What makes a good violin teacher?

And when is it time to switch?

You know the old saw: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”. Of course you know what I’m going to say: I disagree with this statement (but not entirely!)

The Performer

A great performer, like Itzhak Perlman, is someone who has spent hours developing their talent. Playing scales, exercises, etudes and polishing his repertoire. But more than technical facility, they are able to communicate something to their listeners via music. We don’t need to know that a Bach Partita is a dance suite to be able to feel the lively tempo of the music. We don’t need to be familiar with the story of Schindler’s list to cry when we hear the theme.

As someone who struggles with expression, I can tell you: it’s definitely a LOT harder than it looks. Unless you’re Ray Chen. He makes it look hard. But he’s definitely expressive. He must have to have his bow rehaired on a regular basis though.

The flaw of some performers, however, is that they can’t necessarily explain what they do in a way that’s understandable to a beginner to intermediate violinist. That’s an entirely different skill.

The Teacher

The teacher is someone who has developed, through the experience of teaching many students, the ability to visualize what they do to make a particular effect, and then verbalize that to a student.

I highly recommend anyone to visit violinmasterclass.com to see a true teacher in action. Whether it’s beginner or advanced techniques, Mr. Sassmannshaus has a way of clearly explaining what you do and how it “feels” when you get it right. And I’m pretty sure he teaches not because he can’t play (read his bio if you don’t believe me!) but because he enjoys teaching.

Are they mutually exclusive?

I don’t know. Ask me after I try out Itzhak’s online masterclass. Anyone willing to contribute to my tuition?

In all seriousness, no, they are not. Maxim Vengerov is an accomplished performer and an inspiring instructor. In this masterclass, he teaches students about visualizing the “story” of the piece your playing. This was a concept that was new to me, but I’ve found that it helps with the expression if you can imagine a dance, a song or a story to go with the piece you’re playing.

When to move on?

As a teacher, I believe that it’s impossible to be all things to all people. Teaching young beginners requires a different skillset than helping an advanced player polish a piece of repertoire.

I’ve had one teacher who was excellent with kids. He was a grandfatherly type who was very good at making a game out of just about anything. Another teacher was so critical of his students that he had a reputation for making them all cry at every single lesson. On the other hand, he excelled with polishing repertoire because he showed tremendous attention to detail. Which is great, if you’re aiming to become another Jascha Heifetz.

Maybe not so great if you’re 7, you’ve never heard of Jascha Heifetz, and maybe you haven’t decided if you’ll play violin, drums, or the electronic saxophone.

It’s never wrong for either teacher or student to say that it’s time to move on. Maybe you’ve outgrown the teacher or their teaching style. Maybe they disdain the electric violin but you’ve always dreamed of playing The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Or maybe it’s just good for your growth as a musician to get a different perspective.

Final thoughts: The autodidact

Is it possible to learn to play violin without a teacher? I believe it’s possible. After all, many fiddle players play with little to no formal training. They just picked it up one day and started playing. With modern technology, a truly dedicated student could use the videos online and feedback through taping their own practice to learn the violin. But progress would be erratic and likely slower than with a teacher. There’s something to be said for experience after all.

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