Posted on: | Category:

This question was from a violin teacher who felt she needed to stop her students each time they made a mistake in order to fix each issue as it happened. She didn't want to let anything slide, for fear of them developing bad habits, or being seen as a "bad" teacher. However, she was sometimes stopping her students every few notes and finding that even the more driven and enthusiastic students were getting frustrated and disheartened. She wondered if she was being too demanding and needed to back off, and if it's ever okay to let students just play through their scale or piece, even if some mistakes happen along the way.

I like letting my violin and viola students play through what they've been working on at the start of a lesson. First, I'll usually get their impression of how practice went and how they feel the piece or exercise they're about to play for me is going. Then, unless they have a specific question or problem area, we'll do a run-through if the material is fairly short (less than 2 minutes) or hear a section of a larger work. They get to share their progress, and unless they're really struggling and need some help figuring out a passage along the way, I'll make note of issues I see and hear, but I won't stop them.

Lasting fixes don't usually come through simply telling someone to do something differently. We'll need to figure out why these issues are happening. This takes time and sometimes experimentation. For learning to sink in it also requires a certain timing and presentation. Imagine you're sharing a week's worth of preparation with your teacher and within two notes they're already stopping you and telling you to fix something? While we certainly need to strengthen ourselves against criticism in general as artists, being stopped so suddenly could feel pretty dis-empowering as a student.

If my student is setting up to play and I notice a funky bow or instrument hold, or they're getting ready and I see them set their bow on the strings crooked, I may alert them and we'll quickly reset, but as much as a teacher is there to help fix mistakes, to best use our lesson time I need to have an overview of how everything is shaping up. They might simply be nervous and forgetting to check these basic elements. Soon enough I'll know for sure. Our teaching isn't judged by how many little mistakes we can catch our students making in a lesson.

Of course, even a teacher who is only trying to be helpful can sometimes trigger a student, and we walk a fine line between being too strict and too coddling. Several years ago a young adult student inquired about online violin lessons. She'd been learning through YouTube videos for the better part of a year, but had hit some roadblocks. We chatted during the initial consultation and seemed to have a nice rapport, but she became visibly nervous as she prepared to play for me. She was wrestling with her stand and sheet music, all the while attempting to also hold her violin and bow. There didn't seem to be a good spot to set them down and at one point the violin was hanging with the scroll wedged beneath her chin. I really felt for her when I decided to ask if she'd learned rest position yet. She stared blankly at me, so in my customarily chipper manner I took the liberty to demonstrate how she could try tucking the violin under her right arm if she didn't have a convenient place to put it down for a moment. I had her try it, but interacting with her I suddenly noticed an iciness that hadn't been there before.

She proceeded to play through the song she'd been working on. Despite the obvious nerves affecting her performance in all the typical ways, I could see that she'd accomplished a lot. "I'm really impressed by how far you've made it on your own!" I commended her. "The violin isn't an easy instrument and there are a lot of great things happening in your playing." Even after complimenting her, the coldness persisted. Her face was sullen and her answers to my proceeding questions were curt. I felt really uncomfortable, but I didn't know where all these strange undertones had suddenly come from. Moments later she thanked me for my time and said that she had to go. As I was about to wrap up and say goodbye, she abruptly ended the call. I was shocked. What had just happened!?

I sent a friendly follow-up email later that day, but more than a week went by without a response. Still wondering if I'd simply imagined the shift in temperature, that agonizing pit in my stomach, I wrote a second email, this time admitting that I'd noticed the uneasiness and inviting us to talk about it. This time she did write back to say that she'd found my rest position instruction condescending. From her point of view, here she was, struggling to get ready and I step in to tell her about something she probably should have learned on the first day. To her it felt like I was holding all my knowledge over her, like "Ha-ha, look at everything I know and you don't even know rest position, ha-ha-ha!" While she admitted that she did appreciate knowing about rest position after the fact, and could see how useful it would be, she wished that I had just let her show me what she'd learned on her own before interjecting. To make matters worse, when I'd complimented her during the meeting, she really wished that I'd just said "I'm really impressed" and left out the "by how far you've made it on your own" part. Her mind had fixated on those latter words and imagined them to mean that I thought she really hadn't made it very far, not as far as a teacher could have taken her over a similar time frame anyway. We were able to clear the air and understand the truth of where each other was coming from. From my point of view, I was only trying to be helpful, and my remarks were genuine and intended to be encouraging. She thanked me for taking the time to exchange emails with her, but wanted to keep looking for a different teacher.

Were there signs I could have read better? I certainly could have mentioned it immediately when I felt that something was wrong. Or maybe that would have put her on the spot and made everything even more awkward? By then it was probably already too late anyway. As hard as it was to watch her struggle, in her case, just letting her figure it out on her own would have actually been more helpful. We never know where someone else is coming from. In hindsight, I could imagine myself in her shoes, feeling anxious and trying to just get myself organized so I could play. Even if the person we're playing for isn't judging us, it's hard to not feel judged in those instances. At the very least, we're judging ourselves. And of course we want to do well in front of a new potential teacher. Had she not felt like she had to prove herself to me, and then the embarrassment of struggling to get setup, she may have perceived my attempt to help her closer to the way I intended.

It all brought me back to an experience I once had playing for a new teacher at a summer camp. As I lifted my violin to play she stopped me and suggested I hold it around the instrument's shoulder rather than its neck for more support and less chance of twisting my wrist. I'd never really thought about exactly how I lift the violin, but it did seem more secure as she had me practice a few times. Her mention of it didn't really bother me, but it was a detour from my goal of just wanting to get that initial performance out of the way. And it did feel basic. As it made me start to suspect, the rest of the lesson would be about other things I probably should have already learned. Thankfully, by that time I'd already had many experiences with teachers taking me back to open strings etc. after playing passages of major concertos for them. Had this been my very first lesson after trying valiantly to progress on my own, being taken back to basics might have been harder to accept.

Back to the present, after my student does a run-through, I'll identify a theme we can focus on for improvement. If it's intonation one moment, an articulation the next, then a missed bowing, fingering, or shift, then their bow hold starts falling apart, then the violin hold starts looking funny and I wonder if maybe we need to reconsider the shoulder rest, then there's some spiccato that doesn't bounce as well as it should, then their vibrato goes on hyperdrive, then the tone starts getting scratchy, etc. it can quickly feel like everything is wrong. Students who aren't very invested might question if they should even bother.

I'm always considering the hierarchy of technical elements and skills each student needs to learn, and also reflecting on each student's strengths and weaknesses. I'll choose a theme that will address their most critical issue first, which may be technical, arrangement related, or even something more psychological, like nerves getting in the way of them being able to really show me how they've improved.

If the bow or instrument holds are suffering, we step back from the piece and start there. If intonation or rhythm is suffering, we address whichever one seems most pressing, then the other. If it's a type of bow stroke, position work, or something else that might be new to them then I'll try to get ahead of these things showing up in a piece with supplementary exercises several weeks (or months) ahead of time.

In effort to foster a teamwork environment, with adults and teens I'll sometimes offer a choice between a few different elements to work on, or ask them what's troubling them the most. If we're on the same page they'll be more enthusiastic about the learning then if I present something they hadn't even noticed and meanwhile, a different aspect is really bothering them. I might say something like "we heard the intonation suffer in a few places, and we need to clean up some rhythms, but I feel like we could start with either. What's bothering you the most?" (Most of the time it's tone or intonation. No one wants to sound scratchy or out-of-tune.)

Sometimes it's clear that some fundamentals need to be addressed, and tightening the connection between a core skill and its progeny can, as a general theme, quickly tighten up a piece, and their playing in general. Maybe we see that their bow fingers are tight, leading to the bow sliding around, leading to strange tones, leading to trouble pulling off a more advanced bow stroke later in the passage. In such a case, through stepping back to the bow hold we can likely fix several issues at once.

However, our violin or viola student might only be noticing the trouble with the advanced bow stroke and resist going back to basics. I'll tread carefully and might introduce a "warm-up" before letting them try their piece or exercise again. If we're sure to keep that advanced stroke in our sight, and show them a clear path from what might feel like square one back to their goal in the same lesson then we've transformed a potentially derailing instruction into an empowering one. Again, presentation and timing is critical. I might say "You know, it's been a while since we really thought about the bow hold. Let's do a few exercises to warm up those fingers for these tricky bowings we're encountering." Notice how we can still refine a more basic skill, yet gracefully side step feelings of "going back to square one" and the detrimental mental state such thoughts can put us in. Halfway through our warm-up I might state that I really like warming up this way before too if that's the case, or share a story about how doing a refresh on something fundamental helped me along the way. This helps give more gravity to an exercise they might otherwise brush off.

And sometimes we encounter very diverse issues. As they play, tone, tuning, and timing problems might be going off like popcorn. When this happens I weigh the most accessible with what feels like the most crucial. Personally, if tone is suffering, I think, why really bother with intonation? Maybe it's just me, but if I had to choose, I'd take an out-of-tune note played beautifully over and in-tune note played with scratchy tone any day. Not to mention, while intonation is a constant work-in-progress, improving intonation accuracy actually feels relatively easy to fix. There's no guesswork - a note is either too high or too low. Unless there is something technical keeping the violin student from adjusting to the correct pitches, playing in-tune might simply require them spending more time listening to good recordings and better ingraining the sound of the right notes. Likewise, sometimes intonation suffers because they're trying to figure out a tricky rhythm or keep up the tempo. If so, why nag them on and on about each out-of-tune note? Instead we might just practice the rhythm on open strings or vocally, or I might help them chunk down a passage and build back up with intonation intact AND the ability to keep up the pace.

We can't necessarily address everything in the same lesson, nor is it always a good idea. I want them to feel like we made measurable progress on a certain front and that they are armed with tools to address the issue once and for all, rather than slap band-aids all over their piece as they play along. If we don't get to everything in one lesson then I usually alert them to additional issues we'll address next time. Students appreciate knowing what's the biggest priority, and feeling like I have a plan for them. Everything can be addressed in due course. They can be aware of other potential problems when they practice, but I want them to learn to celebrate their progress even when there are elements we still need to fix. There are always skills to strengthen, new understandings to gain. If we don't enjoy the process we'll never get to enjoy anything about playing an instrument.

Recognizing that we're not going to ruin our students if we don't address every issue as it happens is important. As teachers, we want our students to excel, not just for them but let's face it, we feel the need to show their parents, spouses, friends, orchestra conductors, and anyone else who might ever hear them that we did a good job. We can try to catch every mistake, but the knowledge and skills we impart have to be timely, and at pace that is methodical and digestible. If we make them address on a new problem every few seconds, very little will sink in and it'll be hard for them to capture the phrasing and flow needed for actual music making.

Finally, it's good for all of us to spend at least part of our practice time running through our pieces, despite making mistakes along the way. As much as troubleshooting mistakes is a big part of practicing and taking lessons, doing some run-throughs, no matter what happens, simulates good performance habits and encourages us to work on elements of music that are also important, like feel and flow. We all make mistakes, even when we're a top player (check out Hilary Hahn's practice videos on YouTube/Instagram - even she's making mistakes!). Some mistakes are random, some habitual, and some stem from larger issues with technique, posture, mental or emotional approach, focus, etc. As teachers we'll make the biggest impact by helping students figure out and overcome their overarching issues. We can't identify these unless we step back from our microscope from time to time and reflect on the bigger picture.

Please email me at 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 me, in-person or online via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.

The Violin Geek Blog is a free resource and always will be. We also don't sell advertising, meaning that everything you read has been a labor of love. If you'd like to support my efforts and help ensure they continue, please consider making a donation. Thanks for your support!

Laurel Thomsen

Violin, Viola, Vocals
Performance, Instruction, Recording

Based in Santa Cruz, California

Site by Laurel Thomsen
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
Skype: laurelthomsen

Become a VIP fan!

Join my periodic newsletter and be the first to learn about her adventures, music, tour dates, and new recordings. On occasion I'll also offer mailing list only downloads and discounts.
© 1996-2024 Laurel Thomsen, Email me