I’m realistic enough to know that I can’t be everyone’s teacher and, even if I could, that no teacher is perfect. So in this blog I’m going to see if I can give some pointers on what you should be looking for in a music teacher. And I think in the process I may just pull my own socks up a bit and realise where I need to sharpen up to be the best I can be for my current pupils too. Here then are seven things that a good piano teacher should be:
I cringe when I hear some stories of piano teachers in the past. I remember my mother telling me how she had a teacher who hovered over her ready to whack her hands when she made a mistake. “How was anyone supposed to learn under such circumstances!” she said to me. There was no way she was ever going to do that to any of her pupils! I think a piano teacher should first of all be approachable. His or her role is a very special one. You have a regular session with a child each week and that time should be one of encouraging, inspiring, challenging, laughing together – being somewhere between a professional tutor and a friend. It’s a delicate balance because sometimes you have to be a little firm. I’ve seen little 6 year olds who called me Mrs McKenzie growing up to tell me what’s happening in high school and transition through various stages until we are on first name terms, and by then I’m the short one.
2. Willing to be mentored/accountable to others
Music teachers often work on their own and don’t have a lot to do with others. I felt vulnerable and a little daunted in being observed by another teacher when I became a NZ registered music teacher. There were some things I was encouraged by but also she pointed out some things I needed to be aware of, things I could grow into to improve my teaching. A teacher who is ever learning and playing their instrument with others in some capacity will not becoming stagnant in their own experience of performance. They can appreciate your child’s learning struggles too as their own learning is fresh in mind.
There are all sorts of qualifications, but just because someone passes an exam doesn’t mean they can teach. There needs to be a balance between qualification and experience. A qualification says you have reached a particular level of skill, but says little about knowing how to guide others. Experience will fill many gaps in areas not covered by the examination process. Growing up with music teachers as parents gave me more of an advantage than I realised. When my first opportunity came to teach I was only 15, but fortunately had the experts right on hand to guide me through what to do. So experience came first for me (I was not many grade levels ahead of the pupil at that time) and the qualifications that enabled me to register as a teacher came later.
4. Flexible in meeting pupils’/parents’ goals
Some parents want a definite path to success with exam work. Some want a very laid back approach. Most want something in between. But a teacher should be able to guide a pupil through exams if needed down the track. A teacher who is willing to guide your child through the process will be having their own test as your child goes for an exam. It is a chance for both of you to know from someone outside that they are covering what needs to be covered. I take it personally when there is an area my pupils don’t do well in. I assess whether there was anything better I could have done for my part in the result.
5. Able to teach a range of styles
We go through seasons of the things we like to learn. A solid reading approach is a good start but later you may also want to build on those skills and experiment a bit more. Would your teacher be able to help you there, or would you have to go to someone else when you want to play with more improvisation, for example?
6. Not focused on their own ability
You may have heard the expression: ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ (And I once heard from an examiner who wanted to applaud the work of the teachers he was talking to: ‘Those who can’t teach, examine!’) In other words, if you can’t perform you become a teacher. But if your teacher loves performing so much that they keep wanting to show you what to do, without giving ample time to try it yourself, that can be a bit of a road block to your learning. By all means go to their concerts and be inspired, but in your limited lesson time it is important that you get a good chance to show what you have practiced. When they do play during your lesson it should have a direct application to what you are learning at the time.
7. Not always talking
This is a big one for me because I’m a bit of a talker. However, I know that if I don’t make some sort of personal connection during the lesson, the pupil is not at ease enough for us to work together on what is needed. A good teacher will keep focused on the aims of the lesson and the pupil’s practical playing, all the while keeping aware of time restrictions. By doing so excessive talking is kept at bay.
With that I think I have talked enough on the subject. But if there is anything you want some advice on – or want to add to or challenge what I’ve said – do let me know in the comments section below. I’ll be glad for your input on my thoughts.