Finding the Right Teacher
by Samantha Steitz
FINDING THE RIGHT TEACHER FOR YOUR FAMILY IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. HERE ARE SOME GENERAL GUIDELINES ABOUT WHAT TO LOOK FOR, WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK, AND WHAT TO EXPECT.
What to look for when you're shopping around for a teacher:
First and foremost, you will need to consider whether or not this person is qualified to teach. Far too often, those who are able to play an instrument decide to teach simply as a way to supplement their income. They might be the nicest person in the world, they might 'love kids', they might play their instrument very well. However, to be clear, being a performer and being a teacher are two vastly different professions. They are definitely not mutually exclusive as most great teachers often have a strong performance background, but a great player does not equal a great teacher. Often, quite the opposite. Very experienced teachers will often say that the greatest teachers perform advanced repertoire early in their careers, but decided to focus exclusively on teaching instead. This is called a vocation and its presence will be something you will instantly see in a teacher.
To find out if a prospective teacher is qualified to teach, you will want to search online for their professional credentials. You may also ask them directly:
1) Where did you receive you pedagogy training? (vs. performance degree)
2) What professional networks are you active in? (Answers will vary, but make sure that they are active in professional networks such as MTAC, Suzuki Association of the Americas, etc.)
If it seems that the prospective teacher is more of a performer than a teacher, or lacks any concrete pedagogy training, it's best to immediately move on with a clear and polite courtesy emailing to the teacher. This way, they will not follow-up with you and create an uncomfortable situation.
Secondly, you'll want to see the prospective teacher actually teach a lesson and/or hear their current students play. A teacher's success is entirely reflected in how their students play. If students are playing with beautiful tone, thoughtful technique, strong fingers, and correct posture, these are good signs. If not, you'll know that the teacher is most likely not teaching in a way that yields results.
Questions you may ask:
1) How many students do you currently have? (The number should be between 20-35 for full time teachers)
2) How often do you have studio recitals? (The answer will typically be 2 a year)
3) How long have you taught? (Don't necessarily write off very young teachers who may be very enthusiastic and a lot to give so early in their careers. If they have training and a solid background, they may be worth considering.)
4) What techniques do you focus on as a teacher? (A vague answer about tailoring lessons to students and using various method books depending on the child is a very bad answer to this question. Excellent teachers will have a strong set of techniques that they rely on.)
5) What method books do you use? (Again, an excellent teacher will never tell you that they form a completely customized approach for each student. Excellent teachers rely on the same set of materials for all students, and add supplemental materials depending on the student's preferences.)
If you like the prospective teacher as a person (chatted about gardening, loved their shoes), but did not find the teaching impressive, move on with a gracious thank you for your time acknowledgement email. If you aren't sure, schedule another consultation, sample lesson, or observation time.
If you like the person and their teaching, make sure to ask about:
1) Studio policy - All good teachers will have a studio policy that outlines expectations, tuition, recital and group work
2) Recital opportunities
3) Performance/assessment opportunities
4) Music theory and how they will learn it
How To Go About It:
1) Research online and find out all that you can about a prospective teacher
2) Schedule an observation time to watch a lesson
1) Teacher does not have any experience teaching ("I taught during college" does not count)
2) Teacher has not studied piano pedagogy
3) Teacher is not affiliated with any professional organizations
4) Teacher does "not allow observations" - very serious red flag
5) Students play with collapsing fingers and weak sound
6) Students play hunched over; this indicates a lack of body balance awareness and basic technique training
7) Students play with no footstool or adjustable bench
8) Teacher uses a vast array of approaches, methods and customizable approaches for every student depending on "intelligence level" (a belief in a black and white vision of intelligence is a red flag in and of itself)
9) Teacher's home or teaching space is cluttered, messy, dirty or unprofessional in any way (animals running around, etc.)
10) If teacher is in any way inappropriate or visibly "off" (even if this is a small, gut feeling, these are children who need to be protected. There are bad people everywhere.)
Certain Music Academies/Schools - Particularly in expensive cities like Los Angeles, very few schools are able to offer high-quality lessons due to the economics behind owning schools. To cover the overhead of insurance, space, facilities, instruments, etc., academies often must find teachers who will work for a very small hourly rate. The result is a revolving door of untrained teachers who have absolutely no personal stake in your child's music education. If the deal seems too good to be true, that's because it is. On the other hand, in most major cities there are phenomenal prep programs typically associated with university programs. In New York City, examples are Mannes Prep, Julliard Prep, Manhattan School of Music Prep. In Los Angeles, the example would be Colburn Prep. Make sure to distinguish between highly-accredited programs such as these and for-profit academies/schools. If you’re not sure, make a point to see a student recital. How good the program is will be more-or-less clear based on how the students play.
1) Students play beautifully, even at earlier stages
2) Students use adjustable stools and benches
3) Teacher has ample experience working with young children and has achieved tangible results
4) Teacher has a solid resume that includes pedagogy training
5) Teacher is a nice person who will be a good role model for your child
I hope these suggestions help any parent in their search for a prospective teacher. I believe it is a huge honor and privilege to work with students and regard the job very seriously. It is my hope that you all will find this in any teaching professional who you entrust with your child.