Why Teachers Fail

Bad violin stock photo.jpg

“Those Who Can’t Do, Teach”

-George Bernard Shaw


            As someone who takes great pride in his own teaching and commitment to students, this pithy quote by George Bernard Shaw used to bother me a fair bit. I’m an accomplished violinist and an active performer. I’m dedicated to pedagogy because I suffered from bad teaching growing up and now want to help others. I spent years painstakingly dissecting every facet of violin playing in order to effectively teach it. It stung to hear teaching was the jurisdiction of the failed. Now, however, that phrase bothers me because it is 99% accurate. Your average local violin instructor entered teaching as it was the only way to sustain an income. They know most of the parents signing kids up for lessons have no metric of quality, and so don’t have to hold the students to the highest standard. Everything becomes passable, and after a some years you have the few dedicated students from that studio coming to me with more holes in their playing than Bonnie and Clyde.


            A recent addition to my studio illustrates this quite effectively*. She’s taken lessons at the Murphy Music Academy barely over a month. Her prior teacher is an excellent violinist. However, at this student’s first lesson she was inexcusably deficient in intonation, sound quality, and general expression, as well as many other smaller details. It wasn’t that her previous teacher didn’t see this. It was that she didn’t care to fix it. This is horrifically common. Why? Because true teaching takes intense mental effort. It’s easier, instead, to just say something true, but pointless, like “your intonation’s off” and not put in the work to find out what exactly is causing you to ignore your intonation in the first place. Truly understanding your students’ needs is not easy work. You must possess an understanding of psychology, anatomy and physiology, a general intuition about the emotional and physical state of each student, and THEN have enough of a detailed understanding of violin technique to apply it.


            This is why your average teacher goes the easy route. I’ve been tempted, myself. Say a student comes in and starts playing. Five problems jump out immediately. Some will be easier to fix, while others are more glaring. But, the less glaring issues will often cause more problems later if not properly addressed. You must take care of the future student as well as the student that stands presently before you. Figuring out how to do both in an hour or less is not easy. On top of this, you have to maintain a certain level of respect from the student and their parents as an expert in your field. You fear your long-term work might not show results for while or even work, causing them to doubt you. All of this takes a hefty mental toll, especially doing it several hours a day.



            The worst is if a teacher hears the student doesn’t sound quite right, but doesn’t know how to go about fixing it. By the way, if that ever happens to you, and your teacher isn’t actively engaged in figuring out your problem, then you should change teachers immediately. They have no right to you. However, the truth remains that most teachers hear what is wrong and know at least the general direction of the right answer. They choose not to put in the work because either they don’t understand how to organize what needs to be worked on in such a way to benefit the student in both the short term and the long term and therefore just work on cursory issues, or (and I think this is most often the case), they do know, and instead don’t care enough about you or teaching in general to put forth the necessary effort.


            This isn’t going to change. Money won’t affect this. I don’t charge exorbitant fees for my teaching, and you’ll get more dedication from me than almost anyone. People either want to teach or they don’t. If they don’t and then have to, well, you then have the current state of teaching in our country and communities. If people want to teach, by God they will find a way to make themselves the most capable and passionate teacher you could find. But, as most are ignorant of the qualities of a true teacher, those who shouldn’t be teaching can still make a living doing it. The more awareness is raised, the less people will put up with this nonsense.


*Edit 4/1/2019: this student has recently won the concertmaster position of her orchestra.




Tobiah Murphy1 Comment