abusive (Russian) violin teachers

October 23, 2017, 1:14 PM · Back in the 60's, at a very young age, I studied at a highly prestigious music school with a Russian violinist. Enough time has passed, that not only has he passed away, but so have all those in his generation of teachers. My lessons often included getting smacked over the head with his bow, being told angrily, I had miles to go and had made only an inch of progress, etc. I concluded my teacher was probably a nice man who had a fierce temper. Not practicing enough, no doubt, fueled his temper. But I am not the only one who studied with him at a young age and had these experiences, as I have compared notes with a few others. Anyone else out there who had a similar experience?

Replies (38)

October 23, 2017, 1:24 PM · I never had such a teacher but I would not describe someone teaching in that way as a "nice man." I realize times change but there were wonderful teachers in the 1960s who did not find it necessary to abuse their students. Very sorry you had such an experience.
October 23, 2017, 1:52 PM · I had an internationally known piano teacher in the late 90's who some did call abusive. I sent 3 friends to her - 2 lasted 1 lesson, 1 two lessons. They were fools. I knew what the 'abuse' was about. I stuck with her for many years, in fact I was with her the day she died. The world lost one of its greatest pedagogues!
Edited: October 23, 2017, 2:32 PM · My first teacher threw me into a chair when I was 8 or 9 (in group class). My 5th teacher made me cry at age 14 when I asked a question (no physical abuse, he just yelled at me for "talking back to him"). Both of those teachers were very impatient with me in general.

Some are not made to teach.

Neither were Russian.

October 23, 2017, 4:26 PM · yes: somewhat abusive
no: not Russian
Edited: October 23, 2017, 7:16 PM · Same here. My second piano teacher was abusive but not Russian.

October 23, 2017, 6:06 PM · I have been fortunate to never have an abusive teacher. Incompetent ones yes, but never even remotely abusive. I think the angriest one has gotten was slamming her hand on the piano for me to tune and mildly raising her voice in a stern manner after I had made her angry during the conversation we had as I got my instrument out. If I remember correctly, the conversation had something to do with me not liking an aspect of how she ran her studio class and being especially stubborn in my opinion.
October 23, 2017, 6:24 PM · My violin teacher is Russian. He is one of the kindest, most gentle people I know.
Edited: October 23, 2017, 6:40 PM · I've had 3 teachers so far, none of them were aggressive in any way, not even one day. Well, one day my teacher was angry about something that was not related to me, but her anger kind of touched the ambient of the class of that day. But it's just human relations, not everyday is fine and happy.

Oh, I remember now that I also argued with another of my teachers, after the class walking down the street. Politics, hahaha. If you don't want to kill the other person when you talk about politics, then you're doing it wrong.

October 23, 2017, 9:37 PM ·
Edited: October 23, 2017, 9:47 PM · I feel like this is a bit of a stereotype about Russia and Russian things - that they are rough and sometimes backwards.

In my experience most Russians I've been in contact with have been very amicable.

Perhaps those coming from the age of the USSR would be different, but even then I feel like it is more of a stereotype than something that can reasonable be expected. A lot of common beliefs about Russia were created and propagated during the cold war by the Americans, and because American culture is so pervasive those beliefs became quite widespread.

I'm very sorry you had the misfortune to suffer under an abusive teacher - no one should be exposed to that, especially at such a vulnerable age.

Edited: October 23, 2017, 11:27 PM · I've never had an abusive teacher, but several incompetent ones: I consider myself self-taught. Have I ever been abusive? Not really, but there have been a few students that I didn't work well with an I should of requested they find someone else to teach them. Teaching gives me a high; after teaching I usually feel really good, and only 1 out of 20-30 students is a negative experience.

I remember working with a new student, who was playing a year before she met me. She had the worse left hand technique I've ever seen, it was really bad. We've been working together on this bad left hand for about a month with some improvement each lesson. Then during a lesson of several repeats 3-6, I stopped and asked her if I was too strict. She said no, but said her other teacher was very strict. And that's when it hit me, we can be impatient, frustrated, and mean with our students when we have the intelligence to see that something is wrong, but are ignorant to the fix.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 12:00 AM · I had a Russian violin teacher for a little while. She was super supportive and quite funny, never abusive. I had several emotionally abusive Chinese school teachers in Shanghai where I grew up. It was during the "cultural revolution" so I think a lot of them were really messed up in their personal/political life and they took it on the kids. Terrible to experience such things but many of us survived. I hope you will let it go.
October 24, 2017, 1:07 AM · As an instructor, I'm persistent with technique, without ever escalating my temperament. I always speak calmly and try to smile, regardless of the advice I'm giving. I do this in response to an insult, just as much as a I do it in response to someone doing a very good job. It's important that the students don't feel they can affect you emotionally as an instructor, since they will begin to take advantage of that. Of course I get very frustrated internally at times, but I make sure that the students never detect that whatsoever. It's pretty often that kids get frustrated when learning a new skill, but as instructors its our job to NEVER reflect that frustration back at them. They're already frustrated at that point, so we don't need to add to it.

Much more expressive and beautiful playing arises as a result of positive, gentle corrections rather than emotional abuse (big surprise!). I've sort of learned this the hard way over the years, as my early years of teaching definitely had some crying (not from me abusing anyone, but from not being extra-delicate with certain students... essentially they were already frustrated, and then I would push it a little too far without reading their emotions, and of course this would push them over the edge).

A good teacher is gentle, positive, and nurturing, BUT simultaneously PERSISTENT regarding doing things the proper way! That's the key.

October 24, 2017, 1:12 AM · My keyboard teachers were sweet older ladies, that never raised their voices, good teachers, though. not Russian, either.
October 24, 2017, 1:58 AM · Getting frustrated internally is bad for you.
October 24, 2017, 5:14 AM · I really don't think controlling one's emotions in the presence of a student (which is what Erik is talking about, and in which I agree with him) is going to harm anyone.
October 24, 2017, 6:33 AM · "of course I get very frustrated internally at times, but I make sure that"
October 24, 2017, 6:49 AM · My very first teacher was an old russian lady. After playing my first few bows she said, I got talent, so she is gonna make a player out of me.
What followed were two years that felt like hell to me. I started as a 6yo boy and had an, too big, full sized violin. I had to keep that thing up an whole hour, not allowed to get it down once. I had cramps in my shoulders. She forced my finger physically on the right positions, I had a lot of pain. I would crye during playing a lot at the lessons.
She hit me once when I did not dust off the rosin of my violin. I never got hit by any other grownup so the shock was even worse than the pain itself.
I did not tell my parents for two years. When I did, they immidiatly looked for a new teacher.
I later came to know she was not able to pkay herself anymore because her neck was totrured by here very unrelaxed playing. I guess for her playing the violin was always painfull so she thought this is the way to go.
For that reason I am one of the parents who would joins a lesson of his son from time to time when gets a new teacher.
October 24, 2017, 7:17 AM · The teacher I studied with in the 1980's was from the other side of the "iron curtain". He was the nicest person I know.
October 24, 2017, 7:26 AM · "Getting frustrated internally is bad for you"

Frustration is normal and needs to be dealt with. Kids who are protected from every possible frustration and constantly praised grow up to be emotionally stunted.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 7:39 AM · To clarify, and I don't think this is where Scott was going with his comment (which I also agree with) but evidently I don't seem to be expressing myself clearly:

1. It is not necessary to abuse a student to be a good teacher.
2. A good teacher can and should control the outward expression of his/her emotions in the presence of a student (agreeing with Erik).
3. Controlling the expression of said negative emotions does not harm an individual (disagreeing with Bud).
4. Controlling said negative emotions does not necessarily imply constant praise of the student (not at all what Scott was saying anyway but just in case I am leaving myself open to further misinterpretation).

I have a rule for myself as a teacher that before I give a student necessary negative feedback, I say one true positive thing. The challenge here is that it has to be true. There is always something positive to be found even if it is as small as "I can see you are making an effort." That (hopefully) puts the student in a more receptive mood for my comments to follow.

If a student needs to be told he/she is playing out of tune, or out of rhythm, or not up to an acceptable standard for an approaching audition or performance, I will say so. But I never call a student names for playing badly. I present my critique and then work with the student on how to solve the problems and improve the performance.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 9:24 AM · Haha, the ritual with my teacher nearly every week is that she says something positive, after which I say: "but...?". Then she enumerates everything that needs to change. Praise is almost an indicator that some more serious improvement points are coming.

For the record, I'm fine with this.

Hearing something positive serves a greater purpose than just creating a "receptive mood". In particular, a confirmation that particular recurrent problems have been resolved is good, because it implies that I can focus my mental efforts on the next thing.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 1:11 PM · Teacher's can be really effective by being demanding when they are doing so in a way that supports the student and give's the student an idea of a path by which they will profit by diligent work. There's no place for abuse, whether it be physical or mental. It won't help the student progress and is really just an expression of a teacher's problems.

The relationship between teacher and student is a very close one, especially in terms of learning such a difficult skill over such a long time in a one-on-one setting. A teacher that is abusive and undermines the confidence of the student is probably unleashing the results of their own abusive teaching as a student, and unfortunately, crazy people are out there. They can thrive in environments where they are granted a lot of authority on the basis of perceived expertise, and by parents who aren't checked-in enough or have weird ambitions for their children - Check out situations like what was going on at the Menuhin School with people like Maurice Gendron and other examples where there is low oversight. I imagine that in communist systems that were very bureaucratic, abusers could get in and be relatively unchecked. This isn't limited to music, but can be true in after-school sports and in many other activities.

As a parent, vetting a teacher, being attentive and trusting your gut can go a long way. As an adult learner, it's all on you. But my teacher is Russian and I think has a very keen understanding of people's psychology - She never raises her voice and never hits or anything absurd like that, but teaches in a way that makes people want to practice. It's not like good players can't come out of abusive teaching environments, but they are likely to burn-out and have issues later because of it.

With all that said, it seems like some people will criticize a teacher for holding them to a standard in their playing, and this may be called "strict" or something, but that's the job of the teacher. I don't see how those people can ever be good violinists. I've seen unfortunate student performances that seemed like the result of not getting enough realistic feedback from their teachers, which really just seems cruel when they are playing terribly for their diploma and they know it. I watched a girl slash through the Saint Saens 3 at a masterclass a few years back, and threw a huff when the violinist (very reasonably) asked her to stop and play an arpeggio, and then told her she needed to go back and practice and clean up her intonation. How can someone in a fantasy bubble like that ever make progress?

October 24, 2017, 11:29 AM · I somehow enjoy working with instructors who have ridiculously high (or maybe not--maybe they're just hard to please and I'm just not at where I'm supposed to be; probably that) expectations because I hear "you're so good you should be a music major" wherever I go. Had it not been for my teacher, I probably would have made the mistake of settling myself for professional music. It also feels better when someone understands that you have room for improvements and tells you what you really need to hear as opposed to what you want to hear, you know? Because no one in the past eight years of my playing has told me my bow hold was really bad or that I looked awkward on my instrument or that my intonation was horrid. I feel like it's easier to understand your strengths than to see your weaknesses and I would rather have teachers tell me what I lack.

But also preferably without smacking me on the head with the bow.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 11:40 AM · "you're so good you should be a music major"

AHHHH that is one of my biggest pet peeves. I wish teachers would quit saying things like that.

Being good at something does not obligate you to commit to it as a career. You should only strive for a career in music if you are good enough (which is usually a much higher standard than the "you should major in music" teachers realize) AND if you cannot imagine yourself being happy doing anything else AND if, despite not being able to imagine yourself being happy doing anything else, you are prepared to be creative in your career and/or make a switch anyway.

Never, ever, ever do I suggest to a student, not even my very best students, that they consider a major in music pursuant to a career. If the student brings it up, I will give them a realistic assessment of where they stand and of what it's like to make one's way in the professional music world. Four times out of five that includes me telling them that it is most likely not in their future.

I've taught college students who were there because their high school private teachers told them they should major in music. It generally doesn't end well.

(By "not ending well" I mean that eventually the student realizes that his/her true calling is elsewhere, and they basically have to start over in college after a year or two, or three if they are very unlucky.)

October 24, 2017, 11:57 AM · Bud Scott: Drinking's bad for me too, but I do it anyways.

Scott Cole: I never implied that I protected them from frustration; only that I didn't react to it by getting frustrated back at them. I actually talk a LOT about the emotion of frustration with students, as it tends to be the biggest challenge beginners have - dealing with frustration in an appropriate and productive way seems to be the "key" for beginners to progress. I talk about how frustration often stems from an overuse of a particular region of the brain, and how it needs a cooldown period in order to work effectively again. Cooldown meaning a different type of task: perhaps scales or exercises, until we can get back to the original task again, but in a non-frustrated way.

Here's a public service announcement: you can have high expectations and let them be known to the student, while simultaneously being gentle about your approach.

I don't candy coat anything, and in fact I'm super forward about precisely what I want at any given moment. But by saying it in a gentle way, I can actually be far more efficient in my approach because it allows me to get to the point without the potential of crying or internal pain on their part. There's nothing more inefficient than spending 20 minutes of a 30 minute lesson consoling a child whose feelings are hurt.

If I have to PRESSURE a student through fear or through telling them MY expectations about their future, then they're not going to succeed anyways. A parent pressuring their child in a similar way at home (think paganini) might have success, but the child will lose all enjoyment of music.

And you'll be happy to know, Mary, that I always steer people away from the idea of careers in music, and have a similar pet peeve :) Seriously.

Edited: October 25, 2017, 5:26 AM · Why isn't everyone both deùmanding and nice. Some of us manage.

The greatest teachers say to start with a compliment (which must however be deserved..) then the student will listen better to corrective advice.

October 24, 2017, 1:11 PM · "preferably without smacking me on the head with the bow."

I once smacked my own head with my bow during the lesson, out of frustration. My teacher appeared shocked. Even after I explained that my carbon-fiber bow could handle that kind of abuse.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 1:15 PM · Not Russian, but.... I had a college theory professor who, when he was a grad student, went to France and had a score-reading-at-the-piano class with Boulenger (I forget which sister). Any wrong note was met with a ruler severely rapping the knuckles on the student, so much so that the students started to instantly pull their hands away from the keyboard if they made a mistake. Boulenger would indicate to the student(s) to put their hands back above the keyboard and would bring down the ruler with a "whack" across their knuckles. Ouch!
October 24, 2017, 10:06 PM · I had a famous Russian teacher as a teenager. I came
to him from a very warm, supportive man who was a saint.
Said Russian teacher and I as a teenager were not made for
each other. He was not abusive -- no yelling or hitting -- but extremely rigid.
Week after week after week of nothing but Sevcik exercises. When we finally
parted ways after an eternity of this, I was so disgusted I gave up altogether
on being a professional (even though my parents begged me to try again with
someone else) and stayed assiduously away from any violin teacher for
many years. That's not physical abuse, but completely misreading a gifted
kid and utterly turning him off is a form of professional abuse, IMHO.
October 24, 2017, 10:49 PM · Couldn't agree more, Frederick.
October 25, 2017, 1:27 AM · There are excellent musicians who should not teach.

A family brought their litte girl to me for advice. Her teacher insisted on a right-angle between left forearm and wrist; with her tiny hands, this meant that her 3rd and 4th fingers could not reach anywhere near their notes; for which she was loudly criticised.
This teacher actually prevented her from playing: he should be sacked.

I was able to insist to her parents that the only photos I have of professionals holding their violins in this way (in first position on the upper strings) came from teachers, never artists...

BTW, the teachers in question include Sammuel Appelbaum and Leopold Auer, but I didn't tell them that!

Edited: October 25, 2017, 5:07 AM ·
Bashing other teachers and teaching techniques is easy, to find a fix for one's own frustration with teaching is when one becomes better at one's job.

Edited: October 25, 2017, 5:07 AM · I agree we need strategies to help students from getting frustrated. I don't think getting frustrated ourselves, whether we think we show it or not (how would you know anyway?), helps no one.

@Charles - we must have cross-posted and yes! I suppose it all boils down to some teachers wishing teaching to be an emotive thing. That should be saved for the music. When students start pleasing themselves rather than us we're getting somewhere.

October 25, 2017, 5:59 AM · Adrian: "Her teacher insisted on a right-angle between left forearm and wrist"

Could you clarify what you mean or link to some photos? Right angle normally means 90 degrees, but I can't imagine that that is what you mean.

October 25, 2017, 9:50 AM · The reason why I quit violin at the end of 6th grade (for two years) was because of an abusive orchestra teacher. Nothing that hasn't already been talked about in this thread - pretty standard bullying/belittling and singling out, then demanding that I miss advanced academic classes for orchestra practice - but it was enough to turn me off playing until I was able to get to high school and have a different teacher (where I ended up a returner for the first time, oy). The teacher was not Russian, and I think only recently retired...

(My current teacher is demanding and nice, I love it.)

October 25, 2017, 10:57 AM · Lol Adrian, are you talking about the "out-wrist" on the left arm? If so, I'm thinking you must mean 45 degrees?

Charles: I'm not sure who your post is directed at, but the only thing I'm bashing is teachers who allow themselves to be harsh or mean with students who don't deserve it. Actually, as an addendum to what I said earlier, I'd like to add that I'm occasionally stern with students, but only with the ones that know precisely what they're doing and are doing it specifically to cause problems. But even in those cases, I generally find it more effective to approach it in a nice way. The words I use are serious, but the tone and volume of my voice remains calm.

But, that's a rarity, as almost all of my young students really look forward to their lessons and smile at least 10x per lesson. And that makes the learning process easy, since bored kids don't learn, angry kids don't learn, and crying kids don't learn.

October 25, 2017, 1:11 PM · I should have said a "wrong-angle"...

Very, very occasionally, I can be the velvet fist in the iron glove!

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