9 Tips for Finding a Great Music Teacher
Updated: Aug 17, 2019
Put yourself back in the classroom. When you had an engaged teacher with a similar personality type, you liked the subject, even if you weren't that interested before. What happened when you got a teacher who you didn't understand, even in a subject you were excited about? Did you still love that subject by the end of the semester?
To love learning a musical instrument, the teacher must be a good match for your personality type and learning style. They need to understand how the human brain learns best at your age. They should love teaching people just like you. They should love playing the music you want to learn. Listen to them play what you want to play someday. Make sure they do it well. Make sure they are excited to work with you!
With a teacher who has the same tendencies as you, you will have an advocate who better understands your frustrating moments. This is because they have experienced similar challenges. The explanations from a matched musical mentor are easier to understand because they have already solved the problems you will encounter in their own study.
If you are interested in a teacher for your child, you must first find out more about both. When you understand your child's personality type and learning style, and what kind of music they love, you can place them with a teacher who has a complementary type. You can also find an instrument that really works for them. (More about which instrument is best for your child to learn in a coming blog.)
Here are 9 qualities of a great music teacher:
1) They know their personality type, and who they relate to best (you should come in knowing your personality type, too)
2) They know who they teach best: age range, musical style, instruments
3) They continue to grow & learn musically, and play for you often
4) They respect your wishes on performing, while encouraging you to rise to your best
5) They belong to a teaching organization that offers opportunities for students
6) They are in a stable environment and will be there for you long term
8) They teach in a high quality school that keeps students and teachers safe
9) They are humble enough to let you know when they are not the best option for your child going forward
1) An experienced teacher understands psychology and learning. They know what their personality type is, and what type of information they teach best. Ask them if they are more detail oriented and organized, or big picture and creative in their teaching styles. If you want to move slowly and methodically, study theory, sight reading, play in an orchestra, or study classical music, go for the detail-oriented teacher. If you want to learn fast, play by ear, write music, sing, learn to improvise, or play in a band, go for the creative. If you want it all go to a conservatory or school that has both types of teachers, and take 2 lessons per week. We music teachers all love to say we can do everything, but we still have preferences about what we teach that align with our personality type. To find out more about your personality type go to www.humanmetrics.com. For comprehensive children's personality & learning style testing go to www.kidzmet.com and bring the results with you to the school's placement specialist. Children are particularly sensitive to student/teacher personality type mismatches, so knowing exactly who they are is key. Choose the teacher based on which personality type & learning style that most closely matches the student.
2) A great teacher knows which ages they prefer to teach and will tell you which they like best. Preschoolers, Elementary Ages, Teens, Adults, Seniors, and Special Needs students all need different approaches for optimum growth. Ask for referrals of current students who are similar to you. Call them and see what they say. You deserve to have a teacher who looks forward to your lesson as much as you do. If you have children in multiple age groups, or who want to study different areas of music, the best option is a conservatory or school where there are trained teachers for every age and area of study. You may even get all of the lessons to happen on the same day each week, making it a one stop shop for maximum value and convenience. NOTE: Make sure the school hires and trains teachers for this. Just because they have lots of teachers doesn't mean they train teachers for a particular age group or type of knowledge. A good conservatory or school knows who their best teachers are for each age range. Always opt for the most closely matched, highly trained, and passionate teacher.
3) Great teachers value their own education and continue taking lessons themselves. The best teachers are the ones who are always learning something new, and who play for you often. My favorite part of every lesson is when my own teachers play for me. I learn more from hearing and watching them play than they could ever tell me from sitting beside the piano. Music is the study of sound and motion, and one could learn something new every day for the rest of their life and never get it all. If your teacher is always learning something new, they will understand what it is like for you when you can't tell your fingers apart on a new piece. Too many teachers at the higher levels of study in music have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner on a piece. This can make them harsh and judgmental. (This can go for parents who coach from the sidelines too. There will be more on this later in a future post.)
4) Great teachers treat you with respect in every interaction. Do not ever put up with a teacher who belittles you, talks negatively about your child in front of them, or makes you feel unworthy. It's all about enthusiasm and attitude. The most amazing teachers are enthusiastic, inspiring, humble, gentle, and encouraging. You are learning something beautiful, and you should feel like you are bathing in sunlight every time you walk into their space. Make sure the teacher you trust for advice values you as a human being and has a good sense of humor about their own fallibilities.
5) A great teacher respects your wishes on performing, while gently encouraging you to do it. Learning music is a two-phased process. The first part is about learning the piece, and everything that goes into playing it well. The second part is about playing by memory, integrating the music into a performance that communicates a message. You must learn both parts of this process to play or sing well. Part one uses the left brain, or sequential processor (adults are generally most comfy here), while part two requires transfer of the knowledge to the right brain, or associative processor (children are generally most comfy here). The memorized performance happens there. There are ways to complete the second part of this process without requiring that a student play for an audience. (More tips for teachers and running a positive successful concert in a future post.) Whether a student performs in a teacher's concert (or for the family's friends) should be up to the student. No student should feel pressured to play just so that the teacher (or parents) can show off their product. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a student performance as long as the teacher is clear that the students have a choice about it, and they set it up in such a way it embarrasses none of the students. (One way to do that is to have the beginners go first, and the more advanced students follow. That way a beginner doesn't get intimidated by someone who has had more experience.) Open a dialog with the teacher about this ahead of time. They should push a little on this one, but not enough to cause stress. A good teacher should always be loving and sensitive to their student's comfort while helping them achieve their dream.
6) A great teacher is a member of an accrediting organization that sponsors ongoing teacher training and education. Teachers all present information from different points of view and no one teacher can think of everything. Getting another perspective on your piece(s) is helpful in taking playing to the next level, and should be positive and constructive. This also gives students opportunities to win awards, scholarships, and take part in adjudications at least once per year. It provides documentation of achievements for scholarships, competitions, and awards gives students access to funds and opportunities they would not otherwise have. Setting a goal to win an award like an ICME trophy or gold medal can be very motivating. Organizations like ICME, National Guild of Piano Teachers, Music Teachers National Association, Music Teachers Association of California, and other state organizations send out experts or organize conventions to celebrate student accomplishments. Conservatories or schools should be accredited by an organization like these so you know standards are being enforced. It bears stating that the same rules about an attitude of gentle love, uplifting feedback, and respect apply to any master teacher or adjudicator you interact with.
7) A great teacher seeks an environment that supports the student as they grow, and is willing to admit when they are not the best choice for the next stage of growth. They care about long-term stability for the student over their own ego or need to make money. To find great teachers matched to your needs, who will be there for the long haul, go to where they congregate: at a good conservatory or school. A good school has options available so that students can move up to the next level without feeling stressed out or shocked by a teacher change. The school should have summer camps, classes, and multiple ways for you/ your child to meet other teachers and expert musicians. Scheduling makeups with different teachers is also a great chance to get another perspective on music. In my experience of watching students succeed long-term, the students who absolutely do the best, by far, are the ones with multiple teachers throughout their lesson experience with us.
Music is such a huge subject, no one teacher can or should teach it all. We all come from various perspectives and learning environments. We love different genres, and study music differently. I find my own students become a little stagnant after about 2 years. They need at least a summer camp with new teachers, and a second lesson per week with someone else... that progresses into two or three per week, if funds allow. If funds are limited, ask for a free student tutor for a second exposure to music in a week.
8) A great teacher understands their limitations, and doesn’t allow ego to swell to a point where they think they are the best option for every situation... simply because they want to make money to pay their bills. It takes 10,000 hours to master a subject. The more musical exposure a student gets, from multiple teachers in a highly varied musical environment, the more musical options open up for them. I recommend a teacher addition or change every 6-24 months. The old adage “Familiarity breeds contempt” is true, but it isn’t just about friendships. The Teacher/Student relationship needs to be changed up once and a while, to give the student a fresh perspective on learning and on musical styles. Everyone teaches differently, and the worst thing for good musicianship is a stagnant lesson. I had a parent tell me that their 16 year old son was just coming to his lesson to talk to his teacher, but that they hadn’t worked on music in the lesson for over a year. Yikes!
First of all, your music teacher is not a trained psychologist, although teachers should have taken at least early childhood education and psychology courses in college. They are not qualified to give psychological advise, nor should that be the focus of a lesson. Once and a while, on a rough day, a student may share a problem with their music teacher. It is the teacher’s job to gently redirect the student’s attention to the music lesson.
Second, your teacher should tell you exactly what kind of music they preform most. If it is a genre you feel comfortable with your child getting excited about, you are with the right teacher. If your teacher is a serious heavy metal band rocker, and you see the best option for your child is studying classical piano, do not hire that teacher. No matter how much someone can say “I love classical piano music”, you will see the real excitement for music in the styles they play outside of teaching.
To really see the musical preferences you want your child exposed to, I would recommend you attend a concert or show where the teacher performs outside of work. If the music and environment you see isn’t something you want your child to be in someday, think hard about whether that teacher’s influence is something you really want for your child in their young and pre-teen/teen years. If your teacher is semi-homeless, goes out regularly to play angry metal music, and get stoned/drunk on the weekends, be careful. What kind of energy and example does that set as a music mentor? Would you want your child looking up to that person? Pay attention to the smells in the room. Does it smell “green” or like cigarettes? Is the general environment clean?
9) A responsible teacher guarantees student safety in the lesson. Does the teaching room have security cameras for you to observe without having to be present in the same room? Is there enough space for you to sit in, if there are no cameras?
Under no circumstances would I EVER leave a child in a teaching room with an adult, without a camera in it. Ever. Even the casual conversation is different when a parent is present. Be protective... you are the only one who can 100% make sure your child is safe. Don’t take anything for granted.
In every part of the interaction, from your first call or email to your first steps in the door, you should feel positive energy and joy. The excitement of many teachers teaching their passion in one space is contagious. Good schools give teachers access to high quality instruments, beautiful, uncluttered, and clean teaching rooms, and larger suites to perform and rehearse group ensembles in.
A single private teacher has to handle everything alone: rent, website, phones, emails, advertising, scheduling, tuition collection, bills, instrument maintenance, cleaning, taxes, concert halls, etc. All of these things make for a harried existence with little long-term stability. A good school makes their teachers are employees, their taxes are paid, and takes care of student payments and continuing education so the teacher can focus 100% on what they love to do... teach their students. In a conservatory or school, teachers are a part of a musical family where they can continue to learn music with other high caliber musicians and sharpen their skills. You will have access to group classes and camps taught by other teachers that highly enhance your learning experience. There may even be opportunities for free tutoring to supplement lessons. When you find a good conservatory or school, you will find amazing teachers.
You found the perfect teacher. What now?
Once you have found the best teacher and match for you, take care of the relationship. It is important to remember that teachers are human beings who have dedicated their lives to sharing the language of music. Some of the best are so engaged with their students that walking into their teaching environment is like walking into a time machine. All time seems to stop and the magic happens. They may forget to eat or drink because they are so engaged with teaching you. They also have families to juggle, mothers and fathers to care for, children to parent, and financial responsibilities just like yours. They are exposed to a lot of illnesses as families come in and out of their space. It is almost impossible to disinfect a musical instrument. Don't come in if you are sick. If that means you can't give 24 hours notice, it isn't their fault. Pay for the missed lesson.
An average music teacher at a conservatory or school has had more education than a medical doctor. The best started their own private music lessons in their childhood years, and have spent years mastering the parts of music they specialize in. Love them, care for them as you would members of your family. Bring them a piece of fruit or a snack, buy them at Christmas gift, even tip them once and a while. If money is tight, a card expressing how much joy and connection to music they have given you will warm their hearts. As much as we love all of our students, the ones that appreciate us make it that much more sweet for us to continue.