Recently I received a request from a gentleman overwhelmed with the options of self-teaching tools available for the violin. While he wanted to take lessons, there was no one in his area who taught, and he was asking my advice on what to do.
First of all, kudos to him for asking! I did my best to give him an answer, and I would like to share that answer with you.
As a rule I am against self teaching materials. Whether it’s from books, method tapes, DVD’s, internet resources, or the like, it’s not the medium that is the problem. My main problem with self help teaching materials is that they fail to take into account the complexity of the violin, and the many bad habits that you can pick up very quickly and easily (most of them having to do with how to hold the bow and the violin correctly).
Learning how to play the violin properly really requires someone to show you and work with you hands on. I see this in my own students all the time. Those who have tried to learn on their own and come to me for lessons always have issues with their technique. Once I show them how to do things correctly, it still takes weeks months or even years for them to actually implement it as they need to correct their bad habits and foster new ones. I need to continually tweak what they’re doing until it becomes second nature to them when they pick up their instrument. This process of learning occurs with any student, but it’s a shame when students need to go through the hard work of re-learning things that they could have learned correctly the first time had they just had the right instruction.
Now, I want to be clear. There are many good self teaching materials out there that are produced by good teachers and provide good information. However, as violin is one of the most difficult instruments to learn it just can’t be learned properly without the help of a good instructor who actually interacts with what you are doing personally. Even if you get the basics correct from the beginning (which is unlikely), as you progress you will undoubtedly slip into bad habits unknowingly. You, as a learner won’t catch these things. This is not any slight against a student’s intelligence, diligence, desire or effort. This will just happen, and there are several different causes:
- The instruction tape, book, DVD, etc. has not addressed this specific problem yet so you don’t know to look for it.
- The problem was addressed, and you got it correct originally but have forgotten to keep checking on it.
- You THINK you got it correct the first time, but actually didn’t.
There are other possibilities as well, but I just listed the most common.
To give you an idea of how critical it is to have hands on help, especially as a beginner, I won’t even teach students via programs that allow you to teach a private lesson over the internet. I had an adult student ask this of me once because she was having difficulty fitting in her lesson time during the week due to travel. I explained that if she were farther along in her technique I would consider it, but that at the point where she was I really needed to be able to help shape and mold her hands physically to show her what to do. I could talk about how to do something for half an hour and a student still might not get it, but if I just go over and help them do it themselves, in 5 minutes the light bulb suddenly comes on and they “get” it because they can feel the difference. I really can’t stress enough the importance of having a physical teacher, one who you cannot only interact with, but one who is present in the room with you.
That said, I realize that as this gentleman found out, finding a teacher in your area is not always a possibility. There are several different ways to deal with this situation. The first question to ask yourself is; How far a radius am I willing to travel? I suggest students consider an hour radius from their location. I know an hour seems like quite a distance to travel just for a violin lesson, but you’re better off getting good instruction from the start with a little extra investment of time and resources than acquiring bad habits that could result in injury, disinterest in the instrument, or set-backs later on. Even if you just saw this teacher 2x a month instead of on a weekly basis the pay off for having a face to face lesson will be worth it. Keep in mind that you don’t just want ANY teacher, however. There are a lot of teachers out there that are a waste of your time and money and you don’t want to travel an hour for these! If there are teachers to consider within an hour from your location, educate yourself on what to look for (I have blog posts that can help you). If not, let me address what else you might consider.
If there is absolutely no chance of getting a teacher that you could at least see 2 times a month then I would consider the following options:
- Move. This is probably not a viable option for most prospective students and their families. I only mention it because it IS an option. Many serious parent have been known to move to another, town, state, or to even to another country to get the instruction they seek.
- Travel farther than 2 hours, at longer increments of time. (Say, see a teacher once every 1–3 months).
- Do option number 2 while using a DVD series (or other self teaching tool) to help you in between lessons that your teacher approves of and is monitoring.
- Do lessons via internet sessions. Although not ideal, this would be more effective than “going it alone.”
- Do option number 3, but instead of visiting a teacher, check in every so often via internet sessions or video recordings that you send to the teacher and receive feedback on.
- Go it alone and just learn by yourself from a DVD (not recommended).
I’m sure there may be some other combinations of options other than what I have suggested here, but you can use these as a starting point to help you decide what you think would be best. Sometimes it just takes a little knowledge, creativity and ingenuity to get the results you desire when circumstances aren’t ideal.
Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers