Finding an Amazing Private Music Teacher
Saturday, August 1, 2020 by Marcie Monaco | Uncategorized
Transcript (more or less):
I’m the mother of 8 children who all take music lessons, except for my 4-year-old who probably will start next summer, and one child with special needs who will start with the band program at school, so I want to share with you a little bit about my process for selecting a music teacher for my children.
Often, if parents find a private music teacher for their child who is a nice person and knows vaguely more about music than they do, they’ll be thrilled with the arrangement. “I just want my child to love music,” is the excuse that I hear, and that’s great! That’s what we all want. But, making music is more than just reading the notes on the page. It’s important to have a fabulous set of eyes and ears on your child to make sure he isn’t developing bad habits (which we all do!), like throat tension or misplacing his tongue in his mouth, or squeezing his embouchure too tight, or poor breath support, or posture issues. Eventually, students will get discouraged because their own body mechanics will prevent them from playing difficult technical passages, and they’ll get stuck. This is when students start dropping out of music. It gets “hard” or “boring.” In reality, students are frustrated because they haven’t been properly nurtured in their musical journey. Playing with correct habits from the beginning means progressing at the fastest possible rate because no physical impediments will be blocking the momentum, which also means developing musically with joy and enthusiasm.
We’ve moved a few times over the years, some of my children have changed instruments, and a few of them play more than one instrument, so I’ve had the opportunity to observe literally dozens of instructors with my children. I feel like it’s safe to say at this point in my life that I have the process of selecting a music teacher down to a science.
There’s a Trifecta of qualifications I look for. The first is that the instructor needs to be a wonderful musician. The second is that the instructor needs to be a wonderful person. The third is that the instructor needs to be a wonderful teacher. Sometimes people conflate the ideas of being a good teacher and a good person, but in reality a good teacher will be able to explain ideas to your child in a way that makes them successful, which a nice person can’t necessarily do. Here are my hints for finding a great one:
1. Are they nice? Of course, you want your child to be in the hands of someone who truly cares about them. Private lessons mean spending a lot of 1:1 time, so you really need to think of this person as a potential long-term mentor for your child, beyond teaching musical fundamentals. I always think to myself, “would I be thrilled if my child started picking up their instructor’s habits or attitude?” The answer should be an enthusiastic “Yes!” but the only way to find out is to meet the teacher in person. If the instructor you’re considering doesn’t offer the chance to come by for an “audition,” “interview,” or “trial lesson,” I would pass, because it’s THAT important.
2. Local recommendations-Don’t ask your friends for recommendation-they don’t know. They will just be thrilled to find a nice teacher who knows vaguely more about music than they do. Caveat: unless your friend happens to be formally trained as a musician. Music departments at local universities tend to have their pulse on the local music scene and are a good resource for finding teachers, so I wouldn’t hesitate to send an email. Most music professors are big believers in the arts and would love to advise you given the opportunity.
3. Chemistry- Each of my children does well with a different personality type. My middle daughter loves teachers who are affectionate and gush over her. My oldest son is quiet and thoughtful, and does beautifully with instructors who are the same. My youngest son in lessons right now is a little silly, but easy to reign in, so he enjoys silly teachers and will still work hard when the lessons get rowdy. My youngest daughter, though, once things start getting silly, she’ll totally lose focus and start rolling on the floor, so she needs someone who can really keep things moving and shift focus back to the work at hand.
Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of choosing from an assortment of instructors. If there’s only one bassoon teacher in town and you play the bassoon, then the decision is out of your hands. But if you have the opportunity to talk to a few different teachers, it might help you to see if there’s one in particular who works especially well with your child.
4. Finances-Sometimes cheaper isn’t always better. Sometimes the most expensive isn’t always the best. Often, people charge a lot because they are amazing instructors and their skills absolutely merit that sort of fee. Sometimes people charge a lot just because they want to make a lot, but they really don’t deserve it, so it’s important to do your research.
5. Interview- I always ask questions of a potential music teacher if this information isn’t readily available on their website where I can access it easily. Use the questions below to find out about potential music teacher's background and philosophy:
A) What is your musical background?
I once asked a potential piano teacher this question, and her answer was, “Well, I’ve been teaching piano for 25 years.” But...were they 25 good years or 25 bad years? Teaching many years doesn’t necessarily make you a better teacher. It can, if the teacher is devoted to the art of pedagogy and is actively working to be a better musician and instructor. HOWEVER, the majority of private music teachers out there are just teaching lessons to make a few bucks and really aren’t spectacular.
What you are looking for here is someone who can play at a very advanced level, and who is an excellent instructor as well. Music degrees (especially advanced degrees) are great. Certifications from organizations such as Music Teachers National Association or Suzuki Association of the Americas show that this person is really dedicated to being a great teacher.
It goes without saying that your child will progress faster and be less frustrated with a more qualified teacher.
ALSO: I’m always a little leery of teachers who claim to be experts in more than one discipline. It’s one thing to be qualified to teach similar instruments like the clarinet and saxophone, but another when I see people advertising to teach piano, flute, and violin. Y’all, it takes years and years of dedicated time to master just a single performance area, much less two or three. Occasionally a very rare talented person can do it, but that is the exception.
B) Are you currently doing anything to improve your own musicianship or teaching skills?
Look for answers like:
Attending workshops with local music teachers associations
Attending pedagogy conferences
This is an important question to ask because often “music teachers” aren’t really committed pedagogues. You want to send your child to someone who sees music as a vocation. You want them to go to conferences that inspire them to be the best teacher they can and be actively honing their craft, because your child is the one who ultimately benefits.
I once took lessons from an instructor with a DMA in flute who talked about what she learned in her lesson with her teacher that week. It really made an impact on me at the time because I thought, “You have a doctoral degree in flute! What else is there to learn?!” It just goes to show you that there are always ways to improve and people should always seeking to be better.
C) Are there any particular books or workshops on pedagogy that have made an impact on you?
Ask this question to make sure they aren’t lying about the previous question. :) Then check the answer.
D) What are some of your own musical problems you had to struggle to overcome?
Everyone remembers taking PE in school. There was a subset of kids who were naturally athletic and competitive who loved sports and physical fitness. There was a subset of kids who felt awkward or clumsy and detested gym class for various personal reasons, and there was everyone else in between these two extremes. Of course, I don’t know the exact nationwide statistics of the kids who hate gym class vs. those who thrive on it. Now, out of these three populations, which subset did the gym teacher belong to when he was growing up?
It’s not surprising that students who are naturally gifted in one area often seek a career in that field. Children who are talented in science become scientists. Children who love to cook become chefs. There’s nothing wrong with that! Usually!
Does anyone see a problem with the fact the instructor who naturally relates to only one small group of students will be responsible for designing and instructing a curriculum for the entire student body? What happens to this group over here, then? The group that hates gym class? Each generation of jocks will produce new gym teachers and each new gym teacher will produce a subset of students who hate gym. Don’t you think schools would be more effective if teachers who really struggled with math (but overcame that struggle) taught math? Think of all the empathy and patience they would have!
My point is 1) Everyone has struggled at one point or another, though one person's struggle might be completely minor compared to another's, and that 2) teachers who have had to work hard to overcome difficulties often turn out to be fabulous trouble-shooters. Of course, there are always exceptions, but this is just something to keep in mind.
E) Have any of your students ever had a music problem you couldn’t solve, and what did you do about it?
Hopefully, the answer is YES, because if the answer is “no,” then I would wager the teacher is either very inexperienced or not knowledgeable enough to see a problem staring at them because every student encounters difficulties at some point, with technique, posture, or tone and teachers don’t always have all the answers to every single difficulty. Ideally, the answer would be that they experimented several weeks until the issue was resolved, or that they researched online and in textbooks, or they reached out to their colleagues for suggestions. You want to know that the teacher you find will really stick with your child and help her if your child suddenly develops an obscure complication.
F) Have any of your students ever outgrown you? How did you handle the situation?
This is an important question. There are some extremely qualified teachers (like university professors), who might teach a child for years and though the child’s music skills improve exponentially, they still won’t reach the level of the teacher, and that’s ok.
Sometimes after several years, a very dedicated student might advance tremendously, and a teacher with less formal musical training needs to refer the student to a more accomplished teacher. Remember what I said before, about some teachers just teaching lessons to earn a few extra dollars? Teachers should be committed enough to their students that they absolutely 100% want what’s best for them. Similarly, if an instructor’s teaching philosophy is different than a student’s expectations, the student might do better in the studio of another instructor. If a student is not a good fit for an instructor’s studio,for whatever reason, the teacher is doing a disservice to the student by not referring her out.