It’s me!

No, not really. Good gravy. But I frequently am the recipient of students who bring with them some seriously low expectations and occasionally, horror stories. Yesterday, I offered a few tips to help get the most out of  lessons. Today, here are some things you should be able to expect from your teacher in the private lesson experience.

1. A private teacher should write down assignments and technical tips for you.

A teacher should not ask you to take your own notes. Of course, you can go back and write things down, rephrase things more clearly, etc. But if I mention something that has real stick to it, my students are free to say, “Ooh! Write that down!” It’s better to keep the flow of playing going than change between pencil and bow to scrawl a half page of notes. Also, a teacher should write out expected assignments and things to concentrate on in each of them.

An example:

B major Galamian scale, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 to a bow. Metronome @76, careful during extensions, make sure you’re shifting on the old finger, esp on low strings. Not breathing? lower the metronome speed until you can.


Don Juan excerpt, first page. Work from the end, by rule of 5s, first at 1/4 speed, then 1/2 speed, then at full speed with a metronome. If you make a mistake, go back to 1/2 speed 5 more times. Then play the entire first page with 2 recordings (Berlin and Chicago, for example). 


Shostakovich Concerto: work all shifts before taking passes at phrases. Play what’s on the page, not what you think is on the page. Feel shifts coming from arm, feel the thumb “tripod” your fingers, work to strengthen 4th finger, maybe look back at Cossman? 

2. Be relentless. Mostly.

Lessons are for implementing changes to improve your playing and approach. One mention is not enough to get the job done. If it’s worth changing, it’s worth hammering home. A teacher should describe, then demonstrate, then ask you to demonstrate, then ask you to describe the change and the reasoning behind it. Later in the lesson, it’s also good to reframe the new technique in a different context. Let’s say we’re trying to get a more uniform vibrato in lyrical passages of a sonata. I’ll then ask for a scale, long and slow, and see if the student has physically internalized the technique as something to broadly apply across the board. Hammer, hammer, hammer. Until you see the light go out of the student’s eyes. Then give it a rest, go on to something else. At the very end of the lesson, one more tap with the hammer to see if they can muster the new technique with a smile. I have been known to make up songs to remind students of fundamental techniques that also serve to ventilate the intensity of the lesson. My favorite is something of a gospel refrain: “Who sounds good on the fingerboard? No-one! No-one!” 

Yes, I am a dork. But it works.

3. Don’t phone it in.

Teaching is a job. A difficult one, at times. It’s not just the transfer of information: it’s wisdom osmosis. In a paper that shall surely never see the light of day, I talk about the dearth of wisdom in our over “educated” world. We may be sitting in more classes than ever, but I see few gains in genuine applicable understanding. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility, especially in the relative ease of a one on one (as opposed to a whole classroom) environment, to be completely engaged, and to have engaging, relevant things to say. At the end of a day of teaching, a private instructor should feel both exhausted and exhilarated, just like so many classroom teachers do. One of the ways I do this is constantly pointing back to my own struggles. Since I pretty much struggle at everything, there’s a whole lotta fodder. Not only does it establish a sense of camaraderie with my students, but it also points to the larger, nearly unbelievable truth: that you can actually get good at the cello even though you’re flailing.

So please, teachers, invest in your students. Whether you like it or not, we change lives. It’s up to you whether it’s for better or worse. Given the choice, I try for the former.

†or any other seemingly impossible goal