What Makes up a Good Music Teacher?

Biographic Notes, Personal Experiences

2011-07-09 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-10-27 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2015-01-10 — Minor amendment
2016-06-19 — Brushed up for better readability
2023-04-03 — Added section about musicology lectures @ Zurich University
2023-06-29 — Minor amendment

Wilhelm Busch: Lehrer (Teacher) Lämpel
Wilhelm Busch: Lehrer Lämpel

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Value of a Good Teacher

So much depends on having a good music teacher! I’m not competent to argue whether all of us are born with the talent to become musicians, or at least to love music and to play an instrument well. I have no idea whether some or even most of it is a matter of one’s genes, or maybe the consequence of influences / experiences at a very early (maybe even pre-natal) stage. However, for sure, a bad teacher can ruin a lot in one’s musical life! A good teacher may not be able to create an artist out of every child, but at least should be able to evoke and develop a child’s musical interest and understanding.

Violin Lessons at Secondary School

My first violin teacher at secondary school, Emil Häusler (*1913), was a true all-round musician. He was “Musikdirektor”, general music teacher at the regional secondary school, conductor, chorus master, he could sing, play the piano, the flute and most string instruments. His wife played the piano and the cello as well, and his 3 children were very talented violin, flute and cello players — two of them later pursued musical careers. Many would now rate his methodological approach to teaching the violin outdated.

This was the old-fashioned type of lesson, where you would start off with volume 1 of a Violin School (Ferdinand Küchler in my case), the teacher marks 3 – 5 sections with a pencil and shows how this is played — that was the task for the next lesson. In subsequent sessions, when a section was performed satisfactorily, that pencil mark was crossed — “done”.

I don’t think my teacher did much preparation for these lessons. I’m not even sure he wrote down any remarks, notes. However, he was able to nourish my interest for music, he was excellent in accompanying me on the violin or at the piano. He was like a father for me. And even though I was extremely lazy at exercising, I profited enormously from these lessons. BTW: he joined that secondary school as a teacher back around 1940, when my mother was at that school. And he is still alive, now aged 97 (*). A couple of years ago he called me his favorite pupil (not his most talented one, certainly!) — but that may have been because I kept loose contact with him by sending Xmas cards for many years …

Violin Lessons at High School

At high school I was lucky again! That’s not because the music teacher there, Reinhard Morf (1931 – 2019) attempted turning me into an artist (that would have required several miracles), but again I had an excellent relationship with my teacher. My abilities were very modest, but I mostly was allowed to play the pieces I liked. That included some easy concertos by Vivaldi (up to op.3/12), simple violin sonatas by Händel, Telemann, Corelli, Schubert’s Sonatina in D major, op.137/1, and in the end the concerto in E major by Bach. The latter sounded terribly in my hands, for sure! The teaching methods were pretty much the same, still, though.

However, we had many fruitful discussions, the teacher was excellent at playing the continuo part. He also was fluent in playing figured bass notation, and for a year he even gave me harmony lessons. I learned realizing figured bass notation myself — on paper, not at the keyboard, of course (though at that time I did have a piano in my room at home, and I used it to check my notation — veeeery slowly!).

Attempts at Continued Violin Education

Then I was 20 — and hadn’t mastered playing with vibrato (I was way too stiff, not freely playing at all); I continued taking lessons with a teacher in Winterthur for about 1.5 years, during my studies in Chemistry. However, that teacher was not one of these “magic matches”. His attempt to have me start over again with new methods & approaches failed. And that was the end of it …

Also, it wasn’t very motivating for me (given my previous teachers) that this teacher did not play the piano at all, which took away a lot of the fun / attraction from these lessons.

Trying to Enhance my Knowledge in Music

Early in my years at the University of Zurich, while I was studying Chemistry, I pursued the idea of studying musicology (Musikwissenschaft) as minor subject. It was more of a trial / exploration than a serious approach, as the chemistry schedule was rather dense and not really compatible with that for musicology. I did, however, attend plenary lectures of the main faculty, Prof. Kurt von Fischer (1913 – 2003). The ones I attended covered topics such as the history of the passion oratorio (very informative and insightful, enriching, for sure), and lectures on piano music by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) and Lieder by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). The latter were very instructive, telling me about looking at the socio-cultural context.

Additional lectures in musicology covered a broad range of topics / composers, from music of the the 13th / 14th century, to Guillaume Dufay (1397 – 1474), Josquin des Prez (c.1450 – 1521), Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643), Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896), Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911), about form analysis, and the like.

In the end, however, I gave up the idea of pursuing musicology as minor subject, in favor of a topic (crystallography) that was related to my main topic, chemistry. Yet, these musicology lectures definitely deepened and broadened my knowledge and insights in music.

Voice Training / Singing Lessons

For a long time, singing was part of my life—be it in the family, in primary school (as part of the regular curriculum), then of course at secondary school, where my violin teacher was also doing general music education, and choir singing in class. At high school, choir singing was an option—from the second year on, I was singing in the school choir. Later, during my studies, I was singing in the Zurich Bach Choir (Zürcher Bach-Chor), and during that time, the choir started more serious voice training with an external consultant / trainer. Around 1980, I became member in smaller vocal ensembles, and in the first one of these, it was suggested to take “proper” singing lessons:

The teacher (Mikoto Usami) with whom I had singing lessons for about 3 years (around 1982 – 1985) had limited abilities at the piano — but I think I still profited from these hours. Unfortunately, he had too much workload as a school teacher and needed to give up private teaching. At the same time we then moved to Germany for a couple years. This would have ended these lessons anyway: too bad!

Our Offspring: Deborah …

More contacts with music teachers occurred though our kids. In Germany, at the age of 6 – 8, Deborah had an excellent (private) recorder teacher. She made tremendous progress both on soprano and alto recorders, and she enjoyed playing! Adrian (2.5 years her junior) did not have lessons — he simply learned by watching and listening to his sister’s playing. Even that was amazing: without a single lesson he was able to play alto recorder, read notation, even switch recorders, with the necessary key transposing etc. We later moved back to Switzerland, and Deborah went take lessons at the local music school. When my wife learned who her teacher would be, she immediately knew that this was the end of the recorder playing — as she knew that teacher from when she was her own pupil, years ago — too bad!

Deborah then went through several other instruments (guitar, piano, drums, she also took singing lessons, both Pop and classical). None of these turned out to be the “magic bullet”. Only a couple years ago she had the opportunity to take cello lessons: now she is sure that she has finally found the instrument which is the “best fit” for her. After only about 2 years she already played in small orchestras. But now she is in England, without an instrument (the cello had been a loaner instrument only anyway)! When she visits this summer, we’ll probably help her finding a silent/electronic cello that she can play for the time being. This should bridge the gap while (and wherever) she is staying in London.

… and Adrian

Adrian has had euphonium lessons for a number of years. He also played in the local youth brass band. His talents were all there: if only he had received or developed the necessary interest to escape the distractions that school kids face these days! For 1 – 2 years, Adrian also took saxophone lessons, but that’s history, by now! Some of his teachers used the same old methods as my first violin teacher. They were not able to “turn on the light”!

My Wife, the Music Teacher

Then, there’s my wife, Lea. It always amazes and devastates me (depending on the perspective) when I compare her teaching to the methods that my teachers once used. OK, she has new teaching methods that were not available when I went to school. Yet, none of my teachers (and many current teachers, still) invested a substantial amount of time in preparing lessons, keeping written records, etc. — Lea (as well as a couple of her colleagues) takes well over 50% of the teaching time to work up past lessons, keep records, prepare new lessons on a personalized basis. This means that every pupil receives “individualized treatment”. She does not work with ready-made piano or recorder schools / courses, unless a pupil explicitly wants that. What a contrast to the old “mark pieces in the violin school” method!

The downside is that up to 28 hours of active teaching per week leave very little time for private activities. What makes this worse is the fact that primary schools around here use block times: music lessons can typically only happen between noon and (close to) 8 p.m.; work-up and preparation more than fills the evenings: good music teachers have a tough life these days!

I should add, though, that we are happy and lucky to have a music school which honors and supports continued education for its teachers (those who are willing to take the opportunity, of course)!

(*) My former music teacher Emil Häusler died in November 2014, aged over 101 years.

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