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A few years ago, I visited my brother and his family down in Tucson. After we settled in, I learned that my niece was learning violin and apparently was doing very well. I’m always interested to hear a new, budding violinist, so after some coaxing, she got out her instrument and played for me.
The thoughts were racing through my head: Why is she holding her bow like that? Why hasn’t her teacher showed her how to use her shoulder rest? Why is she playing out of tune? (I knew for a fact that this kid had a good ear….I had heard her sing in tune.)
I acted impressed, but later I hinted to my brother that they might want to explore different teachers. He protested a little, telling me how enthusiastic and positive the teacher was, and how she was so happy with my niece’s progress. She plays with such and such orchestra, and plays professionally (a very loose term, by the way). How could so much evidence be wrong?
But the red flags were just too big.
A good teacher will not settle for less than what a student is capable of. If a student can sing in tune, he or she can play in tune, and a good teacher will demand good intonation of both an advanced student and a beginner.
EVERY student can learn to hold the violin like a professional adult. Sure there are variations, and you have to take individual physique into consideration, but a good teacher will pick up on that.
Every student can play with beautiful tone, provided her violin is of good quality and in good shape. And again, a good teacher should demand this, even of beginners.)
We musicians can impress novices by talking big, throwing out names and fancy words in a way that impresses outsiders and casts a sort of spell over them. We learn to do this because we had the same spell cast over us when we saw great musicians interacting with others.
Don’t fall for this! Even I have a hard time telling the real deal from the big-talkers at first. They can be very convincing!
How To Choose a Good New Teacher
Ask the following questions and record points for answers in the blanks provided. There are 14 points possible. If your prospective teacher scores 10 or better, they are probably very good. (Note: This system applies to teachers of beginning violin students. Critiquing teachers of advanced students is a lot more complicated.)
_____ Do they have a waiting list? (This doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s a good sign.) Yes = 1 point
_____ Are they a successful performer? (Not required, but a good indicator.) Yes = 1 point
_____ What groups do they play with? Are the groups professional? Yes = 1 point
_____ Have you heard the teacher play? (zero points here, because a novice may be impressed by not so great playing)
_____ Have you heard any of their students play? (This is important because great players aren’t guaranteed to be great teachers.) Were they good as far as you could tell? Yes = 1 point
_____ Do you know anyone who has studied with them? Ask them for references.
_____ Do they hold recitals? (Students need chances to perform. It motivates and teaches students skills they won’t get otherwise.) Yes = 2 points
_____ Do they belong to any musical organizations such as the American String Teachers Association (ASTA), the Suzuki Association of the Americas, the International Suzuki Association, or others? (Not required, but a good indicator.) Yes = 1 point
_____ Ask them what method they teach. They should have a pretty definitive answer to that. For instance, my answer would be, “I start all my beginners with the Suzuki Method, but I do introduce note-reading earlier than the pure Suzuki method.” 2 points for a coherent answer
_____ Ask them what bow hold they teach. (This is really mean…it will throw off all but the best.) Their choices are “Franco-Belgian,” “Russian”, “Galamian”, or they should at least be able to describe it to you. 3 points for an answer that is not a blank stare
_____ Ask them which sort of vibrato they teach. (You are looking for “arm,” “wrist,” or “combination”) If they can’t answer, then they don’t have a plan for teaching it. 2 points for a direct answer
Here are some things you should NOT base your decision on:
Personality—sure it’s fun when you LIKE your teacher, but you’re not paying them to be your best friend.
Price—obviously you have to be able to afford it, but don’t let a high price impress you, and don’t let a cheap price entice you!
Whether or not the teacher gives “extra long lessons” is not a reflection on their ability as a teacher.
“Mean” or “Nice” doesn’t mean good or bad. But a teacher shouldn’t be hurtful to your self esteem.