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The relationship between music teacher and student is a connection which goes far beyond the notes and often lasts years, if not a lifetime. It can not be replicated by watching a video or reading a book, although video courses, YouTube videos, and books can certainly help supplement private music lessons. It’s a relationship which should also not be traded for experiences to share music making with others, at music camps and workshops, in ensembles and orchestras, or in bands. These opportunities are an important part of a musician’s development and should be sought out, but not replace private lessons. Likewise, lessons are not a substitute for finding avenues in which to play music with others.

When first considering taking music lessons, switching private teachers, or adding a second private teacher, we must first consider our current needs as a student. Different teachers will be perfect for our needs at different times. While we might take lessons from the same teacher for many years, additional adjunct teachers, or completely switching to a new teacher can sometimes be just what we need to help us gain new perspectives or tackle playing challenges a particular teacher may specialize in. With the advent of private music lessons via Skype and other online video platforms, we have the option of a much broader pool of talented teachers at our fingertips. Quite a few of the violin, viola, and fiddle students I see each week over Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom also take lessons with a local teacher wherever they live. We all have different strengths and approaches, and just as they say it takes a village to raise a child, I believe it takes a community to raise a musician.

To find a good fit in a private music teacher, obvious factors to keep in mind are our ability level, age range, and whether we are highly self motivated or need a teacher who will really push us or our child to practice and hold us/him or her accountable when that isn’t happening.

Some teachers only teach beginners, some only serious amateurs and professionals, others only young children, or some really like to teach teenagers and adults. The list continues. Each ability and age range comes with its own challenges and approaches. For example, someone who usually teaches students who are very dedicated to their playing, may take it for granted that a student will practice daily and become frustrated with a student who often “forgets” and must be encouraged again and again. Or, teachers who usually teach young children may have a hard time transitioning to teaching an adult, where an emphasis on the little games and rhymes a four year old will love, could feel childish and patronizing to an older student. Similarly, a very hands-on method which may be perfect for the less developed coordination of a small child, could feel invasive to a teenager or adult.

Also, we must be clear on our current goals for our playing. If we are just starting out we might assume a teacher with less experience playing and teaching will be fine. Maybe a friend who’s been playing for a while can help, or a local high school or college student just starting out and offering inexpensive lessons? What can be so hard about teaching someone the basics, right? Sometimes this can be just fine. I started teaching when I was 14, and am so grateful for the early students who took a chance on me. However, looking back I now realize that it really was a bit of a chance they were taking! I was certainly very lucky to get the opportunity to start learning how to teach at such a young age and I took it very seriously. Thankfully, I had a natural affinity for teaching, a great teacher to learn from, and a couple years after beginning with me, some of my very first students made it to concert master positions in their youth and school orchestras. These early successes helped fuel my desire to continue taking on students and studying teaching methods beyond the methods I had personally learned from, in order to meet the needs of an even broader variety of students.

However, this is not always the case with a beginning teacher. Some may not have enough knowledge or experience to catch issues before they turn into chronic playing problems. The beginning of our music study is often the make or break time in our development, and we need a teacher who will ensure a methodical approach, a variety of creative ways to help us grasp new material, and an understanding of how to develop a strong technical foundation so we can avoid bad habits which could take years to undo once engrained in our bodies and brains. Some instruments may be more easily learned from YouTube videos, books, etc., to some degree at least, but many of the elements we might take for granted on most other instruments - a nice tone, notes played in tune automatically by pressing keys or playing within the frets, etc. are not handed to us on a violin. We have to work for everything we get! The violin (or viola, cello, or any bowed stringed instrument) is one in which there are many subtleties to even the most basic of techniques - holding the bow, drawing a single smooth, clear, beautiful stroke, etc. and I feel everyone should take at least a few lessons with a highly experienced teacher to avoid the frustration and backtracking often experienced when we skim over these basic foundational components of our playing.

If we already have playing experience and a good foundation, perhaps we need a teacher who will help re-inspire us or invite us to discover a new direction for our playing? Maybe we’re feeling stuck, and struggling with technical issues we need to clean up in order to have better tone, sound better in tune, and feel more confident? Perhaps we’re ready to learn vibrato, shift into higher positions, or tackle more advanced bow strokes for pieces we are playing at school or in orchestra? Maybe we need to prepare a particular piece of solo repertoire for an audition or recital? Different types of teachers may be perfect for all these situations.

Finally, we should consider our own commitment to our playing. While a teacher can and should help inspire us, most of the time we spend with our instrument will be alone, practicing, playing, preparing. It is unreasonable to expect a new teacher to be the magic ticket to get us to really enjoy playing our instrument. If we are very busy and struggle to remember to open the case, or perhaps we have lost interest, or have too many competing interests, we may be better off finding something different to focus our energy towards. As previously stated, the violin or viola does not forgive a lackadaisical approach to playing or practicing.

On the flip side, if we are quite enthusiastic, it can be a real letdown to get a teacher who is perhaps bored with his or her own playing, teaching only because he or she needs to make ends meet, isn’t performing themselves, or in general, expresses a jaded and negative view of the business of music. It’s important to be realistic and recognize that most of us don’t have the discipline or competitive nature to entertain a career as a soloist, or simply prefer the security of a more traditional career path while still pursuing music as a semi-professional or serious amateur. A good teacher will respect our dreams, recognize our strengths, and guide us toward creative outlets for our music which are achievable and rewarding.

While any teacher would hopefully modify his or her approach to fit the varying needs of each student, some can be more set in their ways than others. To be a good team, first and foremost, it is important to have good rapport. Mutual respect is crucial. We will all encounter playing challenges or setbacks from time to time (didn’t get chosen for an orchestra part, botched a performance, etc.), striking not only a student’s career aspirations, but their self esteem. It seems like common sense to want to find a teacher who can be supportive in these sensitive times, to help encourage a student to examine and grow past these challenges, but it’s not always the case. When meeting a new teacher for the first time, it’s common to be nervous, especially when he or she asks you to play. It may feel like an audition the first few times, but playing in lessons should gradually feel easier, and while a student will always desire to play well for his or her teacher, he or she should help put the student at ease, taking an interest in the student as both a player and a person. We are helping grow more than a good player here. We are helping grow a kind and well adjusted human being.

I get many of students who have been emotionally or mentally wounded, sometimes to the point of near defeat, by teachers who have forgotten what the goal of teaching is. I’ve received other students with such nonfunctional technique they can't possibly get any further in their playing without reworking the basics and re-conditioning the body and mind to play with freedom. Bringing them back from the brink can be very challenging and can take a long time. A good teacher is always one step ahead, helping to foresee challenges and preparing for them, while offering inspiration, encouragement, and sometimes a bit of tough love. Definitely not a let’s look for the cheapest lessons we can find, check the box, anyone will do kind of experience!

I think there's always a bit of both overwhelm and underwhelm at the start of a new lessons experience. If we’re a beginner, we’re excited to learn, but quickly realize it will be a long journey to mastery, or even just sounding in tune, playing in time, and producing a tone someone can stand to listen to on the most basic little folk song or scale. Our new teacher is usually seeing issues with aspects of our playing we thought we’d taken care of a long time ago. This can be depressing and defeating, especially when our previous teacher was hinting at these issues all along but we were just excited to get a fresh start and hopeful that getting into new material would somehow magically solve all our problems. At the same time, we know we've been struggling with little details that we can’t quite pinpoint or haven’t taken the time to focus on. Big change is never immediate. Part of us wonders if we’ve just been wasting our time playing music at all. However, a good teacher will refine us in ways where the smallest changes will change everything.

This has been my experience quite a few times. I had a few new teachers growing up literally start me again from scratch, playing really simple material, completely overhauling really basic techniques. In my late teens, I had made it through Kreutzer, had been playing the Mendelssohn Concerto, Mozart Concertos, Sarasate encore pieces, solo Bach, fiddling around with Ravel’s Tzigane and the Paganini Caprices on my own a bit, all this fairly advanced repertoire, and my new teacher took me back to a basic school kid’s method book! First position, one or two line melodies! I felt, like, wow, I guess I made a really bad impression there! I was coming from being one of the top players in the local youth and school orchestras, performing at All-State and with my quartet at events and weddings, and being a private teacher myself for a handful of years at that point. I thought, gosh, this new teacher must think I’m a really terrible player!

I soon discovered the situation was more like: “oh, change this tiny thing and see what that does, and practice it with this basic piece so you can really focus on it.” At first I thought, gosh, that seems so insignificant, how can that possibly be something to devote all my time to when I’ve been focusing for so long on all these difficult pieces? But sure enough, it took me to a new level I couldn’t have reached had I continued just tackling harder and harder material and willing it to work somehow. I’ve been amazed in my own journey at how seemingly tiny little things can often be at the source of all our problems! 

Beyond rapport, chose a teacher who meets you where you are. This may mean technique, it may mean interpretation, it may mean renewing your inspiration and taking you in a new direction. A good teacher will help expand your world, including how you play, how you think about how you play, and how you approach what you play. First we must recognize what are strengths and weaknesses are, then ask around or consult Google about what teacher may be a good fit.

First contact with a new teacher should quickly give us indicators about whether they may be a good fit. Do they play well themselves, or if they are older and perhaps not playing much anymore, do they have a track record? A teacher can only show us what they know how to do themselves.

There are certainly countless exceptions, especially among higher level teachers, but in general, there are two basic types of teachers in my experience: the ones who are geared toward technique, and the ones who are geared towards repertoire. Beyond this, we have sub-categories, with technique teachers who specialize in particular techniques, and repertoire teachers who specialize in orchestral music, or solo repertoire, or a certain composer or era of Classical music. Fiddle teachers may be another sub-section of the repertoire teachers, as, in my experience, they are generally less geared toward technique unless they had a classically minded teacher at some point themselves. They most likely will specialize in a certain fiddle style - Celtic (Irish, Scottish, English, etc.), Old Time, Bluegrass, Canadian, Jazz, Blues, Gypsy, Cajun, etc.. There are certainly many teachers who cover all the above, though everyone will still typically have a few specialties.

When we are just beginning our musical journey, we usually aren’t particularly discerning. Everything sounds better than what we can produce! This is why someone who cares about technique is particularly important at this time. It’s easy to find someone who knows how to guide us through a piece - play this note; oh, that’s out of tune; here is how this rhythm sounds, play it back to me, yes, no, try again, etc., but it’s a little more difficult to find someone who knows how to make our playing sound cohesive and beautiful. While we might expect a teacher geared towards professionals to be our best chance, that’s not necessarily the case. These top level teachers just don’t get as many opportunities to teach the more basic techniques and likely won’t even entertain the idea of taking on a beginner anyway.

When I first had some lessons with a teacher who usually taught professionals and professionally minded students, I was surprised when she never left her seat at the back of the room! She was not the only one. Getting into college, I soon realized that so began a new era of violin teachers who were much more focused on repertoire and interpretation. In fact, a few seemed quite miffed to have to take a detour into explaining and breaking down some aspect of a bowing style, vibrato, or a shift.

A beginning student a couple years ago had taken lessons with such a teacher and came to me very confused. He said his previous teacher was a great player in the symphony, but would only ever play something then have him try to play it back. He said they’d go back and forth throughout the whole lesson until the time was up. Sometimes the student would seemingly do something right and the teacher would be very happy, but the student could never reproduce those moments because he never knew what he was trying to accomplish. No particular emphasis or goal was every highlighted beyond the constant stream of auditory examples coming from the teacher. The student came with many lessons worth of questions for me. He’d been pouring over YouTube videos to try to figure out what his teacher was actually trying to show him!

It can be similar with fiddle teachers. I receive a lot of Skype students in particular who have wonderful fiddle teachers locally, but they find that the teacher can’t help them actually sound better on all the tunes they keep trying to teach them. I personally love diving deep into technique with students, so this can be an ideal situation - another teacher guiding the tune choices while I get to focus on helping them develop a technical foundation they can take anywhere.

On the flip side, when it’s time to develop a solo piece, prepare excerpts for an audition, or tackle a new fiddle style, finding a teacher who knows the repertoire or style inside and out is crucial. It’s simply important to recognize that this teacher may or may not be the one who can also identify and offer methodical troubleshooting when tone, intonation, vibrato, and bowing styles aren’t working as we’d hope.

Personally, I love helping students shape a piece, using their technique to add color and emotion to an interpretation, but my strongest specialties certainly rest in various realms of technique. If there are elements about a student’s playing which are not working, I simply can’t bring myself to ignore them. I’m doing my best teaching when I’m forced to put these issues on the back-burner for orchestra music or an audition a student must prepare for, or fiddle tunes a student plans to play on this or that date with their band. Unfortunately, under a tight time crunch, there are times when I must pretend the “elephants in the room” aren’t there. It has worked quite well when a student happens to have another teacher who is helping prepare the repertoire (nitty-gritty bowings, rhythms, intonation, etc.) so we can focus on making that repertoire sound good (tone, dynamics, vibrato, musical fingering choices, etc.). The two definitely go hand in hand, yet there is a big difference, for instance, between time spent in a lesson deciphering a syncopated rhythm and drilling it with the metronome, and reworking the bowing arm to allow that rhythm to have the tone and dynamics it needs to sound commanding and confident.

After gaining knowledge of a teacher’s teaching philosophy, experience level, specialties, considering the teacher’s track record with other students, either by learning about the teacher through word of mouth or after reading testimonials, hopefully seeing the teacher perform live or on video, and considering the quality of an initial email or phone conversation, the best way to audition a potential teacher is to have a few lessons with them. Does he or she communicate well? Can he or she explain, as well as demonstrate? Does he or she offer concrete ideas and solutions which make you want to go home and experiment? Some lessons will be more monumental and inspiring than others, but having a tangible direction and the feeling of blossoming teamwork is tantamount to a lessons experience which can take your playing to the next level.

Happy Practicing!

Please email Laurel at laurel@laurelthomsen.com if you have a violin, viola, fiddle, music biz, or practice related question you’d like answered in the blog or on a podcast, have a story or insight to share, or if you’d like to inquire about violin, viola, or fiddle lessons with Laurel, in-person or via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.

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Laurel Thomsen

Violin, Viola, Vocals
Performance, Instruction, Recording

Based in Santa Cruz, California

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Photography by Michelle Magdalena

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