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Finding the Right Violin Teacher

Updated on November 24, 2014
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In order to get the best possible start for yourself or your child in learning to play the violin, you need to have the right teacher, the right instrument, and reasonable expectations. Trying to learn without a teacher sets the aspiring violinist up for failure or severely limits how far he or she can advance. There are certain skills that are impossible for violinists who are not holding the violin correctly - a common problem with those who try to learn from free videos or without any feedback from someone who can see and hear them play in the beginning stage. Incorrect position and excess tension over an extended period of time can also cause repetitive strain injuries and more serious issues. Self-learners also tend to over-estimate their own abilities and attempt to learn concepts for which they have not yet developed a solid foundation. Pain an frustration can lead to a decline in interest, resentment for the instrument, and low self-confidence. However, having the wrong teacher can have the exact same consequences. It is important to find a teacher who is a good fit, not just in terms of experience and passion but in personality and musical interests.

Education and Experience

This should absolutely be your first concern when selecting a teacher, but you need to look beyond what you can see on paper. Music degrees are a definite advantage, but there are teachers who have received the proper education in a less traditional manner. This might include teacher-training programs like those offered through Suzuki or participation in the music program at a school that allows students to play and take music classes without seeking a degree. There are also people who manage to get degrees without having what it takes to teach private lessons - patience, business and customer service skills, passion, and a student-centered approach to teaching.

All violin teachers need to have the following experience in order to be qualified to provide beginners with the best possible foundation:

  • Passion for music and a continued desire to improve their own skills and expand their personal repertoire (the collection of music an individual or group performs).
  • An educational history that includes performances and at least a decade of personalized instruction.
  • Strong grasp of music theory as it pertains to the violin and an ability to read standard notation fluently.
  • Willingness to perform for others, with or without advance preparation.
  • Belief that anyone who wants to learn to play an instrument should, regardless of their age, assumed potential, or personal goals.

Teaching Philosophy

There are numerous schools of thought when it comes to the best way to learn the violin. Unless you come from one of these traditions yourself - which is perhaps most common with the Suzuki method - you really should not choose a teacher based solely on the method they claim. Most teachers do not truly adhere to any one method. They might use Suzuki books, but that does not mean they teach by rote or provide group lessons. Books are really nothing more than a source of teaching material, and they do not give you any indication of how the teacher will present the material.

While there is no one "right" way to teach the violin or even a right order in which you need to learn certain skills, there are several wrong ways. A good teacher will acknowledge that the purpose of violin lessons needs to be different across age groups and for each individual student. Beyond that, it is important that the teacher's approach fit you or your child's needs.

Personality

The teacher-student relationship is essential to the student's success. Teachers should provide encouragement. There is an old tradition in classical music of treating students more like military recruits than eager learners. Worse, actually, since you can get medals in the military and receive acknowledgement for your performance. Even when these students compete in contests or are accepted into youth orchestras or conservatories, their teachers still drive them to do more without celebrating or even acknowledging their success. This tradition shapes extremely serious, well-trained artists, but it also removes the passion we associate with other art forms and contributes to the stereotype that classical musicians are snobs. It is also not that right kind of environment for someone who does not want to be a professional, and beginners are often not looking that far ahead.

If you have extremely specific goals - like competing in fiddle contests or become a professional jazz musician - you really need a teacher who has done what you want to do. If you want to play worship music at church, you probably want a teacher who does the same, and you therefore should not be afraid to ask about religion in interview potential teachers. If you are just interested in playing for your own enjoyment, you probably do not want a teacher who measures studio success in terms of how many former students have been accepted at prestigious conservatories.

Don't be afraid to ask more pressing, personal questions when choosing a teacher. Here are some examples of questions you might like to ask:

  • What do you do besides teaching? Private lessons rarely pay all the bills, so teachers often play with an orchestra or small ensemble, compose music, play at weddings, and so forth.
  • Who is your favorite composer/piece/musical period or genre? This can reveal not only the teacher's musical preferences but perhaps their cultural heritage and in some cases their religious and political views.
  • What is your religious background? If the previous question does not give you the answer, then go ahead and ask. If you want to learn religious or holiday music, you don't want a teacher whose beliefs prohibit them from playing such music. Musicians should understand that music is often tied to deeply personal beliefs and have likely encountered people who will not play certain things if they do not fit that description themselves. If your question offends someone, they are likely just an easily offended person and probably not suitable to teach you or your child, anyway. I often ask my students if there is anything they will not play for religious or cultural reasons, so I do not make mistakes when giving assignments.
  • Do you come from a musical family? Having parents and siblings who are also musicians means the teacher likely views music as a lifestyle, not just a career. As such, they likely value family involvement in the learning process and will support parents attending lessons with younger students or even learning alongside them.

Location and Availability

The absolute best place to learn to play the violin is where the teacher is. This does not necessarily mean you must take lessons at a large, prestigious school of music. Some teachers have their own studios, invite students to their home, or visit students' homes. The important thing is that lessons be live, in-person, and one-on-one. Group lessons can give you a good start at less expense, but as students progress they need personalized instruction in place of or in addition to group classes. This includes string programs that are offered in the public schools. Orchestra class might be free apart from instrument rental, but it will only get your child so far. Private lessons are really the only way to advance beyond an intermediate level.

It is important to understand that lessons will only benefit the violinist if they are taken on a regular basis. You should have lessons no less than twice a month, and once a week is highly recommended. You also need to take lessons on the same day of the week and at the same time, so you can plan your practice accordingly. I have had some students in the past who think lessons are like doctor's appointments: you schedule one only when you need one. Other students will frequently ask to reschedule lessons because they make other plans during their regular time. While many teachers will be flexible to whatever extent their schedule allows, the trouble is that you cannot make any sort of measurable progress when you take lessons that way. This will result in frustration, and that in turn will drive the student to quit because they do not feel they are learning anything. That is why I and practically every other violin teacher in the world assigns each student to a designated day and time for lessons. If your lesson is every Monday at 6:30 PM, you are much more likely to continue playing the violin long-term than if you have to schedule each lesson individually according to your availability. In order to succeed, you have to make a commitment, and nothing says commitment more than a significant investment of time and money.

An alternative to traditional lessons that is growing in popularity is the online lesson. Some teachers provide live lessons via Skype, and they often maintain the same day/same time requirement that have with their in-person students. Others, myself included, do an exchange of videos and other assignments instead, in a format similar to what you would expect from other types of online classes. Regardless, the temptation to not take lessons regularly becomes greater when you are turing on the webcam rather than driving across town. It might seem more convenient, but going out of your way to do something requires a greater commitment. You also are not going to have the same experience online as with a live teacher because there are certain skills that are best taught by physically placing the student's hands. Online lessons are only a better alternative to other types of lessons when they are the only practical option. For example, there are rural areas without available violin teachers. There are aspiring violinists who travel for work or have rotating shifts that prevent the regular scheduling of lessons. There are differences in cost of living from one place to another that might result in a student being able to take lessons online when they cannot afford to do so locally. All of these examples allow online lessons to extend opportunities to people who would not otherwise have them and are therefore legitimate reasons to seek online instruction. However, any teacher who advertises lessons as a faster or better way to learn is likely running a scam. No teacher who meets the education and experience requirements detailed above should believe that music taught online is the same as music taught in person, and that is therefore good reason to question the credentials they provide.

The Waiting List

Finally, all studios are going to experience a turnover in students. No one takes lessons forever, whether they quit, go looking for a teacher who is a better fit, move, graduate, or simply decide they have learned enough and are satisfied with their current skill level. Therefore, the number of students a teacher currently has is not a good indication of how good that teacher might be. A studio that is truly full is not going to remain full by anticipating that some students will quit in a short-enough period of time to justify a waiting list.

When I was first opening my studio, the waiting list was declared by various supposed experts on numerous teaching websites as one of the best way to attract new students. The idea is that having a waiting list makes it look like you are in high demand. More experienced teachers were posting in the answers to startup teachers that they should put everyone on a two-week waiting list whether or not they actually needed to make them wait. The scam is intended to deceive other prospective students into thinking the teacher is in high demand as word of the waiting list spreads. The problem is, this is literally starting the teacher-student relationship with a lie, and that is not a good basis for building any relationship. Furthermore, a studio that is really in that high of demand is likely not going to be actively advertising for more students unless they are also hiring teachers at the same time. In other words, it does not even make sense that any teacher would have a substantial waiting list. It is therefore very likely a lie and therefore good reason to steer clear of any teacher who operates this way.

Courtney is part owner of Treble Strings. She teaches lessons both online and in her studio in Smithville, MO. To contact her, please email: lessons@treblestrings.com

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