Four Etiquettes for Students

If there’s one thing you learn when you accept the responsibility of being a teacher, it’s that there are many, many personalities in the world. When you offer your teaching service for any length of time you certainly get to meet a plethora of personalities – and what a treat to have that opportunity! There are some fundamental courtesies, however, that I as a student always felt should be applied towards teachers, only to find later that not everyone feels the same way. Therefore, for the sakes of all the teachers out there who may have encountered similar instances as I, here is a list of four applicable concepts students should understand.

1. Value the Price of Learning
Unless a teacher specifically says they’re open to bartering, do not try to wheedle a lower price for their lessons, complain how you could never afford their original rates, then not even show up to your first lesson after you managed to whine your way to a lower price (true story.) I know that in this day and age of Craigslist the going adage is, “It never hurts to ask,” but sometimes it kind of does hurt. People don’t realize how much money goes into mastering an art form when someone is truly passionate about it. There’s the initial cost of your outfit (instrument, case, rosin, shoulder rest, tuner, metronome…), gradual upgrades to better instruments and bows, repairs and maintenance, years and years and years of lessons, workshops, fiddle camps, competition fees, not to mention the cost of gas to drive to and from all these places. It’s a lot. A whole lot. And someone who has genuinely cared to develop beauty with their instrument will put in the sacrifice of time and money to make it happen. Someone like a teacher. To ask them to lower their rates is to say you don’t value those sacrifices they’ve made or the dedication they’ve put into their instrument. So in this instance, yes, it does hurt to ask. After all, you get what you pay for, and if you’ve found a “cheap” instructor it probably means they haven’t invested much into what they’re teaching.

On the topic of trading for lessons, unless the teacher specifically says they’re open to trading, do not offer a pie in exchange for a month of lessons (as has happened to a teaching friend of mine). It would have to be some pretty amazing pie, possibly with a gold-plated crust. I once traded a fiddle lesson for a self-defense lesson, only to have the ‘teacher’ punch me in the face in the first ten seconds of my training and leave me with a split lip… that I had to go perform with on stage in California a week later. I’m pretty sure now that person was not licensed to teach self defense. I did not stay for the rest of the lesson — a pretty poor trade for an hour of my professional time, and it led me to create Etiquette Rule 1a: Don’t punch your fiddle teacher.

2. Respect Your Teacher’s Syllabus
It’s likely that when you were searching for a teacher you sought out the ones who correlated the best to your musical interests. Now that you’ve chosen a teacher, don’t go into your lesson doubting what they’re going to teach. I, for one, put a lot of thought into the series, programs, and textbooks that I use with my students, and sometimes I customize the materials to better fit certain lessons. Good teachers put a lot of time – years! – into their skills; it’s safe to assume they understand the overall process better than the student who’s just started lessons, or has been playing on-and-off for two years. Please don’t take a handful of lessons from your teacher then tell them that your friend said you should be using different learning materials because that’s what their daughter’s teacher uses. (True story.) It’s wonderful that your friend is so immersed in her daughter’s education, but you can choose to listen to the teacher with years of experience that you specifically sought for their knowledge or to your friend with little-to-no knowledge of what’s going on in your lessons. I’ll leave that choice up to you.

Regardless of what specialization you want to eventually learn, all beginning fiddlers must start with basic concepts and tunes before graduating to more genre-specific songs. It will take some time to lay down the foundations before you get to the “fun stuff.” Don’t struggle your way through “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” then ask why you haven’t started learning “Orange Blossom Special” yet, or say you’re disappointed with your lessons so far because you only wanted to learn songs in minor keys (yes, I’ve had someone say that to me, too.) Which leads us to the next etiquette…

3. Be Open to the Learning Process
Please, do not spend your entire first lesson trying to correct your teacher (such as, telling them that the bow should only ever be rosined with downward-strokes, never upward strokes. True story.) The purpose of taking lessons is to learn that which you can’t do by yourself. I cannot tell you how difficult it is to make any progress with a student who thinks they know what they should be learning and argue or second-guess things during class. If you feel that you know more than your teacher, please kindly inform them of your ascension to musical enlightenment and cease taking lessons.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, please have a little heart in the learning curve and don’t beat yourself up for every mistake. No one picks up the violin for the first time and sounds like Kreisler. Keep your focus set on achievable goals and take pride in the accomplishment of each small step that will build into greater things! If you have a child who verbally abuses you during your lesson, please leave them at home and possibly seek counseling to amend your low self-esteem. (You know what I’m going to say next… true story.)

4. Take the Time
Please do not attend three lessons then inform your teacher that you want to quit because you don’t sound good. (This tale is verifiably accurate.) The violin is a wildly difficult instrument to make “sound good”, and of course your beginning attempts will be rough. Everyone’s are! If it were easy there would be no joy in the learning of it! The time you put into learning, understanding, and playing your instrument will directly correlate to your quality of sound and musical aptitude. It’s a simple statement, but the difficulty is in the steady dedication of time. Even if you can only get in ten or twenty minutes of practice each day, do it! It’s far better to have twenty-minute sessions accumulating through the week than to have one hour-long practice.

Some students feel unhappy when they think they’ve reached a plateau in their lessons. They view this as “not learning.” When you pour concrete to make a new sidewalk, do you trowel out the wet mix, smooth it over, and proceed to walk on it? What a mess! That concrete needs time to set, to solidify, before you can take confident steps across it to your next destination. It’s my responsibility as a teacher to push my students and stretch their skills, but it’s equally my responsibility to make sure my students have times to practice the concepts they’ve learned and solidify the new muscle memories and ideas. This feels like a plateau, when in actuality it is the setting of concrete skills.

In closing
The vast majority of the students I’ve had the pleasure of meeting are amazing. Their commitment, open curiosity, humor in the face of funny noises coming from their instruments, and constant search for true understanding of their instrument brings me overwhelming joy. To all of my excellent students past and present, from the bottom of my heart, thank you!