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Music For Kids By Kids
Chapter 1.6: Choosing a teacher

In addition to a professional level of musical achievement, a piano teacher needs to have a love of music, a love of teaching, and a love for the student. If any of these qualities is missing, the chances for a successful long-term student-teacher-parent partnership are slim. Ideally, whoever you choose is also, friendly, sensitive, experienced and good with kids. Great care taken at this stage is vital.

It seems that the best way to find a piano teacher is to get recommendations from parents of children who like their teachers, are enthusiastic about playing, and seem to be progressing. Schools and local music stores will often have lists of teachers. Personal referral, however, is usually the most efficient and reliable way to start.

Degrees in music and membership in teaching associations usually indicate a certain level of professionalism, though they are not always indicative of good teaching skills, and in some areas, for example, jazz, are not always relevant. Some level of professional activity is desirable and usually more significant than the number or kind of degrees - is the person an active musician (performer-composer-music director) in the community?

It is a good sign if the teacher is easy to talk to on the phone. If you are uncomfortable at this level, go on to the next name on the list. If a highly recommended teacher's schedule is full, ask if you can get put on a waiting list and call back every month or two to show that you are still interested.

Find out if the teacher encourages singing along with playing, as well as "playing by ear". This is unfortunately rather uncommon in non-Suzuki oriented teachers, but is an extremely necessary part of early musical training (see chapters 2.3 through 2.6). If the teacher works within the Suzuki method, find out if they typically supplement the method books with additional repertoire and how and when they introduce notational skills. (The standard Suzuki repertoire is limited and not exciting to every student).

Find out if the teacher works with a variety of repertoire (classical, pop, jazz, folk, etc.) or primarily uses "method" books. The method book approach is unfortunately extremely common, but I do not recommend working with a teacher who is "married" to a particular set of method books. Most of these methods (Alfred, Bastien, Fletcher, Thompson, Schaum, etc.), though making things easier in a way for the teacher, are based on wrong educational premises. They rarely contain any real music, just poorly written studies, so the child gets turned off early on. Primary use of these books also shows that the teacher is not taking the time to find well-written music for the beginner nor are they interested enough in the specific musical tastes and abilities of the child.

Remember that the teacher is also evaluating you on that first phone call. It is important to be respectful when asking questions about a teacher's approach, credentials, prices, etc. They may also want to know something about your child. If it looks like a fit, I recommend asking if you could schedule just one lesson for your child for now and mentioning that you would like to sit in on it. One lesson will usually tell you everything you need to know. (If there is any resistance to your being at the lesson, go on to the next name on the list.) I advise against scheduling a series of different lessons with different teachers in advance. ( This "auditioning" process can put teachers off and confuse the child.)

Ask if there is a student recital coming up in the near future that you and your child could attend. This is an excellent way to get a feel for the enthusiasm and musicianship of the students and a chance to talk to the other parents.

Another option is to schedule an in-person interview. I advise against including the child at such a meeting. It is not wise to place a child in a situation where s/he is asked to make a value judgement about a prospective teacher or where s/he is being judged. (Some teachers require that the students "audition' for them. I strongly advise against putting your child in this stressful and completely inappropriate situation.) Expect to pay the teacher's hourly rate for an interview/lesson. Most teacher's cannot afford to spend unpaid time with prospective students or their parents.

At the first lesson, notice:

o Is the child at ease?

o Is the child having a good time?

o Does the teacher seem to be having a good time?

o Does the teacher project enthusiasm for music?

o Is the teacher friendly and easy to interact with?

o Is the child learning something that seems to really interest him/her?

o Is the teacher directing the lesson in a relaxed but focused manner?

o Is the teacher demonstrating musical ideas by playing and singing?

o Is the child receiving a real musical experience, or a set of abstract ideas?

o Is the atmosphere fun or tedious?

o Is the teaching environment (if not in your own home) quiet, comfortable, relaxed and uninterrupted?

After the first lesson:

If things seem to have gone well -

o Ask your child if he/she had fun.

o Ask your child if he/she would like to keep taking lessons with this person.

That's all you need to know from the child. If they have more to say about the experience, fine, but don't burden the child with a lengthy decision making process. If you don't get an unreservedly enthusiastic response, wait a couple weeks until the child asks about having another piano lesson (with this person). If the child shows no interest in returning to that teacher, schedule a lesson with another teacher.

If you personally didn't think this was a good match but the child seemed to be fine -

Sometimes the child will tend to bond with the first piano teacher, good or bad. If so, this needs to be handled delicately. Ask the same questions as above. If the child answers positively, you may want to consider trying lessons for a few weeks and seeing how it goes. If the child seems undecided, or negative, I recommend letting the issue drop for a few weeks (so the negative charge dissipates) and then scheduling a lesson with a new teacher.

If everything seems to go well with a new teacher at the first lesson, jump in and go with it. I do not recommend the idea of formally setting up a "trial period". Both sides need to show good faith, trust and enthusiasm - this will translate to the child who needs to trust the teacher and who also needs to understand that s/he is not "on trial". No one is asking you to commit for more than a month of lessons anyway. If it does not work out, you are always free to change teachers or to wait awhile before trying it again.

To reiterate an important point: Do not burden young children by requiring them to make decisions they are not prepared to make. They can't possibly know how they are going to like something until they have actually been at it awhile, in spite of what they may say. Also, they don't really "know" their feelings in a conceptual, articulate way, as most adults do. A lot of parents, in their good intentions to involve their children in decisions, can get overly verbal and literal with them. They often overestimate their child's ability to make a value judgement or decision and take them at their word. So, when the child finally gets to try something s/he has been begging to do for months and finds out s/he doesn't like it (usually due to things outside of his/her control like poor teaching or lack of the proper support system), s/he gets blamed for making a bad decision, or is forced to continue the activity because s/he made a "commitment" to do it for a period of time. This is harmful and if done often, will create fear instead of enthusiasm for new things.

Obviously, parents cannot follow up on every whim of the child, and a child does need to understand that time is not infinite and that only so many activities can be pursued in a day. However, we should not project too high a level of self-knowledge onto children. The child should simply be focused on the positive - in this case the potential fun of making music. The parent is ultimately responsible for timing the introduction of a new pursuit, for avoiding over-scheduling the child (a common problem in these times), and for supporting the interest. The parent can judge whether or not a new activity is working by simple observation. If it is not working, something needs to change and the child should not be "blamed" for having no "discipline", or perseverance.

Caveat - a note on group lessons:

Groups are great if everyone is making music together - playing various instruments, singing, dancing, etc. - in a well-conceived and well-directed musical way. However, for keyboard study, groups are not conducive to serious study. The only advantage, for both student and teacher, is economic. What you normally see in a group class is a bunch of electronic keyboards in a room with everyone plugged into headphones. This is no way to teach or learn an appreciation for music-making for a number of reasons: lack of enough individual attention in the learning of a highly complex skill, no beautiful sounds coming from the instrument (see chapter 1.7 "An appropriate instrument" for a discussion of electronic keyboards), and insufficient positive feedback both musically and socially to reward and reinforce learning.

Guidebook for Parents and Teachers