© 2003, 2006 by Raphael Klayman

How to Find and Choose a Musical Instrument Teacher

Finding and choosing the right music teacher may seem like a hit-or-miss proposition. This guide has been written to take away some of the guessing, and help you make an informed choice. For convenience and focus, the following question and answer format has been adopted.

Where can I locate a teacher?

Some teachers may advertise in local papers, or on bulletin boards of libraries, 'Y's, or music stores. Some music stores may have lists of music teachers, and major music schools may have lists of graduates who teach. The musicians' union also should have lists of members who teach, and there are a number of teachers lists on the Internet. The source of a teacher's name does not necessarily reflect on their teaching qualifications one way or the other. Word of mouth can certainly be helpful. But even there, an enthusiastic friend may not be experienced enough to judge a teacher's qualifications, and it is strongly recommended that you apply the following criteria in that case as well.

What makes someone qualified to teach an instrument?

The single most important qualification is that a teacher should be highly accomplished in the practical skills he proposes to teach to others. Anyone, qualified or not, can print up an attractive business card that says, for example, "piano lessons". Membership in the musicians' union is open to anyone willing to pay the stipulated dues. Even a degree in Music Education has no necessary connection with the high level of expertise on an instrument that an individual in question may or may not have.

How, then, can I tell if a teacher is an accomplished instrumentalist?

If your own ear is tutored enough, the most direct way is to hear the person play, at a concert or on a recording. It is not proper to suggest auditioning the teacher. But the prospective teacher should be able to provide some reasonable documentation of professional performing activity and training. In the latter regard, a solid credential would be an instrument-based degree from a recognized conservatory or performing arts program of a college. But the resume or bio should also reflect continued professional growth and activity. It's not absolutely necessary that a teacher be currently in top performing shape, but at some point the teacher should have reached at least a minimum level of professional performing competence. Feel free to ask a teacher about such credentials. Beware of evasive or defensive responses.

Does all this matter so much if I am – or my child is – a beginner?

Imagine having a child in the first grade. Would it be OK if the teacher only had a sixth grade education? Of course not! You'd want the teacher to have at least a Bachelor's degree. Don't shortchange your or your child's musical education. In studying an instrument, the easiest things to acquire and the hardest things to get rid of are bad habits. Start right with a highly competent performer-teacher. A red flag in that regard is someone advertising as a teacher "for beginners only". Different teachers may have different specialties, but in most cases, such teachers are little more than beginners, themselves.

Is it better to take private, individual lessons, or study in a group?

It is incomparably better to study privately. Even with a qualified teacher and a relatively small group, it is obviously not possible to get the teacher's undivided attention that you need to make real progress unhindered by bad habits. Many private teachers have had students come to them after having studied for many years in school string programs. Such students usually have to start over from the very beginning to learn how to play properly.

How much should I expect to pay a qualified teacher?

There is no formal price fixing among teachers. But you'd do well to be more wary of a fee that seems rather low, than one seemingly high, as you'll often tend to get what you pay for. Early into the first decade of the 21st century, most experienced professionals that you're likely to come across tend to charge anywhere from $60-$100 for a lesson, depending on the teacher's age, experience, and location. Some teachers charge different fees for different lengths of time, while others charge one fee for the lesson as such, and give the students as much time as they need.

If the above seems like a lot, consider the fees and salaries of such occupations as plumbers, electricians, sanitation workers etc. – all respectable and necessary work, but not requiring anywhere near the years of training, experience, sacrifice and dedication that a qualified teacher brings to every lesson. Now consider such fields as psychotherapy, law, massage, interior decorating, and the fees of those professions. Is the musical artist really asking too much?

In light of the above, it's really not proper to try to bargain with the prospective teacher, nor to ask for a lower fee for a child. In fact, more effort and patience is required to teach a young beginner.

Is it better to take lessons through a school, or privately?

Each venue has its advantages. Most cities have major music schools with preparatory and extension divisions which may accept beginners and amateurs. You may also find smaller, community-oriented music schools in different areas. Most teachers at such schools should be well-qualified, but again, do not hesitate to ask teachers about their credentials and their approach to teaching. (See the final section regarding teaching methods.) In a music school, you may be able to sign up for a package that includes other music subjects, and may be able to interact with other students, play in an orchestra, etc. On the other hand the structure may be rigid. Most private teachers require 24 hours notice to cancel a lesson without it having to be paid for. Some may require a month's payment in advance, with some sort of lesson makeup policy. But there is usually a lot more flexibility in a private situation. At a school you may be required to pay for an entire semester in advance. Also, a teacher who might privately be more flexible in allotting more time at a lesson as per need, will most likely have to adhere to a strict time slot at a school. So if you value community and the opportunity for more comprehensiveness, a school might be the right choice for you. If privacy, flexibility, and an approach closely tailored to your needs are important to you, a private teacher might suit you better.

Should I ask a prospective teacher for references? What about asking to meet with the teacher in person, or even sitting in on another student's lesson?

These are all good ideas. However, while the teacher might be willing to try to provide you with references, and even allow you to observe another student's lesson, many students are shy, or particular about their privacy. There should be no problem about meeting with the teacher personally, and (if you already play) briefly playing for the teacher. If the lessons are to be at the teacher's home, you will want to see how long it takes you to get there, what kind of feeling you get about the teacher's neighborhood, studio, etc. Even if you are allowed to sit in on someone's lesson, and things seem pleasant, there are certain criteria that you should try to look for that indicate a good teacher. We'll consider some of these in our final section.

What are the signs of a good teacher?

Previously we stressed the vital importance of professional performing credentials, and skill. In order to teach effectively, a musician must be able to impart to others the means to acquire such skill. A good teacher should be able to set an example with an occasional demonstration, as well as to be able diagnose what a student is doing wrong, and articulately explain how to make it right. There are some fine players who are mainly instinctive, and cannot explain well to others. Also, a good teacher ought to balance being reasonably demanding, with encouragement and supportiveness.

Some teachers have a more organized method than others. There should be a significant degree of method, as well as some flexibility in applying the method to the individual. For solid and serious progress, it is important to train with technical material such as scales, exercises and etudes – even if you can hardly wait to get to those songs and other pieces! Serious teachers will also emphasize correct form and posture, intonation (–playing in tune–) etc.

Up till now we’ve focused on the qualifications of a good teacher. Before closing let us consider some qualifications of a good student. Keep in mind the old adage that ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink’. No teacher can perform miracles with a student whose talent, intelligence, attitude and industriousness leave something to be desired. A student is expected to practice sufficiently, and come to the lesson prepared. Just how much practice is ‘sufficient’ depends on a student’s goals, and level of advancement. For say, an intermediate student, anything less than at least an hour a day would be a waste of the student’s and the teacher’s time. A student should also have a respectful and enthusiastic attitude, and be open to constructive criticism. Punctuality for the lessons, and sufficient notice, should a cancellation be necessary, will also be appreciated by any teacher. With such basics in place, the long, challenging, and edifying process of learning to play an instrument can begin.

All of the above are important parts of a whole. That whole is an overall talent for teaching, bolstered in different individuals by varying degrees of instinct, research, and experience. As with any kind of relationship, there is also the unpredictable factor of chemistry between teacher and pupil. Like you, the teacher is a human being, and you may need a little time to get used to one another. If the criteria outlined above seem to be met, be patient, stick with it, and enjoy the deeply rewarding experience of studying music.

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Updated Feb 9, 2012 [email protected]