and a few other high school orchestras are very solid) a few miles away from schools where virtually no one plays a string instrument.

As for the amateur scene, the very large budgets and relatively high ticket prices for the top three community orchestras in the area suggest more interest in classical music than the Sac Phil's condition suggests. Likewise the large pool of top-tier amateurs. Community orchestras with six-figure budgets, essentially no repertoire limitations, and short rehearsal cycles are generally found only in large metros -- mid-size metros may or may not have even one of that description -- and Sacramento has three at that level. Sure, there's a lack of mid-level community orchestras, but that seems to be more a matter of no one being willing to step in and organize something to fill that gap, rather than a lack of musicians.

November 17, 2022, 6:09 AM · “Yes, Sacramento is the largest metropolitan area in the US without a full-time orchestra.”

Not any more. :-(

We are working hard to remedy the situation but it will take time to grow the San Antonio Philharmonic back to full-time status. And yes, what happened to the Sacramento Symphony was similar to recent events in San Antonio.

Edited: November 17, 2022, 10:11 AM · 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.

Terminology can be confused.

A virtuoso is some who plays superbly, even if they had to practise for 20 years to achieve it (a virtue indeed.)

A prodigy (prodigium - Latin for portent) is someone who plays superbly after a very short period of time. Prodigies are therefore a subset of virtuosi.

A protégé (since my family confuse the words) is basically someone who is protected, i.e. just a student, albeit possibly a favoured student.

Edited: November 17, 2022, 12:22 PM · 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.
November 17, 2022, 2:11 PM · Gordon, I am not a Suzuki teacher.

Parent/child relationship is vital in achieving a high level in anything, particularly in younger kids.

If someone can give me one example of someone that started at 6 years old, with no parental support at home, and eventually achieved a high level of playing (with no increase in parental support over time), I'd be surprised.

If anything, you are a prime example of how much parental involvement matters. As you noted, you were a "4" and your parents were "1 or 2". If they had matched your interest, they could have helped you stay focused. Kids with AHDH or ADD often need an external source of scheduling and time management to thrive.

Chances are that if they matched your level of enthusiasm, your potential on the violin would have been much higher.

Edited: November 20, 2022, 7:30 PM · 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.
November 20, 2022, 4:52 PM · Erik, As a teacher of beginners, I love your categories, but worry about the implications, so please excuse the rant.

Parental support is a middle+ class privilege which the majority of families simply don't possess. Split families have been mentioned but what about families where both parents work long hours, single parent families, refugee families who have their hands full trying to cope with a new language and culture despite trauma, migrant families from cultures where education is something done outside the home, at school... Some kids can't even stay back after school because they have responsibilities in terms of household chores and looking after younger siblings. These are realities we need to work with, and they render your heirarchy of parental interventions (not of students) impractical.

It's very easy for (especially classical) music to become elitist, and strings most of all because the beginning is such a steep trajectory. Isn't it out job as teachers to find ways to mitigate disadvantage?

Music is expensive and you get way more bang for your buck in a sports team. Not every area has a free string programme. I know of brutally (I meant virtually, but autocorrect has a point!) none in Australia, and I suspect access to some of the amazing schools in the US is still dependent on luck of finding out about them and parental support in getting kids there.

I started teaching at my high school (yr 7-12 here in oz), and my solution to parent support was to set up a strings home room every morning for practice. Some kids (your level 3/4s) came in early nearly every morning, some (your level 1s) came just for the timetables 10 mins. It worked wonders and encouraged interesting things like students taking on that parental role for each other. (Not to speak of the improved concentration skills due to misc practicing of 10-20 kids at once!). Progress was slower than it might have been, but it was there.

In a world of competing interests or priorities, just turning up to a music lesson can be an achievement. I also counted as success anyone who came along a few afternoons a week and dropped out, or anyone bored enough one lunch time to come play with an instrument. These are kids getting out of their comfort zones and familiarizing themselves with something they've never interacted with before. Maybe they'll be more than lev 1 patents if their kids want to learn.

Now that I'm community-based I'm experimenting with free practice zooms a couple of times a week, which is not the same. Sometimes I give specific parent homework (can you be a mirror with a wooden spoon for checking the bow is straight for the open string warm up? Can you touch the left elbow to stop the chicken trying to fly away?) and am glad if it happened a few minutes a week. If the parent can set an alarm on their phone to remind their child to practice, that's also a level of engagement.

But even practice once a week does create slow progress. Sometimes it's even better than having supervised rush-through practice at home.

What exactly are our expectations? Not everyone needs or wants to get past intermediate level. By Suzuki 4 a student has the skills to work out the basics of anything they want to learn later in life. By book 2 they have all they need to be a fantastic fiddler, provided they have access to a relevant tradition (or even just YouTube). They also have learning skills that will transfer to another instrument, be that classical piano, jazz band, karaoke singing or strumming a guitar in church.

Your post measures success as playing in a community orchestra, but there's a myriad of other ways to continue playing, including picking it up again in retirement or becoming a level 4 parent. Perhaps the best thing we can do as teachers of beginners is to develop a positive relationship with every student and make lessons enjoyable enough that they want to keep coming (at least till they get to that book 2 standard that enables them to play that do wiggles/Disney/pop tune they've been driving their parent nuts with).

November 20, 2022, 5:00 PM · 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?

And how do you teach 4-9 year olds how to practice effectively without parental interventions. So far I spell out exact portions and repetitions to practice and use colour coded instructions - blue for bowing, red for intonation, yellow for rhythm, pink for dynamics etc - so they know what to think about while practicing. There must be more I can do...

November 21, 2022, 2:05 PM · Anish, I will respond to your points one by one:

1) "These are realities we need to work with, and they render your heirarchy of parental interventions (not of students) impractical."

To the contrary, I think your points in that paragraph further reinforces the statistics I mentioned. The *reality* is that kids that have less parental support will be less successful. Closing our eyes to this doesn't make it change. Is it unfair? Of course. Not everyone has the time to spend helping their kids practicing. But that doesn't change the statistics. I've taught plenty of lower income families where I tried to give them every advantage that I could, but the lack of parental support at home still was a severe disadvantage, regardless of the kids' interest. It doesn't stop me from trying. To this day, I still teach these families. But in my heart (I never say it out loud, or act differently), I usually know who will succeed and who won't after the first month of lessons. And it's almost always directly correlated with the amount of parental support available.

2) "Isn't it our job as teachers to find ways to mitigate disadvantage?"

Of course; when did I say otherwise? The statistics I mentioned are AFTER I have given everything I can to a student. If I did less, then the statistics would look even worse.

3) "Not every area has a free string programme."

The reason there are more free sports programs than string programs is because any fool who played soccer in high school can run one, and they're not going to ruin any players by doing so. But to be an effective strings teacher, you have to be pretty skilled. Even just getting to a Suzuki Book 4 likely took years of commitment and money, and if we're being honest, you have to be well beyond that to be a good teacher. Very few who put in the high levels of effort to become effective string players/teachers want to work for free.

4) "Some kids (your level 3/4s) came in early nearly every morning, some (your level 1s) came just for the timetables 10 mins."

If you correlated the dedication of the 3/4s to their level of parental support at home, I suspect you'd find that they had much more stable home lives than the 1/2s.

Also, were you doing this home room for free? If so, I commend you, but I have to say that volunteer work will always skew statistics. For example, you could teach private lessons for free, and then make the claim that music *isn't* a money-dependent hobby by using those students as an example.

5) "In a world of competing interests or priorities, just turning up to a music lesson can be an achievement.

I actually disagree on this point the most. I think this attitude is what leads to a lot of the category 1/2 players I receive. They think that showing up to lessons is enough (rather than putting in the time at home), and as a result their progress is so slow that they're guaranteed to get bored. Students MUST make some progress to enjoy the experience. So what happens is they correlate music with *boredom*, and then they lose interest forever. So I would argue that routinely showing up to lessons unprepared is often WORSE than not taking lessons at all.


6) "Now that I'm community-based....."

What does this mean?

"I'm experimenting with free practice zooms a couple of times a week"

Once again, volunteer labor will always change statistics.


7) "But even practice once a week does create slow progress"

Yes, but as I noted before, if progress is too slow it can lead to boredom, which leads to a negative association with music. In many instances, students would do better if they had waited a few more years to start, so they could have better momentum. A teen can be somewhat self-led even without parental support. But take that same teen, and start them 4 years too early with zero parental support, and by the time they hit their potentially self-led years, they are already bored to tears and will seek a different hobby.


8) "What exactly are our expectations? Not everyone needs or wants to get past intermediate level."

My personal hope is that every student I teach will continue playing for the rest of their lives. I don't really care about their skill level, but have noticed in my gathering of data that skill level is directly correlated with how long a person will keep playing (up to a point...).

I think of musical trajectory as being similar to a rocket leaving Earth's atmosphere and entering orbit. A certain level of inertia must be built up to put people into the realm where they continue playing into adulthood. Those that only make it to Book 2 may have some skills built up, but it's highly unlikely that they will continue playing for a long time. I think book 4 is a good "general purpose" level that gives someone enough skills to keep interest in the long term. These folks may take a long break and then restart playing later in life. Those that get well into the intermediate level may continue playing their whole lives, without ever taking a substantial break (10+ years).


9) "By book 2 they have all they need to be a fantastic fiddler"

I disagree strongly with this. Good fiddlers have usually built up a substantial skill set. Double stops, great bow control, good intonation, etc... are all needed to be a "fantastic" fiddler. If they only finished Suzuki book 2, they will need to undergo significantly more training to become good fiddlers.

10) "Your post measures success as playing in a community orchestra"

That was only one example, as my original post was already getting very long.

11) "Perhaps the best thing we can do as teachers of beginners is to develop a positive relationship with every student and make lessons enjoyable enough that they want to keep coming"

I generally agree with this idea, but as I noted above, I do think some degree of progress is necessary for this to happen.

12) "Rant aside, I'd love to hear suggestions from anyone else for how to keep the level 1/2 kids coming.....(etc)..."

I suggest you make a new thread for this, as it won't get enough exposure here. Perhaps a title of "Best way to teach kids with uninvolved parents" or something along those lines.

As a side note, the suggestions you mention (such as color coding) are things I utilize regardless of parental support. Unexperienced parents need these easy-to-digest instructions just as much as the kids do, and compliance at home is much higher if instructions are very specific and straight-forward.

November 21, 2022, 6:54 PM ·
Edited: November 21, 2022, 11:19 PM · 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.
November 22, 2022, 11:55 AM · 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.

I taught vibrato online during early/mid pandemic and although what they learned online at Suzuki 2-4 level needed refinement, it was quite successful. I attribute the success to having up to four online group practice sessions weekly, that I supervised. Most of these students had substantial parent support in their Suzuki beginnings though and it was the distance learning circumstance that backed parents off.

November 22, 2022, 3:01 PM · Erik, I didn't think Anish was arguing with you?

Anish, I appreciated your post. I do believe there can be an effective learning relationship when the student is engaged even if the parent isn't. This has been most of my teaching career, actually, since I spent my first years teaching private lessons in a school setting. (I have found that (1.) Age matters--2nd grade is about the very minimum I have been able to coach effectively in independent practice. Reading is necessary. (2.) I miss group classes; in that school setting I had it only once a week but that made SUCH a difference. I'm not able to offer that option now and older students are ok without, but younger students have a hard time keeping momentum especially if there are sick weeks etc. Once we get to the "tipping point" where they have the basics down and can read music for simple songs it gets much easier even if we miss a week for me to send them something and they won't feel "stuck"!

November 22, 2022, 3:58 PM · Kathryn, I wasn't under the impression that any of my or Anish's points constituted an argument...

I thought this sort of thing was called "discussion"?

Did I give the impression that I was trying to demean Anish in some way? I was simply responding to each of their points in the most straightforward way possible, and even then my post ended up being way too long.

November 22, 2022, 11:08 PM · 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!

At any rate, it's a worthwhile discussion and relevant. I'll jump back in if I get a chance as I think there are some threads worth following!

Edited: November 30, 2022, 3:18 AM · 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...

1) Life in general correlates with parental and financial support. It stinks, and those of us privileged enough to enjoy this, or to have succeeded without them are, imn-s-ho, obligated to redress the balance by finding ways to offer such support - starting by not making assumptions, no matter how often our experience shows your categories to be generally accurate.

3. "getting to a Suzuki Book 4 likely took years of commitment and money". Exactly! Thus the perception of classical music as elitist, the reluctance of many parents to send kids to music lessons, the assumption that strings are only for gifted prodigies and overall diminishing audiences. Lindsey Stirling, Karolina Protsenko, Two Set etc are making violin visually accessible but money and time create a gigantic class divide.

"if we're being honest, you have to be well beyond that to be a good teacher."
Thanks very much - not! I was around that standard when I first started teaching, and am probably back there again after a good five years of rarely being able to hold a bow without pain, and I'd like to think I'm giving my students a firm foundation for others to build on - at least even the original students I first practiced on didn't have to relearn stuff when I finally got funding to bring a 'real' teacher into the school.
That was due to being an Aspie with a special interest in pedagogy and with enormous thanks to all the people here and a couple of other places who answered questions, shared teaching videos and taught me how to teach.

I teach people who can't afford someone better. I provide instuments and I do it well enough for two of my original students (that I know of - it's hard to maintain contact when changing schools, for child protection reasons) to have gone on to become far more accomplished than me and another to have convinced a private teacher they were worth a substantial scholarship. The students I put in for exams did very well. Almost all of the string group were still playing 3 yrs after I left the school. None of these kids had parental support (also pertinent to your #4).

4) Yes, all that was free. I'm a high school teacher - free labour (camps, welfare work, sort coaching, clubs etc) is part of the job! But what I was doing was the same thing you'd have been doing if we'd employed you as an instrument tutor and string ensemble director. It doesn't skew statistics - it opens them to scrutiny.

5/7) So kids with unstable homes etc should not even try out music as a hobby? See my #1 comments on privilege.
Any kid who has younger siblings to get ready for school, food and cultural demands after school and in one case a nearly full time job in addition to school (all big issues at that particular school) overcomes significant challenges just to turn up. That's a different (and possibly higher) level of commitment than people with parental support. Ditto any of my current adult students who are giving up some treat or another out of their below-poverty-line government support to pay me a token fee.

The boredom/progress is an issue. If I can get an ensemble going again, one of the things I did was include open string pizz lines (which confined our keys rather) so even early beginners felt included. We did big celebrations when someone learnt a new note/hand position/bow technique. It worked at the time. I need more strategies...

6) currently operating in my low SES community, not a school. It's alot harder.
I have two paying students who keep my instruments in strings, a couple of adults doing skill swaps with me and a mix of adults and kids doing lessons for free/token amounts. I can afford to do this because I still have a job and I have nearly paid out my mortgage.

8) I love your rocket metaphor. At the moment, I think that anyone who finds a group to play with, at whatever level, has a chance at achieving inertia. I've taken an active role in introducing my students to community groups (mostly different kinds of folk), teaching worship music for people who want to play in church and online performances like the benedetti sessions (look them up if you don't know about them - it's one of the awesome things to come out of covid). I'm lucky enough to know which groups in Sydney will welcome beginners (pm me if you're in Sydney and want details); many violin teachers are unaware of what's out there apart from the standard Suzuki groups, youth and community orchestras.

November 30, 2022, 3:28 AM · 9) "By book 2 they have all they need to be a fantastic fiddler, provided they have access to a relevant tradition."
You missed the second part of that sentence. They have enough to learn tunes to join in at sessions, to participate to workshops at festivals and generally follow the often-informal fiddle teaching traditions. They'll either be happy scraping away basic tunes at the back of the circle or actively seeking out the best fiddlers to fine tune their technique. Great fiddle is HARD, but it also has an achievable join-in theshold, depending on what style and group you've picked. Ditto worship music.

11) I hadn't thought about parents needing scaffolding as well. Will keep that in mind.

November 30, 2022, 3:28 AM · 9) "By book 2 they have all they need to be a fantastic fiddler, provided they have access to a relevant tradition."
You missed the second part of that sentence. They have enough to learn tunes to join in at sessions, to participate to workshops at festivals and generally follow the often-informal fiddle teaching traditions. They'll either be happy scraping away basic tunes at the back of the circle or actively seeking out the best fiddlers to fine tune their technique. Great fiddle is HARD, but it also has an achievable join-in theshold, depending on what style and group you've picked. Ditto worship music.

11) I hadn't thought about parents needing scaffolding as well. Will keep that in mind.

November 30, 2022, 3:37 AM · @Megwei
I'm having exactly that issue here in the (now mostly ex) mining community I moved to. Everyone does sport, and music (except for guitar and drums) seems to be a foreign concept for parents - which is odd since the community boasted a band, a pipe band, an orchestra and a musical society precovid.
Parents I've spoken to talk about the importance of sort in developing fitness and teamwork, with no concept of the fine motor skills, intellectual development or teamwork involved in playing music together. At the moment I'm blaming the blokey sports Mateship that has been a massive part of Aussie culture since WW1. We need more exposure...
November 30, 2022, 7:37 PM · 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.

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