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Are “Methods” the best way to teach a Stringed Instrument?

posted Feb 17, 2012, 8:57 AM by PitPat   [ updated Feb 17, 2012, 12:42 PM by George Coulouris ]

What is a String Teacher’s aim?

My answer is simple: to give their pupils the skills (techniques) they need to play their instrument, and develop their Musicianship so that they can play musically and creatively.

What are Teaching “Methods”?

They are a systematic way of learning to play an instrument. Since the time of Vivaldi, if not before, there have been String Teaching Methods. During the 17th century and until the 20th century Methods were written for the cello by teachers such as Feuillard, Gruchmarcher and Popper, and by Sevcek and Flesch for the violin and viola. They concentrated only on questions of technique because it was thought that if these skills were secure, pupils would be able to play musically. There was also a belief that being musical was a gift, something you were born with, and therefore couldn’t be taught only show how. The teaching was through books of music rather than the written word. In the 20th century books started to appear which used the written word to describe how to teach, with examples from the previous Methods where only music was used,

In what way do the Methods of today vary?

Nowadays String Teaching Methods such as Suzuki, Colourstrings, Paul Rolland and Sheila Nelson, to name but a few, concentrate not only on the technical skills pupils need for learning an instrument and how to teach them but also on the development of musicianship which (we now believe) can be improved by training, since being musical is no longer seen as a god-given gift, but something that everyone has or can develop.

How do today’s teachers choose and present their material?

Teachers vary tremendously in the way they go about teaching. There are those who like a prescribed Method and keep very much to the structure of their chosen system. And there are those who prefer more personal input. Some like to follow a definite plan, others not.

Those who like a prescribed Method probably feel secure in the knowledge that what they teach has been tried and tested. The process is logical, and they get results.

Teachers who develop their own method have the advantage of flexibility but perhaps run a risk that their teaching may be piecemeal, with some areas of technique and musical development getting left out. There is yet another group of teachers who like to draw on several Methods, taking something from each one and adding to it from their own experience, thus making it their own.

Should Methods be looked at from the pupil’s viewpoint?

Whatever teaching approach a teacher uses must be consistent, to some extent at least, with the sort of teaching/learning methods the pupil experiences in other fields of learning. These days, that means that effective methods in music teaching are going to have to start with the pupil and the recognition that every pupil is different physically, mentally and emotionally, so that each has different needs. Fortunately there are as many different ways of presenting any aspect of playing to a pupil as there are pupils to teach it to, and good teaching is about discovering them.

For example, a child wants to learn the violin. For the teacher, the starting point is ‘What is going to be the best way to give this particular pupil the skills needed to be able to play, and how best can I develop the pupil’s potential to become a creative and happy musician?

Why is the teacher’s experience so important?

How a pupil is going to be taught will depend on the past experience of their teacher: how the teacher was taught at school age, then at Music College or University, and how much teacher-training and child development experience the teacher had had before and after qualifying. Their choice of training, and their understanding of how pupils and teachers interact, will be vital to the quality of their teaching.

What do Methods have in common?

Those who have created and written down their different Methods are very good players and teachers; they are often charismatic and they have inspired, with their energy and enthusiasm, many instrumentalists to become teachers in using their particular Method. Most of their teaching life will be devoted to changing and improving the way their Method works. It will be constantly reviewed till ultimately it is written down and becomes the prescribed way.

Teachers who follow Methods, who are as it were its disciples, will probably follow it to the letter, and indeed some of those who have created the Method may want it to be that way.

It is this aspect of Methods that worries me

Methods are fine and they ensure that teaching will be constructive and logical, but there are drawbacks. They can limit the creative process and they may turn out not to fulfil the needs of a particular pupil because they are not flexible enough. To limit one’s approach to only one way could hinder some pupils from fulfilling their potential. We teachers have a duty to our pupils to be flexible and creative, and to pass this on to them. Use Methods by all means, but incorporate them into one’s own way of teaching.

Why do some teachers follow a Method rather than incorporate it into their own way of teaching?

Why do some teachers feel unequal to being creative in this way? Following a Method to the letter can often be the result of a lack of self-confidence in the one’s ability to teach well. In music-teaching, as in other subjects, teachers are constantly assessing and reassessing their pupils. For example, can they do spiccato bowing? Have they learnt the skill to do it? Do they understand how to do it? And so on. Having an appreciation of one or more different Methods helps the teacher to have an open and flexible mind, so that they can make choices. They have a broader field on which to base the assessing process. Going on courses that are about different ways of teaching (including specific Methods) helps teachers to make better choices.

Many String Teachers say they did not have the right kind of support when they themselves were being taught. Nearly all Music Colleges now have good Teacher Training Courses and ESTA also has excellent courses. But there are still teachers who do not feel confident enough to attend a course for fear of showing up their lack of teaching skills or perhaps more often for fear of showing up their diminished playing skills. (It is so easy, for financial reasons, to end up with so much teaching that there is little time for playing.)

It would be good if teachers could feel they could come on courses without being judged, but this is hard to achieve in our profession as nearly all our musical lives have been devoted to playing at our best – aiming always for better results rather then aiming to be musicians who have great pleasure playing our instruments and with each other.

In conclusion

Methods are certainly valuable, but they have their limits as they always come from someone else. Better to aim for a broader outlook and develop the skills necessary for assessing individual pupils’ needs. Be a more creative teacher. Because while it is true there are many teachers using Methods who are very good, but it is their creativity and teaching skills that make them good. They would be good no matter which Method they chose to use, though they would hotly deny this!

Pat Legg March 2005


Pat Legg was responsible for the setting up the Teaching and Communications Skills Courses at Trinity College of Music. These Courses were for all first year students, and they involved the professors as well as the students.

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