What can I expect in my first lesson? What should I bring?

Whether you’re a beginner, have some experience, or have a lot of experience, we start lessons together with an inventory of your musical background, discuss your goals, and if you do have playing experience, we hear a bit of something you’ve been playing recently, the best way to help assess what our next steps might be. Whether you are a beginner or more advanced, I always start with assessing technique and even for more advanced students there’s usually some “resetting” we need to do at first so we can avoid tension and tone issues. Even if this might feel like taking a step backwards sometimes, students who are open to the process quickly feel relief as we work through the issues and they realize how much easier playing really can be.

Some students have strong areas of interest. Common topics that show up among students in my studio include Classical repertoire, improving technique or specific techniques like vibrato or bowing/tone, improvising, fiddle styles, interpretation, and recovery from pain, injury, or performance anxiety. If so, in our first lessons together we’ll formulate a plan for how to efficiently achieve your goal.

If you’re not sure what you need or have more general goals, we’ll focus on the most obvious and achievable elements you need to build your technique, repertoire, and interpretation so you’ll be well equipped to take any direction you choose later on.

If you have playing experience, expect to play a little for me - a scale, etude, excerpt, or tune that you feel fairly comfortable playing. Many students are nervous at their first lesson and are unable to play their best. Performance anxiety, even in a lesson, is common, and with many of my students, part of our work together involves practicing performance techniques to help us get more comfortable playing under pressure.

If you are a beginner, the path is relatively straightforward, though individual personalities, age groups, and learning styles keep me on my toes! We’ll start with posture, the violin hold and bow, and how to achieve a beautiful, resonant tone. The only pre-requisite is a willingness to try, daily time to practice set aside, and an instrument and bow. Other helpful tools to have with you are a way to record your lesson (audio and/or video) for study over the week. This could be a smart phone, handheld digital or tape recorder, or for Skype violin and viola students, online software such as GarageBand or Call Recorder for Skype (Mac) which allows you to record both video and audio. Finally, please bring a notebook, tablet, etc. to record homework and tips to remember.

What ages do you teach? Do you prefer one age group over another?

I have taught three year olds through seniors, and enjoy students of all ages who are dedicated to improving their ability to express themselves musically. In recent years I’ve been particularly enjoying working with students who want to improve their technique, polish their interpretations, and focus on practice mastery, and “psychology of success” topics (i.e. overcoming performance anxiety, developing stage presence, self-confidence, personal branding, etc.).

Regardless of age or ability, I enjoy students who are enthusiastic about learning and willing to engage with me in discovering the “magic spots,” be they technical, mental, emotional, or behavioral (i.e. practice habits), that will take them to the next level - more honest, passionate playing, and more joy and confidence in life. It’s the challenges that students of different ages and backgrounds present that keep me “the the laboratory,” learning and discovering new ways to present information that will allow each student to internalize it in his or her own unique way, and year by year continuing to enjoy teaching immensely. I enjoy students who ask questions, appreciate my “geek outs” on theory and the subtleties of playing technique, want to create a dedicated, effective daily practice, and above all, know that they want to play music for the rest of their lives. 

What ability levels do you teach?

Beginners through advanced players. I enjoy students of all abilities who want to dive deep. I start my beginners off very methodically, focusing intensely on technique and ear training until a student has a strong foundation of tone, intonation, rhythm, and playing comfort.

With intermediates I focus on stabilizing basic techniques when problematic, fine tuning the student’s ear, introducing more advanced techniques such as vibrato, new bowing styles, and shifting, and helping the student cultivate his or her musical voice.

With advanced players the search continues to discover and correct problem areas, be they technical, interpretive, tension related (mental or physical), having to do with performance anxiety, or with the student’s listening attention. We continue to develop the musicianship of the student, balancing an awareness of good musical taste with personal expression. If you are a more advanced player, I suggest we start with an initial lesson to assess your playing and goals. Finding the right teacher at the right time is very important, especially for advanced players. If I feel unqualified to teach you, or if I feel you will benefit more if we work in conjunction with another teacher, I will not hesitate to tell you. Since I have many unique tools to help you practice and learn more effectively, to approach your music and your instrument with less tension and more enjoyment, and to develop your unique musical voice, I feel that most students of all levels can benefit from some time in my studio.

What teaching styles do you use in your lessons?

My violin and viola instruction is strongly influenced by the teachings of pedagogues Ivan Galamian, Kato Havas, Paul Rolland, and elements of the Suzuki method. I also feel there is a strong psychological component to playing the violin or viola, so I also incorporate a strong body-mind component which I have been researching and experimenting with since 2005.

What musical styles do you teach in lessons?

The foundation of my instruction is classical music. Whether this is our ultimate playing goal, I feel it is here that we can learn the most about developing good tone, gain the ability to play in all keys and positions, master a wide variety of bow strokes and rhythms, and to learn to “story-tell” a wide range of moods and emotions through music. However, fiddle music, and other traditional music from various cultures broadens a student’s scope and also offers it’s own learnings and challenges. Therefore, I also incorporate various fiddle and world music genres into lessons depending on the student’s interest and intent, and some of my students are only interested in fiddle music, which is fine.

No matter what the musical style, we learn to read music, but also develop the ear. I’m a stickler for good technique and developing good tone, but I work to incorporate it in a way that keeps playing fun and rewarding. My goal is well-rounded musicians who can be equally comfortable in orchestras and jam sessions. Ultimately, I want each student to understand that music is an exploration, a crafting of story though song...not a true or false quiz!

I don’t really like classical music. Can you just teach me to fiddle?

Yes, just know that we’ll still be focusing on developing good tone and technique from a classical standpoint, just putting a bit more emphasis on what you’ll really need to be a good fiddler (strong rhythm/bowing, finger velocity, fast wrist bowing) and less on what’s typically considered “classical” (shifting to higher positions, vibrato, classical bowing styles). I am committed to offering my students a well rounded approach to the violin and viola, but if you have specific goals, and they aren’t classical, I’ll work with you to tailor your lessons to fit exactly what you want to learn. Many of my fiddle students take with me for technique, troubleshooting issues in their tunes, and arrangement/improvisation, and take lessons with a local or Skype fiddler to gain insight into popular tunes and stylistic elements for the genre/sub-genre the student is most interested in learning.

I am a beginner on violin/viola and don’t know how to read music. Is this a problem?

No. Even if you learned to read music on a different instrument you’ll still need to learn how to connect the notes and rhythms on the staff with the fingerings and bowings on the violin/viola. Music reading is part of what we learn in lessons and sometimes it’s actually easier to start from scratch because we can catch all the details the first time around.

Where do you give your lessons?

I teach violin, viola, and fiddle lessons from lovely private studio space in the mountains above Santa Cruz, California, and online via Skype anywhere in the world with a good internet speed. My studio schedule is currently too full to do house calls, but I may occasionally be available for an in person lesson while on tour or for one-off or short term group workshops if there are several students interested in learning together.

Based on a past experience with another teacher I’m concerned that there might be distractions in a home studio.

My home studio is a beautiful detached space in the forest, with lovely acoustics and no shared walls, floors, or ceilings. It has a private entrance and lessons here are private and focused. Come try a lesson with me and I’m sure you’ll find my space very professional. You might even feel at home!

I had a bad experience with a previous teacher and almost quit playing. I’m afraid to try again. What can you say about this?

I’m sorry you had this experience, but I’m glad you might be willing to give lessons we a new teacher a try. Over the years I have received many students who’ve had such experiences and have been able to help all of them regain their self-confidence and rekindle their joy for playing the violin or the viola.

Teacher-student rapport is very important. I feel that cultivating this relationship takes precedence over anything that I might try to teach you. If the relationship is unhealthy it’s very doubtful we’ll accomplish much learning. I feel that my greatest teaching assets are my genuine interest in each student as a person and a player, my enthusiasm for not just playing violin and viola, but teaching, and my patience and willingness to try as many approaches as it takes to get to the root of an issue or deliver the information I am trying to impart in a way that the student can understand.

Though I encourage regular goal setting with students, I’ve learned the importance of putting aside any agendas when I teach and instead responding to what most needs to happen in each moment. This doesn’t mean I let my students run the show, but I do respect that they have their own needs and interests and I work to balance these with my need for a methodical teaching style and environment conducive to learning. The fact is that not all students will go on to be professional musicians. However, I feel that all my students can go on to be happier, better adjusted, and more empowered people.

I’m a beginner. Do I need to get an instrument or do you have them?

I generally do not have instruments for students to rent or borrow. You can certainly ask, but in most cases you will need to acquire an instrument by the first lesson. Contact me or read on further for assistance finding a suitable instrument. Also check out my podcast episode titled “Tips for renting or purchasing a playable instrument” to be a better informed consumer.

I’m a beginner. Should I rent or buy my instrument? Where?

If you are just starting out, renting and buying are both good options. Renting is nice because it lets you “get your feet wet” without having to make a purchase that may go largely unused if the initial excitement wanes. Also, if you have no idea what type of sound you will personally like in an instrument, renting lets you get started and develop some technique to go back to the violin shop with after a few months and try out on potential instruments.

If you have a budget closer to or upwards of $1000, it doesn’t hurt to give yourself a couple of months with a rental to learn a few tunes and a scale or two so that you can than make a more informed decision. If your budget is closer to $300 and won’t be changing anytime soon, it makes more sense to me that you buy, as the cost of renting for a few months will quickly start to become what it would have cost to have made the purchase from the start.

If you’re planning to purchase, please go with a well set-up instrument (see my podcast episode “Tips for renting or purchasing a playable instrument”) from a good shop or a reputable online company. Please avoid the temptation to buy  an instrument on EBay or the like as many, despite a glowing description, are largely unplayable. Shar Music, a company out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, calls such instruments VSOs - violin shaped objects. You get the idea.

Violin Shops I have experience with personally or through my students and can therefore recommend:

    Northern California:

        Steven’s Violin Shop - San Jose

        Kamimoto Strings - San Jose

        Scott Cao Violins - San Jose

        Roland Feller - San Francisco

        Ifshin’s Violin Shop - El Cerrito

        John Harrison Violins - Redding


        David Kerr Violin Shop - Portland

Online stringed instrument dealers I have experience with personally or through my students and can therefore recommend:



What size violin/viola do I need to get?

Check out my blog entry on violin and viola sizing to do the measuring yourself, or consider scheduling a consultation with me.

Would it be possible to meet you before signing up for violin or viola lessons?

Of course. I offer an initial violin and viola lesson consultations by phone, in person, and via Skype free of charge. Expect to spend 15 minutes during which we’ll get to know each other a bit and evaluate our mutual goals and expectations.

I’d like to work on my ensemble skills. Is this something we can focus on in lessons?

Definitely! I love playing duets with my students and coaching duets or chamber groups of students. Of course, individual technique takes precedence and will need to be addressed before we can get very far in the ensemble setting. Once  individual issues are worked through I will help you learn to fit together the flavor and rhythms of the various voices and to micro-tune the ensemble’s intonation. We will learn how to match sounds and moods, balance solo and supporting parts, and stay true to the style of the music while incorporating personal expression.

My spouse/friend/sibling/parent/child plays an instrument other than a violin family instrument. We want someone to help us learn to play together. Is this something we can work on?

Definitely! (See ensemble skills section above for more.) Whether this other instrument is a piano, banjo, clarinet, or a percussion instrument, the basics of ensemble playing, no matter what the genre or instruments involved is the same - intonation, rhythm, dynamics, solo versus supporting, etc. I may not have the terminology to offer individual technical instruction for your music partner, but I can certainly sing, motion, or play on my instrument an idea of what it should sound like. I recommend that you and your music partner also take individual private lessons.

Do you ever give parent/child lessons, or lessons with siblings or friends who want to learn together?

Yes. Parent/child lessons can be an effective way to aid younger students. For lessons with siblings and friends there often comes a time when we really want at least some individual private lessons. As long as the students are equal in experience and motivation and can be focused in lessons I am always willing to give it a try. Another option is, say an hour lesson where both students are present, though I first work with one individually, then the other, and finally both together at the end.

What’s your experience with group lessons? Would you come to our school and help our string class?

I have led workouts at various schools, and have been a string coach for Youth Music Monterey in Monterey, CA, Orchestra in the Schools in Carmel Valley, CA, and for the Monterey Bay Charter School in Pacific Grove, CA. I’m happy to teach private group lessons and also to discuss coming to your class or orchestra.

What types of performance opportunities are available to students?

I encourage students to participate in their school or youth orchestras, community orchestras, camps, and/or fiddle groups and the performance opportunities inherent to these, depending on their age, ability, and taste. I can provide information about these and will help you prepare for auditions if and when necessary. For solo or small ensemble work I provide opportunities to share with the community throughout the year.

When do you schedule lessons?

During the work week. Please contact me to check my current availability - laurel@laurelthomsen.com

My work/class schedule varies or I sometimes have last minute obligations. Is this a problem with scheduling?

Possibly. If you generally have a few weeks notice and it only happens once in a while we can probably work around it. My studio functions on students paying tuition for a month or more at a time and usually coming once a week at the same time. This regularity is necessary for me to also carry on a vibrant performing life, and is important to maintaining the commitment to lessons and practicing for the student. If your schedule often changes at the last minute, you may need to rethink the space you have for lessons in your life at this time. Cancellations with less than 24 hours notice can often not be made up. I often just don’t have the time to accommodate students who can’t make their scheduled lesson time with such late notice and tuition for missed lessons will be forfeited.

Follow-up: Can I take lessons every other week rather than once a week?

Possibly. This depends on my current schedule and your flexibility. If I can fit you in at the beginning or the end of one of     my teaching days, or swap you week to week with another bi-weekly student this can work just fine. If you need a time in one of the prime time spots that everyone wants, it makes the only logical sense for me to fill these times with students who are able to come every week.

Follow-up: Can I take lessons once in a while?

Certainly. I have about a dozen students at any given time who come once in a while for a lesson, for a brush up or to focus on a specific topic. With at least two weeks notice I can usually find a spot to accommodate you.

How do your live online violin/viola lessons via Skype work?

The same way as in-person lessons except we’re not in the same room, or perhaps not even on the same continent! Please click here to read my page about violin, viola, and fiddle lessons via Skype for more information.

What support do you offer students outside of lessons?

I am always available to answer questions by phone, text, Skype text chat, or preferably, by email. As needed or requested I make audio or video practice recordings for further practice and study (generally something technical, like how to practice vibrato, or perhaps a demo of the piece we’re working on). After a few months of lessons, many students have a personal library of tailored videos to refer to as needed, which is pretty neat! Also, students are encouraged to check out my educational Violin Geek Podcast, articles, and courses for additional tips and techniques in addition to lessons.

Do you have other questions about Laurel Thomsen’s teaching methods/style or lessons with Laurel in general?

Please send her an email.

Violin & Viola Lessons

with Laurel Thomsen Q & A

Based on questions posed by students and parents since 1996.

Laurel Thomsen

Violin & Viola Performance, Instruction, & Recording



Skype: laurelthomsen

Based in Santa Cruz, California

® 2020, Laurel Thomsen, all rights reserved.


Join Laurel’s email fan list!