Feedback culture in violin lessons

December 27, 2017, 5:09 AM · Merry Christmas to everybody!

I am in my fourth year of private violin lessons (in addition I did a bit when I was a kid). To get a good education/basics I try to follow the lead of my teacher and I have learned to hold my firework of ideas and pieces I adore at bay.
I get along with my teacher really well and for sure I am getting a lot of feedback every week.

But the ocean of violin technique and repertoire is more than wast from the perspective of a (starting) learning adult.
I am probably somewhere sailing over the beginning intermediate waters learning Haydn g major. In a way it feels like that’s all I know, the repertoire and the technique I am working at. Sure, I am reading a lot but still it is hard to figure out, what the next three years might look like.

Is there anything like sitting down once a year and talking about the bigger picture in violin lessons?

I do not care about getting confirmation of how good I am and that I will play Bach S&P in the near future. It’s more like getting a picture of a general concept that will help me to understand where I am and what the next steps are.

Why do I not just go ahead and ask my teacher? I am an engineer and I know that I can come across rather upfront. If this kind of feedback is not part of the violin lesson culture I do not want to irritate anybody.

I hope that makes sense.

Are you giving/getting more general feedback once a year?
Any recommendations? Have you been in the same situation?

Thanks a lot

Replies (23)

December 27, 2017, 6:50 AM · I think the world of adult students is multifaceted. If you want information, suggest it to your teacher.
Some things are unanswerable, as they depend on your rate of technical progress--unlikely to be consistent or linear--but what can be answered could make a mutually interesting conversation.
December 27, 2017, 6:53 AM · Do you feel like you are stagnant?
Not getting any better? Not challenged? Are you putting in your due diligence in practicing?

If the answer is yes, then it is time to think about your own goals and then ask your teacher how he imagines you achieving your goals. If he has no idea or give you some ambiguous answer, then you will need to reevaluate your relationship.

An annual review can't be a bad idea if you haven't done anything like that, and is a reasonable thing to do.

If you fear being too confrontational, you might start with thanking him for all the ideas and insight he has given you (genuinely and apparently he has) and then say I wish to do this in the next year or two, what do you feel about that? Give it to me straight, you won't hurt my feelings.

Edited: December 27, 2017, 11:13 AM · Eva: As a former violin & cello teacher of both children and adults I would tailor my interactions with students to the student. Several adult beginners came with aspirations way below their potentials - some so low (z.b., "Amazing Grace," or "Ashoken Farewell") that we were able to gets past them in the first few lessons. Kids come with a fairly open agenda - they want to learn to play the violin (period) not having any idea what that means and it is the teacher's (and their parents') to get them keep at it.

I would have welcomed conversations with students about where they wanted to go and how we might get there.

The Haydn G Major concerto that you are playing is not an insignificant work. It tells me you are probably playing up to the 3rd position, but handling rhythmic challenges.

As an engineer, I suspect you are looking for goal markers for your violin "career."
Do you want to play solos in front of an audience?
Weddings, parties, memorials, musical theater?
Astound the world with your virtuosity??
Do you want to play in an orchestra?
Do you want to be a concertmaster?
Do you want to play in small groups (chamber music) with other people?
First violin?

Do you know what the highest levels of violin playing look like (in concert or on Youtube)?
Have you looked at the "sheet" music for really tough stuff (z.b., the Ysaye sonatas for solo violin)?

I think the answers you are asking may lie in some of these queries.

I'd say after looking into some of this stuff (if you haven't already) - then talk to your teacher about your goals and your teacher's timetable and roadmap for you to meet them.

In my violin learning days (in the middle of the last century) there was not much to watch without attending concerts - but there were some things to listen to and we had lots of violin solo and chamber sheet music around the house. I stopped violin lessons before my teens, when I finally had the courage to tell my parents I wanted to stop - but I started playing violin again a year later - and that was when my real progress started - that was 70 years ago, and I've never stopped. But later, as a mid-teen I started cello lessons and my teacher was a fine pro whose example I could follow, and after the first year of lessons he let me choose the serious works to study - I chose the ones he had performed with our orchestra - and he let me even though they were beyond techniques I had yet experienced - so those became my etudes, my roadmap, and my timetable was how long it took me. My cello teacher went off on a drunken binge after my last lesson the week before Christmas 1951 and I never saw him again - actually that final lesson was in the middle of the binge.

December 27, 2017, 9:40 AM · Hi Eva, I am an adult learner who returned to the violin about 11 years ago after a long absence. The kind of general discussion you are describing does not happen automatically and in general, I think it would not happen unless you ask for it. It is a very reasonable thing to ask and as adults we do not have any of the (sometimes unwelcome) markers of progress (auditions, competitions, etc) a child or teenager may have. Maybe an easy way to broach this with your teacher: while you are putting your violin away say something like you said in your question here--that sometimes you find the world of the violin overwhelming and could you spend a few minutes at the start of your next lesson talking about what you could expect for the next 3 years. That will give your teacher time to think about it beforehand.
Something that may also help is joining a chamber music group or class, that way you might meet other adult learners/players that you can share violin stories with. At least that helps me...

December 27, 2017, 10:47 AM · I don't think there's anything wrong with talking to your teacher and setting some goals for the upcoming year. However, I do think those types of milestones can possibly encourage students to rush through technique in their haste to go on to the next thing on the list. All good teachers will have a plan for what knowledge, techniques, and skills you need to acquire, whether they tell you about it or not.

If you're worried about coming off wrong, you could send an email or text. That will give you time to think about how you'll be coming across.

December 27, 2017, 11:26 AM · I have not had this sort of conversation with any teacher, though I wish otherwise. It's been my impression that discussion of goals and direction happen for kids - especially college- or conservatory-bound kids - but is just "not done" with adults.
December 27, 2017, 12:03 PM · Thanks for all your recommendations and ideas!
Interestingly it might have started the thoughts I might have been looking for.

Job and family only allow for so much practicing (55min per day average). But I am happy with my progress and I think my teacher is too.
I enjoy visiting concerts and yes I do have sheet music which is way beyond my abilities.

I might be searching for those goal markers Andrew listed.
Astound the world with my virtuosity is a nice one :-)
No, my goal is a lot more modest. Play together with other people in small groups would be a nice one. Yes, I guess that’s my goal. Performing together in a small group, playing chamber music and doing it well enough to being enjoyable for an audience of friends and family (who are no musicians). If it takes another ten years so be it. Probably the part of “being enjoyable” for an even sympathetic audience is the tricky part.
My teacher knows that I prefer good technique over hurrying along.
As Karen puts it “goals and direction”; just to have an orientation would be good.
I will try Kan’s and Alice's approach next lesson and as Majory points out it will be probably a beneficial conversation.

December 27, 2017, 1:10 PM · During the intermediate years of learning, it's easy to come adrift in having no idea where you're going or how long it's going to take to get there.

I suggest that at your next lesson, you tell your teacher that your goal is to play chamber music soon, and that you'd like to focus on getting to that point, and it would be useful to know what the roadmap to that looks like. Depending on how well you're playing that Haydn G major concerto, you might already be capable of handling the 2nd violin parts in easier quartets, and maybe even the 1st violin parts in some.

In particular, if you want to get to the point where you're playing 2nd violin in a quartet -- probably the most reasonable technical goal in the short term -- you will probably want to emphasize learning a range of right-hand techniques, over more left-hand pyrotechnics.

In the left hand, you want very solid intonation in the first three positions, with the ability to play in 4th and 5th position where necessary. You need reasonable facility but you probably won't see a ton of runs that aren't in scale-like patterns, at least in easier chamber music.

But in the right hand, you need to be able to use stylistic bowings. Initially I'd suggest concentrating on what you need for Mozart and Haydn quartets, and maybe Baroque trio sonatas, which are usually what people start with. You need to be able to produce a nice tone (including a good vibrato), control the volume and color of your sound, and blend with another player.

You also need precise, steady rhythm. It helps if you can sight-read well, also.

Edited: December 27, 2017, 1:52 PM · Lydia, imo ironically what you said last -rhythm- and counting to me is usually the MOST important technique an aspiring chamber musician needs to work on.

Ime being in 2nd violins a big part of my orchestra 'career', I am forced to and can count pretty well now. I have struggles don't get me wrong. But sometimes, I >occasionally< catch counting errors during sight reading scenarios even the veterans might miss (but technique-wise wrt to left and right hand facility leave me in the dust). Many of them are used to playing 1sts their entire career and the melody so much that they are not used to harmony and some might argue the less intuitive rhythms. If you want to learn to count, play 2nd violin and chamber music! Just my own experience; curious to know if anyone have similar experiences.

Which comes to my opinion to the OP now that you made it clear you want to play in small ensembles, ask to play duets with your teacher. This will work on a whole new side of 'technique' that maybe you are not used to.

Fun aside: Einstein plays the violin and chamber music and on occasion with really good pros. It is said that one of them in frustration said to him, "Einstein, you can't count!"

December 27, 2017, 2:25 PM · I sometimes think that my biggest deficiencies as a musician come from having played nearly zero second violin.

I played principal 2nd for two years as a kid (one year in two different youth symphonies), but otherwise have consistently played first violin in orchestras. Even doing paid orchestra gigs, it's been first violin (which is unusual, because subs tend to play second violin). I think I've played section second violin less than a half-dozen times in my life, and almost all of those times have been in orchestras with rotating seating that mandatorily flips players between sections.

As a kid playing chamber music, I played exclusively first violin. It's only as an adult, trading off with the other violinists in my quartets, that I've played second violin. Playing an inner voice is really a different experience, and it teaches you to listen differently.

December 28, 2017, 6:08 AM · Kan, I have 60 min lessons and we always play a couple of minutes duets or for example the Haydn with me first violin and my teacher second. Playing duets she shuffles me between first and second violin. Also with easier pieces I haven’t seen before. That helps my sight reading and rhythm/ counting abilities. The later once are my week point.

I will perform Chopin Tristesse (it’s a somewhat reduced version) in February.
I just recorded me playing second violin so I can practice playing first accompanied by myself. I found that to be a good and tricky exercise.

Lydia, intonation should be quite fine. Vibrato and higher positions (3rd is quite solid) are developing. But I am far from stylistic bowings. When I perform my tone is just folding up. Really bad, I think I get stuck by using only 30% of the bow. At least it feels and probably unfortunately sounds like it. Next to all other things I work on that part.

Playing second in chamber music is a great goal. I will talk with my teacher. But I think I should concentrate for two more years on bettering my technique.

And Julie, sorry I missed out on you suggestion last time I wrote, yes it might be a good idea to text my teacher some of my thoughts beforehand.

Thanks to everybody

December 28, 2017, 11:05 AM · Sometimes I have these conversations with my violin professor, during part of a lesson where I'm less prepared. I do find, though,that it's good to warn him in advance, z.b., "this week I want to talk about my progress and my goals for the coming year." That way he's not caught off guard and can even prepare a little himself for that. I have an excuse to make contact, though, as my lesson time is variable and always needs to be confirmed.

For fun just download scores from IMSLP and start learning one or two movements. When you have them in decent shape play them along with a recording.

Check out this graded list to get you started.

December 29, 2017, 4:52 PM · Eva, I hope you let us know how it worked out.

I am now strongly considering bringing up this subject with my teacher, yikes :-)

December 29, 2017, 7:53 PM · I'm about to do this at my lesson tomorrow ... wish me luck guys..
December 29, 2017, 8:46 PM · I'd be curious what the teachers on this forum think of such discussions. :-)
Edited: December 30, 2017, 5:05 AM · Lydia Leong: "I'd be curious what the teachers on this forum think of such discussions. :-)"

Especially if they knew what trepidation the students go through just thinking about broaching the subject :-)

December 29, 2017, 11:20 PM · You are paying him/her. It's your dollar and ultimately you have the decision and right to take the lessons where you want to go. Most private lesson teacher-student relationships do go further than the basic exchange of goods and services and it can be hard to bring up something to 'jeopardize' this 'friendship' esp. if we're talking adult to adult or if the teacher had crazy credentials and can be intimidating to an adult student!
Edited: December 30, 2017, 12:19 AM · Due to the holidays I have a break for two weeks.
Karen and Frank are first :-)

For me it is important to make sure that my teacher knows that I do not want to rush in the direction of my goals while sacrificing a good education.

Paul, thanks for the graded chamber music. I will pick one and have a go.

Edit because my smiley turned out two question marks

January 1, 2018, 7:39 AM · Follow Up (in case anyone cares to know):

So she was surprised that "oh so u wanna do a talking lesson now" and I think I left her a bit ill-prepared, so that'll change for next year when I send her an email 1-2 weeks in advance so she knows it's coming.

Basically just talked about next year's repertoire, currently working on Bruch, Mozart 5, and Bach Andante, and she suggested for next year that I work on the rest of 1003 (Grave, Fugue) and perhaps more concert pieces (Kreisler) and chamber music (sonatas).

January 1, 2018, 8:09 AM · Thanks Frank! So I will make sure to send a mail or text in advance.
January 1, 2018, 9:56 AM · bravo, Frank! I am still hemming and hawing on how to bring up the subject, even in an email :-)
January 1, 2018, 10:32 AM · Eva, about that graded list. Haydn op 20 is mostly "2" but trust me it gets hard. Those numbers don't correspond to Suzuki books!! 5 and 6 is virtuosic material for sure. So don't feel bad if you're at 1 for a while. Real chamber music gets hard. Of course there are simplified arrangements of show tunes and the like too.
January 8, 2018, 1:43 PM · Today I had my first lesson after the Christmas brake.
I asked my teacher if we could sit down and talk a bit about where I am and what the next steps are durIng one of the next lessons.
She said that she always appreciates to do so and asked if I would have specific questions. Due to my preparation with you guys :-) I explained that I am really happy with everything, that I am in no hurry but that I feel a bit lost and would like to envision a rough path (next 6 month).
I mentioned my goal to play together with others. She really encourages this.

Actually I think it’s something she wants to instill (not sure if that is the best choice of word) in her students. For student recitals she always teams up duos, trios and even quartets. When I started with her I stated that I would not want to do a student recital. Half a year later I happily stumbled ahead in one of those being part of a trio.

She wants to prepare a bit and then we talk. She mentioned that she will have a couple of questions for me. Now I am curious what those questions will be.

Thanks again for all the good advice!

Paul, I gathered that the lowest grades in the list are already quite difficult. I picked one of the lowest ones (Haydn 3/4) and listened to it. Very nice.

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