Finding the Right Teacher in Five Steps
by Patrick Sullivan
From Strings, January 2003, Issue 107. © (2003) String Letter Publishing. All rights reserved. For more information on Strings, contact String Letter Publishing, PO Box 767, San Anselmo, CA 94979; (415) 485-6946; fax (415) 485-0831;
These days, Mark O'Connor doesn't need much introduction. The Grammy-winning violinist, composer, and fiddler is now widely known as one of the most inventive talents in American music. But decades ago, before the Baltimore Sun and the St. Louis Post Dispatch labeled O'Connor a genius, or the New York Times described his career as "one of the most spectacular journeys in recent American music," a high school music teacher had a rather different assessment of the teenage violinist's blossoming talent.
Here is how that instructor prefaced O'Connor's first public performance, as part of a jazz trio playing in the school gym: "His introduction before my peers, the faculty, as well as my family, went something like this," O'Connor recalls in an essay published on his own website. "'Did you bring your earplugs? We could have made a killing at the door selling earplugs! Anyway, these guys come into my music room every day, and I am not sure what they do in there. I even forgot their names! I just sign them in. So I just refer to them as the jazz trio. So here they are, the jazz trio.'"
Not long after that humiliating introduction, O'Connor was trading violin solos with jazz violin great Stephane Grappelli on the stage of Carnegie Hall. But not all beginning musicians have the courage, drive, and sheer talent to leap the high hurdle of a bad teacher. No one will ever know how many promising players have thrown in the towel after encountering ignorance, indifference, or abuse from the very person who was supposed to nurture their talent.
Indeed, choosing the right teacher may be the most difficult decision facing a beginning string musician. It's a process full of questions: Where should the search start? What responsibilities does the student have in the process? And what qualities in a teacher are crucial for productive learning?
"Regardless of the instrument, the critical question is whether or not the teacher wants to develop a genuine relationship with the student," says John McCarthy, director of the preparatory and extension divisions at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "It's really a partnership between the teacher and the student. That's more important than methodology."
McCarthy is far from alone in emphasizing the role of personal relationships in the teaching process.
"The first two words that jump into my mind, that elbow for space at the front of the line, are kindness and patience," says Tom Heimberg, a teacher in Northern California who currently plays viola in the San Francisco Opera's orchestra. "I've heard too many stories about mean and forceful teachers. I think a teacher should have a system of approach to the instrument. But kindness and patience are crucial."
Of course, nothing can take all the uncertainty out of this search, especially for students of stringed instruments, who face a growing nationwide shortage of qualified teachers. The American String Teachers Association (ASTA) recently reported that approximately 5,000 instructor positions in string music education will go unfilled over the next two years.
But experienced musicians agree that there are important steps that any aspiring student should take.
This is the first step, and it may be the most important. A student must answer some hard questions. What are your goals? What is your learning style? Would you prefer one-on-one instruction, or might you and your limited disposable income be more comfortable in a cheaper, group setting? What results can you realistically hope to achieve? "One of the most common mistakes new students make is they don't realize the time commitment required," says Ariel Whitbeck of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA).
Many aspiring students start their search by picking up the Yellow Pages. While that may be a fine way to find a plumber, locating a music teacher should involve talking to people in the music community. If you don't already know musicians and music students, your local music stores can help: Many keep lists of local teachers (some will even email names to you), and proprietors are often willing to discuss which local instructor might best suit your needs. You should also check with the music departments at your high school or college, or the local musicians' union, which can be located using the website of the American Federation of Musicians at
But you don't just want a list of names. You want references, as Heimberg points out. "You want to find out who seems to be happy with their teacher," he says. "Which teacher has a recognizable track record? For example, if someone has been teaching a long time and you start getting lots of mixed stories—the teacher getting angry or getting too rough—you might still want to meet the teacher, but be more cautious."
Now it's time to examine the basics, including credentials and affiliations. Is a teacher a trained instructor, or simply a talented player? Is he or she a member of a professional association, such as ASTA or the National Association for Music Education (MENC), which offer their members important connections and opportunities for continuing education? Does the teacher specialize in a certain age range or level of playing ability?
Which educational method(s) does the teacher employ, and what are the ramifications for the student? For instance, many teachers employing the Suzuki method with young students expect a parent to play a very active role in the teaching process.
Here's where the search gets personal. Any reputable instructor should be willing to discuss his or her studio polices over the phone or in person. And it's important to shop around, according to Meg Eldridge, who teaches violin and viola in California and also plays with several San Francisco Bay Area symphonies. "It's kind of like looking for a car," Eldridge says with a laugh. "Sometimes you want to go with the first one you see, and other times it's going to take a while. But I would strongly recommend talking to several teachers."
Is the teacher comfortable with what the student wants out of instruction? For instance, Eldridge recalls taking lessons from violin purists who wanted to concentrate on solo pieces and was openly disdainful of her orchestral work.
Another important consideration is whether a teacher can offer students opportunities to perform publicly. "A teacher should offer one or two recitals a year," says Eldridge. "It gets people to really buckle down and practice." It also provides the valuable experience of performing in public.
Many students decide to audition a prospective teacher by taking an introductory lesson. That's a good way to evaluate whether their approach is right for you, but you should expect to pay for the privilege.
Stick With It
If you've decided to learn to play the violin, viola, cello, or bass you probably already know that you've set yourself a daunting challenge. Still, it bears repeating: No other instruments require as much patience before a musician can hope to make even reasonably satisfying sounds. No teacher, whatever his or her method or teaching ability, can give a beginning player quick results.
"If one begins with a teacher and is having success, any decisions about changing should be very slow," McCarthy says. "A respectful sense of what's realistically possible is crucial."