Choosing The Right Piano Teacher

I taught piano, voice, and guitar lessons for over 20 years. In that time, I learned a lot about what parents expect from a private music teacher, and about what teachers should expect from their students and parents. Now, parents will sometimes contact me just to find out whether someone is a “good” piano teacher or not.

I don’t recommend that as a way to go about finding out. However, it’s true that a good teacher can cause a student to blossom and become deeply enriched with a lifelong love of music, while a poor teacher can cause tension, anxiety, and a lack of interest in any sort of musical discipline. Although most parents should have their schedules sorted by the middle of September, it’s a good time to go over some of the things to look for when selecting a private music teacher (I’m referring to piano lessons, but the advice here can be applied to any instrument or voice study).

Credentials Matter

It’s true that a highly accomplished concert pianist is phenomenal at performance. It would seem like this is the first place to stop for a great teacher. But highly trained professional performers aren’t necessarily highly trained professional instructors. There is an art to teaching that is quite separate from performing.

By the same token, there are prestigious music schools everywhere (here in Ontario there are two such institutions). Some of these offer diploma courses in two streams: performance and pedagogy (teaching). Those with a teaching certification will have a better understanding of methods, physiology, and the psychology of learning.

Even so, experience counts. So if you know where the certificate holder got their training, you can ask the school or their teacher for their opinion. This is not a cheap undertaking, so you’ll want to know who you’re working with.

Age Matters

I was a teenage assistant teacher once upon a time. It used to be the case that teachers would start training up one or more of their own students to take over the teaching of absolute beginners. Some studios still do this.

However, if you’re shopping on price alone, and you find a teenage student (even with those credentials) striking out on their own, you might be better off avoiding that hassle altogether. It’s nice working with a younger teacher sometimes — especially when you have younger kids — but if they’re not under the watchful eye of a more experienced instructor, they may be winging it.

That includes how their business is run, how responsible they are, and the methods they teach with. Experience counts, and a private instructor who has very little experience should be working with a mentor. That’s just common sense. They’re not simply babysitting, after all.

Price Matters

As with almost every other profession, the more experience and qualification an individual has, the higher the price for their one-on-one customized service tends to be.

For example, as a highschool student and assistant to my teacher, my rates were fairly low. Teaching in her studio meant I actually didn’t get paid (that was standard), as the practice of teaching was part of my lesson plan — she was still very much responsible for the outcome. Once I got a job as a Choir Director and struck out on my own, my rates went up. When I graduated from university with a degree in piano, they went up again. Part of the reason for this is that my playing schedule increased dramatically, and my time became more of a commodity.

All of this goes to say that there is a general correlation between price and quality, or price and experience. You’ll usually find that the very lowest price points are held by inexperienced teachers looking for a foothold in the market. The very highest price points are likely going to be artists who are looking for elite students (pricing at this level is often meant to discourage beginners; they’re looking for new artists to train beyond the average home teacher).

There’s also the large music studio scenario, where a low price point could mean they’re underpaying their teachers. If the rates are the lowest in town, and most of the teaching staff is under the age of about 20, chances are they’re getting a very low rate per hour. This could reflect in a “factory” music school experience, where the goal is to meet numbers rather than encourage artistic growth. If you’re leaning this way, be sure to talk to other parents.

Reputation Matters

No good piano teacher should have any issue providing you with references from parents. It actually does matter that the teacher has a good reputation in the community and a good rapport with parents and students.

My teachers were never even remotely concerned with winning competitions — it’s just a great way to gain experience rehearsing under a deadline, performing for an audience, and getting outside expert assessments on performance. They were concerned primarily with musicianship and artistry. Competition wins shouldn’t be a scale for assessing the value of a teacher. Some, in fact, won’t even put students into competitions.

It’s how parents and students respond to the teacher that matters. Whether it’s through a studio system or an individual in their own home, it’s your job to find out everything you can about the teacher and their relationship with their students. And remember: people online tend to post reviews and comments about what they don’t like. Negative reviews online aren’t always your best clue.

Commitment Matters

Once you’ve settled on a teacher or studio, you have to have a commitment from them. This means you need to know that the lesson times will be stable and regular. Obviously there will be times when lessons need to be cancelled or rescheduled. This is an individual person with a real life. But if your schedule looks like a game of Chinese Checkers, you might be better off looking for someone who has a little more commitment to their profession.

Understand, this doesn’t mean they’re not great teachers. Usually it means they’re busy doing something else (like performing in a band, or working at another job). That’s fine, if that’s what they need to do. But it’s not your responsibility to work around their busy schedule. It’s your responsibility to pay on time and show up early, clean, and prepared for lessons. It’s their responsibility to establish and maintain a consistent schedule.

Your Commitment Also Matters

In the arts community, there are three types of parents: tire kickers, stage parents, and committed parents.

Stage parents are the ones who over program their kids’ lives, trying to make them stars and forcing them to train constantly. These kids sometimes develop into superstars, but nine times out of ten they get frustrated, burn out, and quit before they’re halfway through high school. They just want to be kids.

Tire kickers are parents who want to test things out to see if their kids will like them. These folks are frustrating for private teachers, because they’ll show up for a month or two and quit when the kid decides it’s not easy or fun enough (tip: piano takes practice, and practice is homework, and no kid wants more of that). Then they move on to the next thing. Then the next thing. Then the next thing. The kid learns two important lessons here: finding a thing you like doing doesn’t require any effort on your part, and you should be instantly good at something if you plan to continue it.

I’ll often say, you don’t take yoga because you’re already flexible. You have to work to get there. You also don’t get to stop taking math in school just because you’re “not good at it” right away. The same is true for piano lessons.

Committed parents are a nice balance. They understand that their kid will need to enjoy the experience if they’re going to progress, but they also understand that learning music is just learning a new language. It will take time to get the reading and comprehension down, and in half an hour a week of lesson time that’s not going to happen in the first couple of months. Committed parents will work with the teacher to find out what needs to be practiced, and to set up a lesson and practice schedule, with appropriate rewards, for at least the first year.

Trust me, on this list you’ll want to be a committed parent. Music lessons, regardless of the instrument, are an investment. They will bring years of joy and learning to your family and far into the future, but it’s not an instantly gratifying undertaking. It’s a physical thing, like playing a sport or learning to dance. As such it will take time to see real results, but those results will have a huge and lasting impact.

aDo you have plans to put your kids in music lessons? What instrument are they learning? Let us know in the comments below!

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