By Ernie Mansfield

There is a story about Leopold Auer, who was a famous Russian violin teacher. Auer was the teacher of Jascha Heifetz, who later became one of the most famous violinists of our time. Heifetz was the first violinist to perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto up to speed. Up until Heifeitz, no one had performed this concerto up to tempo, including Auer. So, how was Auer able to teach Heifetz to do something that Auer himself was not able to do? Because Auer was not teaching Heifetz to play like Auer. Auer was teaching Heifetz how to teach himself. This, I think, is the key role of the teacher.

In my own life, I had many good teachers. Some of them were pretty well-known. But one of the first teachers who really changed my life was relatively unknown. His name was Dr. Doy Baker, and he taught music composition at Interlochen Arts Academy. Dr. Baker had a doctorate in music composition, but I don’t think I ever heard a piece of his performed, nor do I think I have ever heard anything about his compositions. But through his interest in me, I decided that I wanted to compose music.

What did Dr. Baker do that encouraged me? He listened; and he had a genuine desire to help young students. This quote from the Traverse City Record Eagle (2003) sums it up nicely: “Beloved for his gentle spirit and tireless dedication to the teaching and guidance of young musicians, Dr. Baker was valued as a quiet innovator by his students and colleagues. Of particular benefit to his students, was his commitment to bringing the most respected composers and performers of our day, to both the music department in Dubuque and to the theory department at Interlochen. His teaching innovations include an individualized approach to teaching music theory, and an integrated theory and music history text that was used not only by him but also in many schools across the nation.”

Later in life, I had a very flashy, impressive teacher. He was pretty well known as a composer, and in fact he looked kind of like Beethoven. He was sort of rock star in the contemporary classical world. I really enjoyed hanging out with him, and being part of his entourage. This professor was a composer first, who did not care that much about teaching. In looking back, I did not learn as much music from this professor, although I did learn something about being flashy and impressive! But the first professor, Dr. Baker, changed my life.

My point is this: if you are looking for a teacher, look for someone who listens to you and cares about you. A good teacher will know when to push you and when to just sit back and be supportive. Look for a teacher who is interested in your development. In my opinion, this is the best teacher.

If you want to have an impressive resume, then by all means study with famous teachers. Before you can study with a famous teacher, however, you need to be good enough to be accepted by one. So first, study with someone who cares about teaching, and cares about you. Someone who can take you to the next level.