Choosing a Teacher

Photo credit: Baher Khairy

Before you try to choose a teacher, stop, take a big breath, allow yourself time to consider what you want in a teacher.

There are all kinds of people in the world and that includes teachers, parents and kids who are the potential recipients of the music lessons. A few of the questions you might ask yourself could include (and please be honest for your and your child’s sake! There are no right or wrong answers. You are you and that is who you are supposed to be. Just be as honest as you possibly can!):

  • How much time each week am I willing to devote to helping my child with this project? The child probably needs help clearing out time as well as other details to meet the time demands of learning an instrument.
  • Am I willing to sit through the lesson with the teacher and child and ask about what I don’t understand so that I can work with my child at home? This is important for the parent to think through so that he/she can then seek a teacher who is willing to work with parent and child or one who would rather have the child dropped off and picked up at the end of the lesson.
  • Do I want my child to experience a caring teacher who has a plan of action and result-oriented goals around building technique on the instrument as well as fundamental music theory so that my child advances systematically and can handle Royal Conservatory of Music exams in Canada or in the American String Teachers Certificate Advancement exams in the US?
  • Do I want my child to be able to understand and perform at the level of the Youth Orchestra he/she may join? Do I want a teacher who is willing to answer questions and help with specific orchestra playing needs?
  • Would I rather have a teacher who is nice and fun no matter what happens at home or at the lesson and never places expectations on the child?
  • Would I rather have my child do a little of all kinds of activities or stick with one or two things and get good at what they are doing? This question deserves a well thought out answer.

So far the ideas under discussion have been about parental attitudes. It’s time to give attention to the child’s ideas:

  • Does this child enjoy music?
  • Does he/she enjoy learning new activities, ideas, skills?
  • Has he/she attended any concerts, orchestral, chamber music, church choir, youth orchestra or (good thought!) a student recital of a prospective teacher.

All of these experiences could help a youngster see himself/herself in these settings and come up with a meaningful reaction.

After considering these questions, you want to find a music teacher who is a match for your own preferences. Asking yourself these questions helps you get clear on what you want (and on what you and your child are motivated to do). Write down what is important for you and your child and go and meet with a few prospective teachers to ask meaningful questions and determine if you are a good match.

May you be blessed in your considerations and decisions!

Check out the related post on new students materials checklist.


After 40+ years of teaching violin lessons, I am retiring this summer. It has been a pleasure watching children of all ages grow and develop their music skills and talent. I feel grateful to have enjoyed such a rewarding career.

I will be moving to Arvada to be closer to family. For the next few months, I won’t be writing much, but I plan to get back to blogging in full force in 2017. I hope you will return to join me at that time.

Have a great summer!

The Value of Improvisation in Music Education

learn+violinI was recently contacted by fellow strings teacher, Liam Calhoun. He wrote a blog post that I found very much in line with my views on improvisation in music education. I like the thinking in this piece! For example, in reality, are improvisation and creativity really in opposition with technical skills and sight reading, or are these concepts/entities two sides of the same coin of being a fine musician? I agree with the latter idea. We have indeed for too long divided “classical” orchestral and chamber music playing according to a given score, from the more free wheeling improvisation in it’s own right, or improvisation on a known melody or theme. We have seen these two venues as two different kinds of music, which in a sense, they are. However modern usage is blurring the distinctions of this kind and we are beginning to see just music. I like this trend. Liam gives further ideas.

I also like his thinking on “playing by ear”. Of course it is a vital part of the whole. When I play “from memory” my ear is definitely guiding me as well as muscle memory especially in the more technical parts. Playing by ear also opens up more space in the improvisation area. One can transpose a melody or theme more easily. One can hang on to the theme and weave an improvisation around it.

One more thought. The students and their families who come to us come with their own ideas of what photo-1431069767777-c37892aa0a07their favorite musical activities might be. Some are not a whit interested in doing a Mozart Concerto, but would think they had reached the mountain top if they could participate in a garage band with their friends. Well, the I, IV & V7 chords that we teach in the Royal Conservatory of Music theory work are indeed the same chords used in lead sheets for the garage band or the church praise band. I have a family now in which big sister can play the arpeggio form of the chords while little brother plays Twinkle. They can do it in A major, D major and G major. The grins are the rewards! Why not meet people where they are?

New Booklet

I made some revisions to my booklet, Elements of Music Theory/Improvisation, and gave it a new cover. I actually had two new covers made and would like to get some help in choosing which one I should keep. Other than the covers, all contents of each booklet are identical. Please download the version that has the more attractive cover, in your opinion. I will keep the one that gets the most downloads.

Elements of Music Theory/Improvisation
Version A
Elements of Music Theory/Improvisation
Version B


While we received a lot of votes for both covers, we received slightly more for version B. I’m now adding new material and finalizing my Master booklet as well as one each for violin, viola and cello and these will be available for purchase soon!

Mindset and the Suzuki Method

I have been digesting a paragraph from Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, (page 41).

“For them, [people with the growth mindset] even geniuses have to work hard for their achievements. And what’s so heroic, they would say, about having a gift? They may appreciate endowment, but they admire effort, for no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”

Photo by Nimajs (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Nimajs (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I think Dr. Suzuki would be whole heart and soul into that statement. I think that is the thinking behind the way he broke down tasks for the young children to be able to move from one small accomplishment to the next. Some parents embrace this idea and they and their children succeed at this endeavor.

Parents who appreciate the value of effort give their children an example of what effort can do for us in our daily life. It’s the way they face their lives. The children in this environment embrace effort naturally and see their parents appreciate their efforts and accomplishments.

Suzuki Talent Education and the Growth Mindset

Salzburg Violin
© Jorge Royan

I so like this interview, and what Carol Dweck is describing as the growth mindset. It fits in nicely with the philosophy of teaching of Shinichi Suzuki. The use of appropriate praise is part of his teaching. Also, the idea of ongoing growth and development of technical skills, musical understanding and personal growth.

I like to show a student two ways of doing something, likely the way they just did it and a more effective way of doing it and then ask them if the two ways were different or the same and encourage and guide them to figure out the difference for themselves. Then we also look at how the new method is done. Then of course, the next question is, can you do it that way? I provide encouragement and guidance where needed for them to use their wits and abilities to work it out for themselves. This gives them a chance to be proud of themselves and learn the value of working their problem through for themselves.

I highly recommend both the interview and the book below; I find them congruent with the philosophy of the Suzuki Method.


Going Over the Basics

A student put the following question out on Tumblr recently:

Small Child Playing Violin. Believed to be in Public Domain From Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collections.
From Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collections.

I’ve played violin for about 5 years but only in the school orchestra. Our teachers were never very good so I’m still kind of awful at understanding how keys and scales work and all fit together ( this is embarrassing omg) so basically I was wondering if you can think of any sources (preferably online) that go over all of the basics so I can review and finally understand what it is I’m playing? Thank you so much 🙂

While there a numerous online resources for this (and others on Tumblr have mentioned a few, such as Teoria), if you want a paper book to work your way through, there are some good ones specifically for string instruments:

Either of the theory sets listed above will take you progressively through the basic steps and lead you to a good understanding of music theory. The note reading book is a good beginner book for reading music.

What is a Cadenza?

The baroque and classical composers included in their concertos a spot where the orchestra could stop, and the performer was on his own to improvise on the theme of the movement he had just performed, in order to show off his virtuosity, but also his ability to improvise. This was the Cadenza. Antonio Vivaldi wrote several student concertos, possibly for his students. On this video, my student, Ryan is playing the 1st movement of the Vivaldi A minor concerto, which is a student concerto. I took the liberty to designate a spot for Ryan to add in his own improvised cadenza. Ryan’s cadenza is a little different each time he does it.

This video was taken at one of my students monthly play-ins. We get together informally and play what has been prepared for the occasion, like an informal recital, at Everyday Joe’s, a local coffee house. There is background noise from the coffee house patrons, but do enjoy anyway!