A rabid violin teacher left me with stage fright for life

A rabid violin teacher left me with stage fright for life


norman lebrecht

December 15, 2013

Lisa Riley Fogler, moderator of Facebook Violinists, cannot play solo. She’s happy to play within a group of any size, but she cannot let a living soul hear her playing the violin alone – thanks to a teacher who drummed into her all the fear in music and none of the joy.

After reading a psychotherapist’s essay about performance anxiety on Slipped Disc, Lisa decided to share her experiences, for the benefit of other players and the elimination of bad teaching. Here’s Lisa’s story.

lisa riley fogler

I’ve been playing the violin for forty-eight years. Wow, I must be good. I probably am. But, I don’t think I am good enough to play in front of you. Alone in my little music room, I was channeling Jascha Heifetz. I would hear myself and think, “Wow I’m good!” But I played with the windows closed and only if nobody was home to hear me. It was extreme, I know.

I know when this started. When I was young I was very dedicated to the violin. I wanted to play the violin very much. I had a great teacher and I took lessons from him and his wife. In Jr. High my teacher told me about an audition for a District Orchestra. I started practicing Dancla’s Air Varie No 5. I auditioned and made first violin, second stand. I wasn’t afraid during the audition, just a bit nervous. Then, my Dad convinced me that I needed more in depth lessons. He hired a well-known violist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to be my Professor. This is when the problem started.

This man destroyed my confidence. From the minute I arrived at his house until the minute I left, he told me how useless I was. He would yell at me. The more I shook, the more he rolled his eyes and insulted me. I cried for the entire hour, or shook like a twig. I didn’t learn anything from him, except that I wasn’t worth his time. I became convinced he was right. I stopped practicing entirely. I was afraid to hear my own mistakes.

I loved the violin and wanted to continue, but there was no point in making an effort because I was useless. Every tiny mistake I made was proof of my complete lack of talent. It didn’t matter that I was a first violinist. It didn’t matter that people were telling me how good I was. They were doing it because they loved me. They had to say that.

I acquired an aversion to playing when anyone who loved me was in the house. I would only play alone in a room where nobody could hear me, with the windows and door closed. The minute someone showed up I would instantly play badly and stop. I moved to France in my late thirties and married. I never played when my husband was home. If he did happen to come home I would get upset if he heard me.

Out of sheer boredom, I brought my violin to the rehearsal of a local amateur symphony orchestra, that was open to letting anyone sit in. To my great surprise, I could play. I joined another orchestra and today, twelve years later, I am a first violinist. I have no stage fright at all when playing in the orchestra. But I still don’t want to be seen. Violinists play with a stand partner. I cannot play on the right, you may see me. I can’t have that.

I’m better these days, thanks to playing in a symphony orchestra. When you know you are blending your voice with others and you can hear their foibles, it makes it easier. I play duets with other violinists. I play duets with a pianist. I play duets with a harpist. I can play with the windows open now. I can play if my husband walks in the room.

But I still won’t play alone in front of you.

My advice to parents and violin teachers? Don’t think you are doing children a favor when you are being brutally honest about their skills. You may be 100% correct and yet it can be so wrong for some children. Be aware of the child you have in front of you and listen to them.


  • Adrienne Sirken says:

    Thanks for this wisdom. The reaching you describe was the old wirld style of extreme criticism to show the teacher believes the student can improve. In that system insincere compliments meant the teacher didn’t even try to teach you how to get better because you were viewed as truly hopeless. So often it cuased great dammage. But, surprisingly, not always. Thankfully this style if teaching is a thing of the past.

  • cabbagejuice says:

    I can sympathize very much with the writer of the article since a major epiphany occurred for me when I played in a masterclass for Gyorgy Sandor in 1982. I’m sure I made a mess of the Fantasy in F Minor by Chopin since my last teacher was like the one described above. So with trepidation I put myself on the list and to my surprise was chosen to play. He was kind and patient with me and gave valuable insights into the work and playing in general. (He was also promoting his very valuable book “On Piano Playing”) However, the most important thing he said to me that literally was a bolt of energy to continue and even made me weep inwardly at the time (still does) was “the Piano is for YOU”.

    In other words, I am not there to serve it, or use it to please teachers and parents and anyone else. Music is to make ME happy first. Wow!

    All those years I was bending over backwards for approval and many times was at odds with what pleased others and myself. They didn’t like it and I did or vice versa. Now i can care less but oddly enough such an attitude works better all around.

    The worst part was being bent out of shape by the demands of examinations and the brunt of odious comparisons. When I finally settled that in my own approach to music, everything seemed brighter and infinitely more accessible. I really have to thank him for that.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that I am not a fan of drilling students or forcing them to perform or to compete. Applause or points in an examination can completely bypass the subjective element in music which should be paramount. When I see kids grinning from ear to ear after having done EXACTLY what their teachers want them to do in a competition or examination I feel sorry for them. They all missed the point.

    Some of the nervousness from bad training still haunts me in solo piano playing. It is notoriously difficult to get rid of bad habits. In chamber music or accompanying I lose myself in the music and don’t feel as self-conscious.

  • robcat2075 says:

    My favorite pedagogy aphorism is “Fine artists do not always make fine teachers.”

    It’s a rare artist who can truly teach the thing they do.

    I wonder how much of this hysterical teaching method is a cover for the teacher’s own inability to explain a fix for whatever problem they have detected. They have to say something so they blame the student for not trying hard enough or not being good enough.

    I think many fine artists really have no idea how they do what they do. They have either done it so long or it came so easily that they can not break it down into teachable pieces. They can’t explain it so they demand that the student intuitively discover it.

  • A. Penner says:

    This, of course, would be a great example of how the title “teacher” means very little and is rarely entitled to the praise and mental accolades that usually go with it. It’s just proof that the profession of teacher is an art in itself.

    That said, being brutally honest is quite different from being honest. But the act of being honest really has no place in teaching because it is guidance to the optimal results that one should be reaching for.

  • rokalily says:

    I agree, robcat2075. Harsh criticism is also used by teachers who are sometimes angry that they have to teach for a living when (they feel) they should be paid for only practicing/performing their art.

    • robcat2075 says:

      I think you’re on to something. He’s not really there to teach, he’s there to make sure someone understands he’s a Very Important Player with Very High Standards and Very High Discernment. His fellow BSO players probably wouldn’t put up with that rant for 5 seconds but the 12 year old can’t run away so that’s who he exercises his superior act on.

  • squirrel says:

    A penner I agree with what you and the others above say, but I’m not sure the role of the teacher should be one of merely guiding another toward a goal without involving them of the process… In there, there is a place for honesty – and you are spot on that honesty is not the same as brute honesty.

  • Michael Smith says:

    A moving piece. I just count myself lucky to have had wonderful, inspiring teachers over the years. A good teacher is a precious thing.

  • I had a music teacher who once told me I’d never be a decent pianist. It still haunts me today. Yet I’m not a bad pianist, and thanks to an excellent piano teacher I had as an undergraduate, I don’t shake when playing in front of people any more.

    I now have pleasure playing the piano, and the music is of a decent standard. I’ll never be a concert pianist, but then I’m a singer, and have become a reasonable accompanist for students and friends.

  • Alberto Martinez says:

    Music is important and a art and it´s allright that both teacher and students want improvement, that said humand kindness goes first. I´m sure that shouting and get mad it´s not the best pedagogy in any case and the duty of the teacher is to correct and motivate and not to destroy another person´s self steem

  • Cody Engdahl says:

    It’s not always somebody else’s fault. We’ve all had tough teachers. We can’t spending our lives blaming them for our disappointments. I think the key to playing solo is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Get that nasty teacher out of your head and approve of yourself and where you are in your journey. Plus, practice playing solo. I’ll play in front of my poor girlfriend a few times as I get ready for fiddle contests to work out some of the performance anxiety. The biggest thing is: as long as you’re practicing every day, your making progress, even if you don’t see it.