Nathan Cole, a violinist with the Chicago Symphony (which will always hold a special place in my heart as my favorite American symphony orchestra), has a fun website for violin-lovers. My favorite part is the page of stories from his violin lessons with Felix Galimir at the Curtis Institute of Music. If you've ever had a lesson with a teacher whose mere presence could make you feel like a nauseous bundle of nerves, Nate's stories will no doubt make you laugh and cringe at the same time!
I remember well the feeling of dread that would creep over me every morning of a lesson day with my college violin teacher. What a shocking transition it was for me, from an easy-going, un-demanding teacher who expected work on a given piece to take at least a semester to an intense, imposing teacher who rankled when subjected to the same piece two weeks in a row.
There were lessons where, after a week of four to five hours of practice daily, I played as well as I thought I could, only to be met with words like, "Sweetie, you sound like *&$%. You have approached this all wrong. You must start over, practicing like this... Now, put that away and play something else for me. Your playing was so unclean that I feel like I need a shower!" Other lessons I felt poorly prepared and thought I played badly, only to be greeted with an inexplicably good mood from my teacher, a hug or handshake and a smile - signs I learned to recognize as tolerance, and perhaps sympathy for my failure to progress. On these occasions, he knew that I knew I had played badly, and rarely wasted much breath on my pathetic attemps.
"Good," he would sometimes say after I finished a phrase, or a movement, or a piece. "Now, again, but in tune this time." Other times he was less amiable, once bursting out, "Sweetie, do you need me to write you a textbook for you to figure out how to widen your vibrato?" Sometimes he would declare, "I don't care what you like! I don't care how you feel! When I ask you a question about a phrase, or a fingering, or a bowing, I want you to tell me facts, girl, FACTS! I'm not here to let you express your feelings!" Eventually he would sigh, "I can't teach students like you!" and I would pack up my violin hurriedly and rush out of the room holding back tears.
Other weeks my lessons made me laugh, like the time when he asked me for a pencil, and then handed back the mechanical pencil I gave him, saying, "Sweetie, I can't work these things - give me a regular pencil!" Or the time when, in a January snowstorm, he decided he wanted to open the studio window. He tried flipping the latches up, but the window wouldn't open. He flipped them back down and tried again - still it wouldn't budge. Next he tried them at the halfway point, and finally, one up, one down. At each step in his process I explained to him that the windows were probably frozen shut, but he would have none of it. Eventually he called the college campus safety department, and ordered them to send over the officer on duty to help him open the window. The bewildered officer arrived and broke the ice off the window from outside, so Mr. B. was at last able to open the window and let in the frigid evening air. Oddest of all was his reaction to the help he received from the school officer; he turned to me with a wide grin and said, "Sweetie, I'm just so encouraged about this school. Now, Bruch, first movement!"
Lessons were always an adventure with him. By my second year, I cried less often than I had during my first year, and by my third year, I felt he might have genuinely liked me - at least sometimes. No matter what happened, somehow I would muster the courage to return each week for another lesson, and at the end of three years, I was a better violinist.
I'm grateful for all of it, from the stinging truths that made me practice more to the wealth of information that helped me to practice more intelligently to the quirks that made me laugh. Ah, what would this world be without violin teachers?