Learning to Embrace Violin Teachers, and Find New Ones

The time had come. My teacher’s life was pulling him away from the world of private teaching, and I could sense that I needed to find a new teacher in preparation for that day. The thought of being teacherless, or of making do with a teacher who felt obligated to keep me, was not something I wanted. Once I had a new teacher identified and a trial lesson set up, he asked me if I could do a weekend lesson. My weekends are for my family, and I knew that weekend lessons would mean cancelations and inconsistency. I didn’t want to resent my lessons, or have my family resent them. He was supportive of finding a new teacher – in a way it gave us both a graceful exit that preserves the friendship. I was nervous about starting with someone new, and excited to get a fresh perspective on things. People aren’t meant to stay with just one teacher forever, just like they aren’t meant to stay in therapy with the same person forever. From meeting comes parting, according to Buddha.

It was January 2020. Things were looking up! I found a lovely new teacher who was also in the small geographic area that I could reasonably work into my work and parenting schedule. She was a quiet Japanese American woman, a veteran of the orchestra world. We immediately connected around Buddhism and she was impressed by what I was able to play for her. She placed me in book 4 of Suzuki, which was the next step after the last of book 3. She played on a 300-year-old violin and used her piano to accompany me a lot. At first it was nerve wracking, but I was pleasantly surprised at what I was able to do when I wasn’t given the option to decline accompaniment. When I told her that my goal was to audition (and be accepted, of course) into one of our local semi-professional community orchestras, she said, “Whoa, that’s a big goal. Those are hard to get into.” That was it. She was a bit hard to read. Since she didn’t follow it up with discouragement, did she buy into my goal? Or, was that her way of discouraging? I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. You can’t have super thin skin as an adult starter. Peoples’ projections onto you of what they have been told about the adult ability to learn violin will quickly erode away your confidence if you allow them to.

No Teacher? No Problem! Dress up your instrument, because THAT’s not a waste of practice time!

Then March hit, and the schools shut down due to Covid. While I was busy learning how to be a couple’s therapist over Zoom and juggling children, many of the world’s music teachers were doing the same. My new teacher just wanted to take a break – we initially thought it would be a few weeks. Ha. Ha. As that stretched on, she declined my request for video lessons, saying that she didn’t see how they would work. Since she relied so much on accompaniment, that made sense. But, she wasn’t interested in adapting and was fine with me being teacherless. I asked her if I could send her videos of me playing so she could just give feedback. Her response was, “If you absolutely must.” WELL. That felt awesome.

I spent almost 5 months with no lessons. The fact that I technically had a teacher helped me to not feel quite too lost. But, I was, in truth, pretty lost. I managed to learn the second piece in Book 4 enough to make it through. I wasn’t doing myself any favors though. I finally contacted her for “permission” to move onto the 3rd piece. I also spent the summer doing the first 2 pages of Shradieck – which was wonderful for dexterity and not great for tension. When we resumed in person lessons, it was hell. I couldn’t see much through the fog created by my mask, and without facial expressions I felt like we just couldn’t connect. By the time we were on Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor, I was seriously frustrated. She insisted on accompanying me on the piano, and I asked if we could work instead on some phrases that were giving me trouble because I didn’t feel ready to play it with her yet. She told me that it was rare to have a teacher like her who could play piano, and I should consider it a benefit to be accompanied. I tried to gently explain that, while I do see it as a benefit to have a teacher with her skills, my brain just couldn’t process everything going on while being accompanied if I’m also struggling with the passage itself. I said maybe it was that I was an adult starter and things are harder for me than they may seem, and I asked if she understood what I was trying to say. She just said “No.”

That’s when I knew it was my last lesson. It’s OK not to understand your student, but if you are the teacher, I believe it’s your job to try. It hit me that she had let me languish for almost 5 months without a teacher, and ignored my pleas to have some sort of help from her. And here she was giving me the message that I don’t make sense in feeling overwhelmed and asking her to slow down. At least my 5 months in the wild taught me that my motivation to play doesn’t come from impressing a teacher or avoiding a teacher’s disappointment. I didn’t need external motivation, and I owed it to myself to listen to my gut and find a better fit.

The dread of “breaking up” with her was really about wanting to avoid the discomfort of doing the work to find another good teacher. I knew that we both weren’t at our best during this pandemic, but I didn’t feel like I was throwing away a potentially good relationship just because of a temporary situation. I trusted my feelings well enough to know that I didn’t want to have that kind of relationship with a teacher. I didn’t like the way that it felt to dread lessons. It wasn’t just the masks, it was the feeling of being alone in my learning. Again.

This is where a dose of perspective is a good thing. I have a long term goal in mind with the violin. Covid and personalities don’t care about your goals. I have a good ten years before I really feel like I’ll need an orchestra to fill the void that my independent teenagers will leave me with once I’m no longer their world. “There’s no timeline – it’s not too late for anything – it will be fine” is what I told myself. And, I’ll always have Anton to fall back on if I need someone to keep me from quitting. It was back to the drawing board!

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