- To paraphrase the familiar Duke Ellington quote, if you learn from them, they're good teachers for you; if you don't, they're the other kind. No, a sample size of two isn't too big for it simply to be that they maybe don't communicate well, or are unable to adapt their teaching style to your needs. A good teacher, yes, does explain better than "wiggle and blow," or better yet uses nonverbal ways like modelling, gestures, metaphors, and motions, but also recognizes when their current approach isn't connecting with this student and tries something different. Keep looking! But,
- Yes, it's wise to ask yourself whether there's anything you can change as a student to maximize your benefit. Adult students can be some of the most challenging to teach. Without a video of a lesson, I can only read between the lines and generalize about adult students I've taught, so forgive and disregard anything that doesn't apply to you, but there are some tendencies that most adult students can benefit by consciously counteracting.
First (as long as we're making blanket generalizations): There are two types of students, and they could both stand to take a page out of the other type's book. The first—let's call him Billy—is energetically, sincerely, joyfully, blithely oblivious to his mistakes. He loves to play and hates to stop. He starts at the beginning of the piece and charges straight through to the end, and if he has any sneaking suspicion that the joyful noise he is creating is in any way divergent from the printed material, the still small voice of misgiving is steamrolled by the juggernaut of his zeal. As Billy's teacher, you remind him of the same things every week. You have to stop him constantly, and it's like stopping a train. Billy will gladly perform for strangers at the drop of a hat, has no concept of a piece being "ready," and is utterly unfazed by a disastrous performance. In short... Billy is always ready to leap before he looks.
The other type of student—let's call her Nelly—is determined to get it right. She doesn't leap without not only looking, but first commissioning a thorough structural analysis of the landing site and testing the wind speed and direction, and in fact she'd really prefer not to do any leaping at all thank you, why not just step carefully and deliberately. You start the first lesson with "Ok, you hold the instrument like this," and she puts it down to take notes. When preparing to play a piece, first she puts the violin on her shoulder, then adjusts her bow hold, then decides maybe she should move the violin slightly to the left, then turns her attention to the bow hold again and specifically the curvature of the thumb, then the pinky, then whoops the thumb had straightened again, then perhaps the violin should be a bit more to the right after all... And when she actually places the bow on the strings, she starts with a small, timid sound and is immediately appalled at the poor tone and stops, then adjusts everything again, takes a deep breath, and tries again. As Nelly's teacher you never have to stop her to point out a wrong note, but you do often have to ask "Wait, why did you stop?" Although this attention to detail doesn't always correlate to performance anxieties, it often does. Many iterations of Nelly must be coaxed into performance, and then only of a piece that she has absolutely mastered (though she despairs of that possibility). For Nelly, bad performances are traumatizing, and frankly so are good ones.
The thing is, I've never taught an adult student who was a Billy. (It's refreshing to imagine—maybe adults would have to be drunk or stoned to be so absolutely careless of outcome.) And every adult I've taught has had varying degrees of Nelly. Since two teachers now have suggested that you overthink or over-analyze (perhaps, over-prepare?), there is a chance that there's something to change here. With bowed strings as well as winds, simply making a palatable sound is half the battle (who am I kidding, it's 99% of the battle for at least the first year). It's important to give yourself room to make some truly horrible noises while learning how to make a good one. Sometimes, to teach most efficiently, you have to teach in "chunks." Even if it were possible to lecture at you for hours, with diagrams and charts, in such a way that you were fully prepared to play a perfect note on your first try, it's often easier to give you 50% of the picture and then build on that knowledge. If you find yourself erring on the side of "making sure you're right before going ahead," consider this: you can learn in preparation for an action, or you can learn in hindsight by assessing what you just did. Since the practice of music is not just a conceptual but a physical skill involving the nervous system and muscles, learning in hindsight is able to correlate the incoming concepts with recent physiological data ("I went like this, it sounded like this. To sound like that, I should go more like that.").
Another dynamic that can complicate adult learning is the balance of authority. Children are taught to carry out their teachers' orders instantly and unquestioningly, or else they're in trouble. For adults, when some twerp half your age tells you to try something, there's a strong instinct of "Oh yeah? Why should I?" Don't get me wrong; if you're not getting the notes out and their response is "I dunno, keep trying,” then you're not imagining things, that's bad pedagogy. But in general, unless they're asking you to do something physically damaging, try to err on the side of humoring their requests even if you don't see the point in it (wax on, wax off...). There's nothing wrong with knowing the "why" of what you're doing; that provides motivation. But a really good teacher will have planned the lesson and its timing, and it could be to your own detriment to get onto a tangent of explanations. Sometimes what is asked of you is impossible to comply with immediately ("Relax your embouchure; don't try so hard." "RELAX?! If I knew what to stop doing, I’d do it!”). But give yourself a certain grace period of failure before concluding that the approach isn’t working.
- "A good fit" is not just a euphemism. Keep looking for a teacher who you learn well from.
- Give their requests and lesson pacing the benefit of the doubt.
- You can learn not only by finding out how to do it and then doing it right, but also by doing it wrong and then finding out why.