The Russian way of choosing a teacher

When I was a child in Los Angeles many years ago, I had a friend named Andrew who studied the violin and had gotten quite good for his young age. It became clear to his mother that he would need a new teacher, one who could take him further up the mountain.

Andrew's mother got the names and phone numbers of a few violin teachers in the area and called them to schedule appointments. She wanted to be sure that there would be a good fit between student and teacher. On a whim, she also called the concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic–God knows how she got his phone number in those pre-internet days. At the time the concertmaster was a Russian émigré named Alexander Traeger. To her surprise, Mr. Traeger agreed to meet Andrew and asked them to come to his home.

In an orchestra, the concertmaster is not only the "best" violinist, but also plays sergeant to the conductor's general. (When asked exactly how to follow the conductor's confusing baton waving at the beginning of a piece of music, one musician I know replied, "I don't know, but just don't play before the concertmaster.")

Andrew and his mother met with several promising teachers but hadn't made a decision. On the appointed day and time, they arrived at Mr. Traeger’s home. He invited them into the spacious living room and asked Andrew to take out his violin and play something. His palms suddenly sweaty, Andrew took the instrument and bow out of the case and played. Mr. Traeger listened without smiling. Andrew stopped playing and there was a long silence. Mr. Traeger turned to Andrew's mother and with a heavy Russian accent said, "Yes, I’ll take him.”

Andrew and his mother went to Mr. Traeger's home thinking that they would be choosing a violin teacher, according to their own preferences and taste, but it didn't take Andrew long to understand that it was Mr. Traeger who was doing the choosing. Mr. Traeger hadn't demonstrated to Andrew and his mother that he was a suitable teacher. Rather, Andrew had demonstrated that he was worth teaching.

The Russian way. If you learn to play a musical instrument here in the U.S., the prevailing notion is that everyone is encouraged to keep at it, regardless of talent or work ethic. The Russians, who are known for producing musicians of the highest caliber, believe something different. If you learn a musical instrument in Russia and don’t show talent and a willingness to work at it, you are encouraged to stop. In essence, the Russian teacher's credo is "Don't waste my time."

I don't go as far as the Russians. Of course talent is important, but I believe that everyone can benefit from a musical education if they are wiling to work at it. I've seen it happen so many times that I'd be a fool not to believe it: a young person who appears to have very little talent for music upon first taking up the instrument, but who sticks with it, works patiently and diligently and becomes a fine young musician. It takes years for that to occur, and the key words are "works patiently and diligently." Regrettably, in our culture of distraction and immediate gratification, not every young person can muster that type of patience and diligence. Still, it's important to know that it does happen.

Coda. Fast forward to 2018. Andrew, now a successful violist in Los Angeles and Mr. Traeger are colleagues, both teaching in the Music Department at Pepperdine University. "Do you still call him Mr. Traeger," I asked Andrew recently. "No, now it's Alex. Unless the students are around."