Teaching philosophy

May 9, 2023, 11:04 AM · A discussion on another thread which is already going very far afield from the original intent reminded me of something I wrote on Facebook a few years ago and shared again recently. I thought it would be more appropriate to start a new thread than to continue hijacking the old one. In the hope that this is of interest, I am sharing below:

Saying goodbye to a graduating senior student at her last lesson is always bittersweet. And then I open FB to see photos of a former student, whom I taught from age five through high school graduation, getting his master’s. So wonderful to see my students doing so well in life.

I’m not trying to teach future professionals or music teachers, though I’ve taught more than a few through the past decades. My hope is that through the discipline of learning to play the violin and the joy of hearing and performing great music, my students develop skills to help them succeed in adulthood and the heart to live a fully human life inside and outside their chosen vocations. If they continue to enjoy the making of music or the listening to it, that is a bonus.

I am deeply grateful to my students’ parents for inviting me to be a small part of their children’s lives. 

Replies (37)

May 9, 2023, 11:26 AM · I wholeheartedly agree!
Although I have not taken my students so far as Mary Ellen, a few have subsequently gone far..
I always said "play it like me, or better": some did, the others enjoyed trying!
May 9, 2023, 12:00 PM · Yeah, I always tell my students that I hope they keep playing until they are "old and wrinkly." Also that I don't want them to play as well as I do, I "want [them] to kick my ass" and that "I'll take lessons from them one day."

Not as focused on the joy of performance aspect, more just the joy of playing. Some players are musical introverts (even some famous players) and much prefer playing by themselves or with a few friends.

May 9, 2023, 12:18 PM · Mary:

52 years ago I took my first violin lesson. It was in a classroom at a Lutheran Church in Springfield IL. I still remember what that room looked like. More importantly, I also remember how I was treated. I was taught to high standard in such an encouraging way that I really wanted to please my teacher. Being a musician was never an option for myself: I got married, finished a PhD in Plant Genetics and started a life for my family. Move forward to yesterday, where you would see a 58 year old guy at his violin lesson (Mozart G Major 3 mvmt). I am still encouraged by a new wonderful teacher who is about half my age; But instead of a half size violin, I am playing the violin of my first teacher. I'm going to retire in a few months, music has been such a big part of my life. My mom cleaned houses so I could have lessons. She passed away last year and while she was in the ICU the last few days of her life, I played a lot of music for her, it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. None of this could have happened without me walking into that room all those years ago. Mary (And all the other teachers who see this) Thank You.

May 9, 2023, 12:47 PM · A few days ago, I was telling my daughter that I was worried she didn't have hobbies. I'm an avid reader, gardener, and dog person, and she's none of those. And TikTok is not a hobby. She said 'Mommy, I have the violin. I'm never giving that up'. I hope so. And so grateful to her teachers, without whom, she would not have that attitude. Or hobby.
May 9, 2023, 1:33 PM · I have many hobbies, and I've been an on-and-off violinist in my adulthood. But it shaped my childhood in a way that's given me lifelong friends, and it's been a key social outlet for me in adulthood, especially given my extreme workaholic tendencies. (Of course, my husband would say that my violin hobby is just a different manifestation of that.)

I am deeply grateful to my various teachers, and especially grateful to the primary teacher of my childhood, who has, each time I've needed to seek out another teacher, been very kind to do some personal outreach on my behalf.

May 9, 2023, 2:01 PM · I agree with everything that has been said here. Learning music has really shaped my life in a positive way, and while I ulltimately made the very difficult decision not to study music in university, I am grateful to be able to play for my own enjoyment and whenever/whereever I want. I may not have many other hobbies, but music will continue to be something I love doing for years to come.
May 9, 2023, 3:03 PM · It's funny that you post this now, as I've been pondering my impact recently. I have a group of about 5 teen students who have been with me a long time and have all become good quality players.

However, I genuinely believe the bigger impact on their lives was in getting them all together in a group setting and just having fun every week. They've all grown up so much since I started teaching them, but knowing that they'll likely be friends for life makes me feel happy. The music is important, but not as important as the overall experience.

One of them has started tutoring for me (driving to beginner students' houses and helping them practice). I'm super proud of her for stepping up to that challenge. I've taught her since she was 9, and she was a pretty awful student who didn't want to be there and constantly tried to make things hard for me. So to see her now at 16 and actually getting involved in the teaching process is a stark contrast. And it does go to show that consistency can bring about drastic changes.

None of them aspire to be great musicians, but I can tell they will all be successful in their lives, and hopefully stay decent people. It's always hard to tell exactly how much impact I have on students, but I try to steer them all towards being decent human beings. And I do believe that instilling good values consistently, week after week, does have an effect.

I think that one of my biggest epiphanies in teaching was realizing that my words and actions had a much stronger impact that I had previously thought. Even one very negative interaction with a teacher can change the way a kid's brain perceives future events, whereas it takes many positive interactions to have the same level of effect. So it takes a lot more work to make a student better than it takes to make them worse. But that hard work is definitely worth the end result, and it also makes teaching a lot more bearable when you realize your goal isn't just to produce a good violin player. The reality is that many people who learn the violin early on probably won't keep playing later in their lives. But the behavioral changes from the learning process will stick with them forever. So, instead of getting frustrated that someone isn't making more progress, I just try to give them the best set of skills that I can can. And in that process, they often become better violin players as a result.

May 10, 2023, 8:08 AM · Interesting and enjoyable thread. Keep it coming, let's hear from more of our veteran teachers!
May 10, 2023, 5:12 PM · Mary Ellen, thank you for saying that when so many threads here are about high achieving would-be soloists.

Eighteen years ago a colleague recommended a local Suzuki teacher for our daughter, then age 4. To my surprise, after contacting her I was sent an excerpt from Shinichi Suzuki's writings about learning an instrument being not a route to being a soloist but to being a better human being. And about the parents' role. As it happens that fitted with my own thoughts - wanting our daughter's life enriched by music as mine has been - and she started learning the violin.

And I think for her, she has become a better and more rounded person from her music. She was clear that she didn't want to pursue a music career, and her teacher gave her the praise of saying that she played at the level of other students who went on to conservatory. She is now studying medicine, and appreciating the ability to switch off from her difficult academic requirements and play in the university orchestra, and in a string quartet - and be appreciated for that (to be fair, it is a university which doesn't have a music performance programme, so she is one of the better players).

May 10, 2023, 5:30 PM · I think music is a popular avocation for medical doctors. My father was a doctor who played music with other doctors (and other people). The 30-person weekly Tuesday-morning chamber orchestra I've been with for 13 years was over 15% medical people (that I know of for sure) before the COVID pandemic (I'm not one of them). My family pediatrician was one of my my best friends and my violin stand partner in community orchestra until he died in 1980.
May 10, 2023, 8:04 PM · Great thoughts, Mary Ellen and all.

I was a violinist and violin teacher for about 10 years, at which point I switched to classroom English teaching, and did that for 5 years.

I was also 'home group' teacher of Year 7s (12-13 year-olds). Through my English teaching and pastoral care role, I got to know a lot more about the lives of my students, and contact with their families tended to be more holistic. This sometimes happened with violin teaching - especially with families who genuinely loved music and what it offered.

But my additional experiences did reinforce your original sentiment, Mary Ellen - that students gain all kinds of things from learning music (and other subjects of course!), and even for those ones who are not particularly enthusiastic, you can never underestimate the subtle impact you're having. Childhood memories are extremely powerful - to Erik's point above.

Teaching can be challenging - there's no question about that. But even on the hardest days, it does help to think about it this way...

Now no longer a teacher (but still working in the broader sector in higher ed) I can say that the direct contact you have with students and their families, is a special, genuinely human thing that isn't actually all that common among other professions. But for the same reason, it can be draining!

May 11, 2023, 8:01 AM · I am loving reading everyone’s thoughts on this thread!
May 11, 2023, 8:55 AM · Wonderful experiences and reflections by everyone. I'm a lifelong amateur violinist and music lover, and a psychologist by profession. My reaction to reading all of these comments is that in my field a key ingredient in counseling and helping others with their psychological and interpersonal issues is simply nurturing a meaningful human relationship. I also believe that this is also a key to being an effective teacher. And, yes, you do make a significant difference in the lives of the people you have taught and guided. Bravo.
May 11, 2023, 9:19 AM · I hope to have transmitted a love of music, a love of playing it, a love playing it as well as possible, and a love of sharing it.
Lessons are a meeting of minds..
May 11, 2023, 9:22 AM · Mary Ellen, I love this!

I have a younger sister that started violin as a 7 year old and took lessons for a couple years before losing interest and starting something else. Outside of our shared memories of a few recitals and what our teacher was like, I didn't think much about her playing after she quit.

Thirty five years later her own 7 year old daughter wanted to take up violin, so my sister decided to try it again with her. I was so excited to hear her say, "so much is coming back to me! I didn't realize it would stay with me this long, and I love it!"

I am also amazed at how many adult beginners I have that say they need to start from scratch because they stopped lessons when they were younger and don't remember anything. Once they start, they always remember a lot more than they expected. Lessons in childhood do make a difference.

When I have students stop taking lessons and the parents apologize and tell me how sorry they are, I'll tell them the story of my sister. Music will stay with them. I'll let them know that their child hasn't "failed" and they haven't wasted time and money on lessons. They have invested in their child's development not only musically but in other areas as well, and that is not easily lost.

May 11, 2023, 10:18 AM · Rebecca, I love this :)
May 11, 2023, 4:49 PM · I'm sure you're a wonderful teacher, Mary Ellen. I always enjoy and learn from your insightful and valuable comments on this site. Regardless of whatever my students decide to do with music in the future, my clear intention is for them to learn the proper fundamentals of violin playing and to enjoy making music.
May 11, 2023, 5:29 PM · I'm contemplating the commonality of local Suzuki teachers who have clear messaging on their websites that "this is a violin-first studio", i.e. that by joining the studio, you are committing to placing the violin first in your child's life -- above academics, above any extracurriculars, above religious activities, etc. There's no "I didn't practice enough this week, I had a test to study for" or "I need to skip this lesson, I have a soccer game", etc.

And yet ostensibly they're doing this in order to produce Suzuki's beautiful human beings, not to produce pros.

Keep in mind that many of these teachers do not accept transfers, so you're committing your four-year-old, who has never touched a violin before, to this (and having to leave the studio if your commitment changes).

Edited: May 11, 2023, 6:28 PM · That's weird, Lydia.

It seems like kind of par for the course if a teacher is willing to take kids as young as 3, to understand that you're dealing with the executive function of a 3 year old, and so while I understand wanting to only have dedicated students, it does read as a control-freak tendency to me.

Perhaps these Suzuki Teachers don't actually take such young students, and use the Suzuki method in their own particular formulation. I would think that ultimately it's healthier to just accept that many kids try many things, and only retrospectively start to understand what they want to get serious about, if they even have that kind of "specializer" mentality.

May 11, 2023, 10:43 PM · Lydia, I find that utterly horrifying (“violin-first” studios). I would not have qualified for such a teacher as a child, and neither would have any of my own children, two of whom made Texas All-State on their chosen instruments and the third of whom just graduated with a performance degree from a prestigious music school.

My thoughts are that it is up to the student to determine the priority of violin in their life, and I meet them where they are. Those who put violin first (or tied with high academics) generally progress faster than those who prioritize sports, but as long as the student is doing *something* to improve their violin skills, there is value in the lessons. It’s worth pointing out that student priorities can change over time. I take great pride in those students who come in as indifferent students and then find the motivation to excel.

As a side benefit, in my opinion, the nicest kids in any school are to be found in the orchestra class.

Very occasionally I get a student who doesn’t practice at all - they don’t last long, and I don’t think they get much if anything out of their lessons.

May 11, 2023, 11:20 PM · Lydia, that sounds... pretty insane. Mary Ellen, I 110% agree with you. It is totally up to the student to determine how much they prioritize violin in their life. All of the music teachers I've met are very cognizant of this.
Edited: May 12, 2023, 1:47 AM · My impression is that a lot of those "Suzuki teachers" who insist on their students prioritizing violin first are... not Suzuki teachers in any way beyond using the books.

The teachers Lydia is describing are probably the same category of teachers (likewise claiming to be Suzuki teachers) who insisted that I was already too old to learn a string instrument at all when I was 13.

Edited: May 12, 2023, 1:06 PM · By rejecting the less dedicated students early on, those schools are ensuring that they have a high quality output, and thus can raise their prices more. The interesting thing about this is that they're not outputting better students because they have the best teachers, but simply because they filtered out the "normal" students early on.

(As a side note, I believe this kind of thing is how we get ridiculous statistics like a 4-year Bruch level being "typical"....yes, it's typical when you've already skimmed out the bottom 95-98% of players).

May 12, 2023, 1:58 PM · Ironically, I would consider the "violin-first" programs to be the purest exponents of Suzuki locally.

In an area where parents are told that it's best if they ensure that their elementary schooler focus on an at least one area of specialization, and where multi-activity overscheduling is common, it's not surprising in some ways for teachers to want their thing to be a child's primary thing.

May 12, 2023, 3:32 PM · Pretty sure I know the studio Lydia is referring to, and she’s correct. They are highly influential in Suzuki circles; one could say that they’re kind of the gatekeepers.
May 12, 2023, 5:58 PM · I sort of have to take Lydia's side here: I don't think asking a violin student to prioritize violin is really some terrible thing, particularly if you are a good teacher who wants your talents to be fully utilized. We have only so many years in this life; why waste great teaching on players who won't really fully utilize the resource? It's not as if those players won't be able to find a different, lower-level teacher who would suit them better anyways.

High-level teachers filtering out the less dedicated students is a win-win, both for the teacher and the student.

I think the point of contention I have is that you're asking people to commit so wholeheartedly at such a young age. And while that may align most closely with Suzuki's actual teachings, I'm not sure if it's necessarily healthy in all cases. But, even in saying that, I question if it's true: why is American culture so obsessed with the idea of doing multiple things with mediocrity, as opposed to picking one and becoming really good at it? I have noticed this in my teachings; that many kids these days are thrown into 10 different extracurriculars but they never become particularly good at any one thing.

And while some may argue that this provides a more broad education, I feel that in some cases, it creates a sort of paralysis from having so many options.

The more I think about it, the more I start to agree with the philosophy of the school in question.

Edited: May 12, 2023, 8:42 PM · Is America obsessed with broad mediocrity, Erik?

Doesn't the growing credentialism of our supposed meritocracy, degree inflation (where people used to be able to make a living with a high school education, but now increasingly, seemingly credentials beyond an bachelor's degree are seen as a minimum), and an early funneling and hyperspecialization mean that a broad liberal arts education is seen as kind of useless, or something that only a rich kid or a delusional kid can get.

Why do kids and their insane parents start essentially planning for college while they're in the womb? I think we live in a zero-sum culture where worker alienation (in the Marxist sense) is at an all-time high. The insane parents are reacting to the world around them, and trying to protect their kids by hyperspecializing them at such a young age.

Maybe I'm off base...

May 12, 2023, 6:44 PM · I feel like it depends on what circle you're in and what perspective you look at it from. Finding the balance between dabbling in multiple extracurriculars and specializing in one or two is a very tricky balance to get right, and it heavily depends on the child, the family's situation, and so much more. I am very concerned about young kids who are strongly pushed into hyperspecializing in a specific activity at a very young age, unless extraordinary talent or passion is identified. Similarly, I'd be equally concerned if a child has piled on too many extracurriculars to the point that they are overwhelmed and cannot adequately attend to each activity. It's a difficult balancing act. I think for young children, having them in a few introductory-level extracurriculars is perfectly reasonable, as it can give them the opportunity to try lots of different things and really explore their interests, but at some point, they will have to prioritize the extracurriculars that are most important, and inevitably drop the ones that they dislike or are not as interested in prioritizing.

Going back to violin (or learning any instrument, for that matter), some people in other online communities have told me of teachers who can be very hard on young children to an unhealthy degree. I've never seen this situation in my real life, but someone online told me of teachers who may make their beginning six-year-olds practice open strings for months before doing anything else sorta thing. This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. That said, it is not unreasonable for a teacher to expect that a beginner practice 15-20 minutes 6 days a week. So what I'm saying is that violin should be prioritized enough that the student practices a certain amount daily/weekly, but it absolutely doesn't have to be the center of their life.

May 12, 2023, 7:12 PM · It's one thing for a teacher to demand first priority... it's another for a teacher to demand first priority and not accept transfers. I would expect a teacher who takes on students starting at advanced level (or even intermediate) and makes them competitive candidates for conservatories to demand that music be first priority. It's another entirely to insist on total commitment from the moment the student first picks up the instrument.
May 12, 2023, 7:56 PM · And yet it’s an extremely well regarded studio, and there is no dearth of students, do there must be some segment of the population that believes this approach. In practical terms though, what this means is that kids that don’t want to commit go elsewhere. Which they can do at any point in time, and there is no dearth of non-Suzuki teachers, either.
Edited: May 12, 2023, 10:08 PM · It sounds like the "violin-first" mandate is how this studio is making clear to parents what their responsibilities are and what won't be tolerated. Non-musician parents have no idea what kind of effort is required and would surely underestimate. This is is parent-management. I can't believe it is consequential for the child's overall education. We're talking about kids under 10-12 here, correct? Any child under 12 with slightly above-average intelligence and conscientious parents can easily remain well-above grade level in reading, writing and math with minimal effort. If the kid is destined to be a Pulitzer prize winning author or a Nobel prize winning chemist, they will catch up in high school and beyond. But they can't dilly-dally in the single digit years if they are destined to be the next Menuhin competition winner. If a child under 12 has extensive amounts of homework, it's busywork and the parent can "help out," if necessary. Or let it go; any less than stellar grade in grade or middle school doesn't matter for much anyway.
May 13, 2023, 1:50 PM · Sue, I'm 99% sure you've likely guessed right, but they're not the only ones in this area. There are several, including at least two where viewing the recitals doesn't suggest to me the kind of results one might expect from devotion at an early age.

The teachers with preprofessional studios rarely have to tell their students that violin is a priority. They're already of an age and seriousness that they can be expected to balance their activities accordingly.

I really do have to wonder what kind of parents commit their four-year-olds to any activity with that kind of grave seriousness, though. I consider myself to be at least moderately involved in the rat race, but even I instinctively recoil from that.

Edited: May 13, 2023, 4:31 PM · The 'violin-first studio' that Lydia outlines above has plagued my thoughts, and I am left wondering what is the value of a musician who has developed no understanding of poetry, philosophy or science; who has no experience of nature, exercise or the winding paths of faith.

Two stanzas from 'Prayer Before Birth' by the Irish poet Louis MacNeice keep coming up in my mind:

"I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me."

Edited: May 18, 2023, 12:58 AM ·

QUOTE: Mary Ellen Goree · May 9, 2023, 11:04
" . . . My hope is that through the discipline of learning to play the violin and the joy of hearing and performing great music, my students develop skills to help them succeed in adulthood and the heart to live a fully human life inside and outside their chosen vocations."

I once viewed a program where Charlie Rose was interviewing Isaac Stern. During the interview, Stern made the case that those involved in music often tend to excel in teamwork. I definitely think this to be the case, and having been involved in quality management, what a difference my sense of teamwork has made for me. Iit's been indispensable in my profession as a statistician and a quality manager!

Edited: May 19, 2023, 7:37 AM · The one activity that I see as being intrinsically "violin first" is orchestra. If it's not at least a very high priority among a student's many extracurricular activities, then the attendance at rehearsals will be miserable. I'm keenly aware of this issue because my daughter has had to miss local orchestra rehearsals at the private music school to which we subscribe, for events like SAT test, All-State Orchestra (Virginia), High School Choir Assessment Day, Regional Orchestra, and auditions for the aforementioned regional and state orchestras. That leaves no wiggle room to ask for an excused absence for something like "last soccer game of the year."

Public-school varsity sports are "sport first" in the sense that missing practice is not an option. And that makes sense, too. You're committing to a team.

Where I draw the line is prioritizing the sport or the instrument above academics. If your kid is an outlier like Hilary Hahn or Simone Biles, that's one thing. But by definition we're not talking mostly about outliers.

I teach university chemistry and my students in the fall term are all brand-new freshmen chemistry majors. I actually tell them "math first."

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