I like to prod as many students into teaching as possible, and I thought that it might be nice to back up my dare with some pointers to help you.

1) As a rule, have twice the experience of the potential student, unless you have been playing more than 10 years, or the person is a complete beginner.

2) The first lesson should be an hour, even if future lessons will be 30 or 45 minutes because of the age or budget of the student. I like to give 30 minute lessons to kids under the age of 11 or 12 to avoid what I call the “thousand mile stare”, where the fascinating discussion of why thumb and 2nd finger are best friends turns into a wistful look over my shoulder and daydreams of unicorns, video games, and pizza.

3) Get paid. Even if it is a token amount of $15, it is important to establish a non-casual hierarchy. Unless you’re traveling to a shelter or a hospital, it is appropriate to take some money for your services. After the nerves and giddiness wear off, you will kick yourself if you set precedent as a free teaching studio. Establishing a fee puts a little bit of pressure on you (which is good and keeps your game up) and encourages the student to respect your time. As your experience grows, so should your fee. That being said, if I encounter an extraordinary student who shows me that they are serious and devoted but has absolutely no money, I will put them on a “scholarship”. If they cancel more than three lessons within a two month period, it is forfeited and they can either pay me or find someone within their price range.

4) Materials should include: book of manuscript paper, several thick mechanical pencils, functional rock stop (and they are hard to find!), music stand with a light on it, and a book that you like to work out of. My suggestion is book 1 of Schroeder’s 170 Foundation Studies. Those Germans are so orderly. By the end of an average first lesson, I have them playing exercises 1-3.

5) For a true beginner, start out with a little note reading while sitting at the cello. No bow for the first 20-30 minutes, sometimes not until the second lesson. Make sure they’re sitting well, not slouching, etc. Tell them the names of the open strings, and quiz them on it periodically throughout the whole lesson. Be focused, but cheerful. If they look like they’re guessing instead of making a sincere mistake, go over it as if you had never taught them those strings. If you’re using Schroeder, go through the first line or two of #1 and name the notes while plucking the corresponding string. Tell them not to worry about note duration. The second and third lessons will have much more theory, etc.

Right onto a C scale, first without the cello, second time by rote, third time putting the two together. Have them put the cello down and write out a C scale. (If your notation stinks, ask your teacher for a lesson just on that. No lollipop notes or strange letter Ps or qs all over the staff, please) Tell them that the notes are all in order, just like the alphabet, except that our alphabet only has 7 letters and it goes in a repeating loop. If they already know about that from prior lessons on any instrument, then make sure they know what a scale really is and have them name the notes. Once they can count up and down the scale, then pick the cello up and ignore the music. Demonstrate, with pizzicato, the first octave, and say “open one three four, open one three four” as you play. Emphasize the ease of this, and tell them that no matter what comes out of the cello or how rumpled their hand might look, it’s fine. “It’s fine” are probably the most commonly uttered words in my studio, usually after a mistake. Because it is. So then you play a note, and they play it after you. You play open C and then they do. You put their finger over D, you play it, and then they follow. All the way up the scale. Don’t bother with coming down quite yet. Do this no less than 5 times until the student can fumble through it, naming notes, by themself. Now do it looking at the page of notes and see if you can make the connection. If you’re feeling adventurous, try it with the bow and encourage the student to make scraping awful sounds. (As we all know, you get used to them in those initial 6 months.)

At the end, introduce the bow a little more. I always try for the pro grip as opposed to the beginner’s crab claw thing that always results in a tight wrist and a hand that slowly closes around the frog. Be conciliatory and reassuring. People begin lessons with very romantic ideas and the sound of the first few weeks is the opposite of sexy. But it is artsy, in the truest sense of the gesture. My credo, which has the additional benefit of emboldening students, is that people who stick with the cello do well. Those who don’t, well…they don’t.

6) For a non-beginner, have them come in and both of you warm up with a slow C scale. Even if they’re working on a concerto, do an easy scale. Check out the technique, the personality and level of defensiveness. Look for sophisticated problems and tension. Then have them play for you their most recent effort. Work on it (and it will need work) slowly, repetitively, calmly. Don’t overdo the praise, because I find a lot of people in this intermediate class of student are coming in for a month of ego boost instead of lessons. Instead, offer support. “This section is tricky” “I remember struggling with this one!” “Does that fingering work for you? Here’s what I was taught” etc. Then finish with a duet, again, easier than the ability of the student. I like Lee because there are so many levels of difficulty to choose from, and though he was a “B” composer, he doesn’t go all weird like Dotzauer sometimes does. Nothing worse than sightreading something well and wondering if the composer meant the thing to resolve to a tritone.

7) At the end of the lesson, polish the notes (expand upon, tidy up, add ideas) you have written in the manuscript book, and make sure the student knows to practice with that open on the stand. I was terrible about doing that during my early and intermediate days and now when I look at the stuff Cathy wrote, I am in disbelief at the disservice I did to the whole process. Ideally, a student will come to you. If you’re a single woman, consider a neutral location unless it’s someone you trust implicitly, or a child. Don’t underestimate this. I have had more than one dude see me perform, sign up for lessons, and show up unannounced and undesired at my studio. You want a lot of people around if things get iffy. All stalkers aside, having lessons at your own studio or public place removes the distractions that people find in their own homes: ringing phones, screaming kids, unfinished knitting in the corner or power tools in the garage. Also, you don’t have to haul the whole kit and caboodle around with you, which can be arduous. Try to set up the next meeting, and send an email to confirm a few days beforehand. A 24 hour cancellation policy is useful for everyone involved, and is another way to set up a professional relationship, even if it is grounded in friendly reciprocity.

To teach is to be a professional student. You can enrich someone else’s life and your own practice by making the leap into teaching. Just like there is room in the market for affordable cellos, there is room in the teac
hing world for intermediate teachers. I worked my way through college by teaching, and more importantly, learning how to teach. If you don’t believe that you could possibly be an effective educator, just ask yourself: Do I know more right now than someone who has never played the cello? Have I learned anything? Am I better now than I was when I started out?

Then go teach.

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3 Responses

  1. I want to teach someday. Manon and I have talked about it as something in the future. Because of my constant troubles with court and my daughter, I feel I need to wait at least a couple more years, maybe four years, even for very beginners, but I do believe it’s coming.

  2. What a great blog! I love this list of pointers, and so much of it applies to so many kinds of teaching. How’d you learn so much about learning?

    As Wittgenstein says somewhere: “When do you say to yourself: I can hear it in my mind? Only when remembering something played on the cello? _Must_ there be a mental cello for this to make sense? And a mental viola, also?”


  3. Chris? Do I know you? The reason I ask is because my dad is a Wittgenstein guy, and it seems too much of a coincidence!

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