You have decided that you want to go ahead and finally learn that instrument you always wanted to play, or you have children excited about playing music. Now what? Videos and books are helpful, but the trap of self-teaching is well documented and will be a subject of another blog-post. A lesson teacher can provide individualized attention and a customized learning experience. If you search for lesson teachers in your area, you may find yourself overwhelmed with options. In my book “The Voice as an Instrument” I wrote the following about selecting a voice teacher, but of course these ideas apply to an instrumental teacher as well.
“Be very cautious when selecting a teacher. Licensing requirements vary from state to state. In some communities, anyone can call themselves a voice teacher simply because they have done some singing. Be aware that just because someone is a great singer does not always mean they have the gift of teaching. I have encountered situations where institutions hired prolific performers for their status value, but some of these people are not very good teachers. Make sure you are hiring someone who has studied the voice formally, has some credentials and is happy to provide references. Try to find someone who specializes in the genre you want to sing. If that is not possible, you can find value in a good voice teacher of any genre. Just be sure he or she respects and understands what your goals are. Expect that your teacher should focus on you and your progress every minute of the lesson. Talking about himself or herself (unless applicable as an example), or worse, taking a phone call during a lesson is not a good use of your time and money. A good teacher will allow you to record the lesson so you can go back and practice the exercises with the audio. If you do not feel right about your teacher, do not hesitate to respectfully move on.”
So choosing the nice lady that lives down the street who charges so little or that amazing club singer you saw last night may or may not be a good idea. What should you be looking for? The teacher’s credentials, references and recommendations from others, teaching environment, experience, and the specialty style are all important to know about before setting up that first lesson. Often these factors should be weighed out. Is the teacher highly credentialed and popular, but are they teaching in a noisy music store environment with no privacy between cubicles? Another teacher may not have a music degree, but this could be counter-balanced by having great references and years of teaching experience. In addition it is important to be realistic about other factors such as driving distance and cost. The perfect teacher might not be right for you if the drive is too long for you to be motivated to go every week or untenable in inclement weather. Finally, cost can be a factor as well. A teacher who charges too little may not be invested in their profession and may not give you the kind of attention you deserve. In contrast, some high-end music schools and conservatories will charge a lot per lesson because their overhead costs are high, but their teachers may not be the best in town. You want to pay for quality instruction, not beautiful chandeliers!
Once you have done a little research and have a candidate in mind, here are some ideas when moving forward.
A great teacher shows the student respect from the very first contact
When you make the initial contact does the teacher seem to enjoy talking with you about the prospect of your new venture? Certainly it is not fair to expect an hour phone conversation in which you highlight every experience you had with music since you were six, but you are entitled to ask some questions and chat for a bit before setting up a first meeting.
A great teacher sets a positive tone the first lesson
Never expect a teacher to give you a free “sample lesson.” Would you ask your dentist for a “sample teeth cleaning?” However, if you feel like you are being hurried through a first meeting this might be cause for concern. In my studio I try to budget a little extra time when starting a new student, and I let them know this so they can plan ahead. However, sometimes allowing for extra time isn’t possible if the lesson is back-to-back with another student. In this case, I offer to follow up with a phone call to review the plan for moving forward.
A great teacher is focused on you
Any teacher who does not focus on you completely during your lesson time is not being respectful of your time. Good teachers know to put time aside during the day to return phone calls and do other necessary business and should not be texting or answering the phone during your lesson. Certainly as time goes on you might enjoy brief conversations about the teacher’s children, concerts, vacation, etc., but this sharing should be student-directed. The lessons are for you and should be about you.
Students generally understand that it is fair that lessons begin and end on time and that general questions should be discussed during the lesson time. However, I am willing to discuss lesson progress from time to time over the phone, especially with parents who may not always want to interrupt a lesson to ask questions. Most teachers and students have a sense of what is balanced and fair in these outside discussions.
A great teacher loves the art of teaching as much as the art of music
A great teacher should be excited about music, but pay attention to whether or not the teacher is excited about sharing music with you! Great teachers enjoy the process of teaching as an art form in itself. She or he will be excited to find music for you that you like, will be happy to explain why you are being asked to do certain things, and will involve you in the process of learning so that it is a fun and positive experience for you.
Sadly, in the last few decades, job opportunities for performing musicians have dwindled as live music has waned in popularity. There are some great musicians who are teaching to make ends meet but aren’t invested in the craft of being a teacher. If your teacher seems to be going through the motions rather than being enthusiastic about your lesson time you may want to bring this up to him or her. Just like anyone else, the teacher may be going through a rough time, and the lack of luster may only be temporary. No one can be on all the time, even those of us who try to be. But, if a conversation doesn’t spark a better rapport with you and your teacher, it may be time to move on.
A great teacher wants you to succeed but does not berate you
Patience is a virtue, and it is absolutely required at all times in every lesson, no exceptions! There are endless ways to explain a concept, and a great teacher will try different approaches until that highly sought-after lightbulb appears above the student’s head! For me there is such joy in seeing another person “get it” for the first time. There is no need for a teacher to be verbally abusive to get a point across. A great teacher can correct you or your child without belittling. A great teacher can make suggestions without talking down to an adult like they are a child. A great teacher can speak firmly and directly with a child without sounding angry. A great teacher makes sure you know what you are doing right just as much as what you still need to work on. Here are some examples:
Yes: “I really like the way you worked on your phrasing this week, it’s so much better than last time! Now, let’s see if we can tackle that rhythm in measure 12.”
No: “I guess we’ll have to go over measure 12 again this week since you aren’t getting it.”
Yes: (to a child) “I’m really disappointed you didn’t practice this week, I was really looking forward to trying out that song you were asking about. It’s not going to be as much fun for us today since we have to go over the same stuff as last week.”
No: “You should have practiced this week instead of playing video games. You’re never going to get any better if you just slack off.”
In order for a student to progress a teacher must point out and correct techniques and mind-sets that aren't working. What is important is that the relationship should feel like a collaboration rather than a power struggle. You should feel good leaving your lessons, or at least walk away feeling inspired to do better the next time. If music lessons are making you or your child feel bummed out every week, you may need to look for a different teacher.
A great teacher customizes the lessons for each student
As part of the collaborative process, the teacher must understand the goals and needs of the student. Some students want to take their time and work at a leisurely pace, learning an instrument for the sheer pleasure of it as a hobby and not as a performer. Others may be taking lessons as a supplement to a school program or a performance obligation and are under pressure to get a lot done in a short time. These two circumstances and every situation in between must be handled differently. It is inappropriate for a teacher to have one regimented method that is foisted upon every student. That said, there are certain methods and approaches I know aren’t sound pedagogy, and I tell students who ask about them that I only use proven teaching methods in my work. For example, learning to play songs by rote and not by understanding how music works, in other words by mimicking, is not a sound approach, and if a student is looking for that, I am not the right teacher for them. In my entire career I never had a student leave because of a conflict like this. A great teacher will guide you to good habits and methods in a way that will inspire you to reach your goals.
Not every teacher is right for every student
I did have a student several years ago that did not click with me. She was in high school and had been taking piano lessons from her beloved choir teacher from church and had developed a bond with her. But that woman suddenly moved out of state, so she began lessons with me. I sensed right away she was wary, but I didn’t let that deter me from trying to ease her into working with me and my unfamiliar ways. Alas, she didn’t take suggestions or corrections well even after some time had passed and overall seemed quite unhappy in lessons despite my best efforts. I wasn’t surprised when she stopped the lessons. This was the only time in my career that I had trouble bonding with a lesson student, but for whatever reason, I seemed to annoy her. I knew not to blame either of us for that, sometimes people don’t click. I have learned to take it with a grain of salt when I hear someone criticize another teacher because I know that sometimes it isn’t anything lacking in the teacher or their methods, but just a personality or style clash. What is important is if you don’t feel the teacher is right for you or your child you should move on and find someone who is.
Some uncomfortable truths
Beyond just not clicking with a teacher, you should never feel personally uncomfortable with your teacher. I am going to get a little queasy with the next few sentences here, but these are things that need to be said. In my travels, I have run across a few unsavory characters as a student and as a teacher. I had a college piano professor, who is now passed away, who invited female students including me, to his “photography studio.” I declined his “offer” but continued the lessons because I felt I had to. I didn’t have to. Luckily my strong refusal of his overture was enough to get him to leave me alone, but I regret not reporting him because other female students were coerced. The cultural climate is different today. If you feel weirded out by someone, leave. You should never have to tolerate inappropriate behavior or language.
Another situation occurred when I was a music teacher at a public school. It was discovered that a classroom teacher was surreptitiously videotaping girls changing clothes. He had set up situations where he could be alone with the girls and his interest and investment in the children were excessive and suspicious. It is dicey to look for warning signs for this sort of thing because accusing an innocent person can also be awful, but there are a few guidelines to be aware of. A good lesson teacher will always set up her/his studio in a way that parents can see their child during the lesson even if the door is closed. My studio is set up so parents can sit in the room with the child during lessons, or sit in the waiting room with the door open to give their child more space. Do not drop off your child for lessons, at least at first. I discourage this practice until I get to know the family well, and mutual trust has been established. A good lesson teacher will refuse to teach behind a closed door in the student’s home, please respect this as a sign of proper etiquette. Teachers may sometimes have music camps or other field trips that involve over-nighters, but be suspicious if there is no other adult such as a parent supervising the event.
Over time, families and teachers can develop an appropriate bond, and trust will be apparent on all sides. Over the years, I have enjoyed many Christmas dinners and high school plays, and sometimes even listened to tearful teenage (and even adult) frustrations, forming lasting relationships with some of the families I have worked with that continue today, years after the student has moved on. Finding the right lesson teacher for yourself or your child will not only ensure you will get the results you are hoping for as a musician, but will ensure it is an enjoyable and inspiring process as well.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this blog article. If you live in the Milwaukee area you may call me to discuss my piano or voice lessons. I can also provide referrals for those seeking teachers of other instruments in the area. If you are outside the Milwaukee area I do provide Face Time or Skype lessons in voice for adults.