What makes a good music teacher?
I’m going to skip the discussion of whether or not your child should even take music lessons and assume that you’re already planning on it. Actually, wait, I’ll have a very short discussion - your child absolutely should take music lessons. The end.
Good music teachers come in many forms, but they have several key elements in common.
1. They are gracious. I know from personal experience that studying with an abrasive, patronizing, or autocratic teacher can sap the joy from learning quicker than you can spop a seed out of an orange slice. (SPOP!) I also know from personal experience that studying with a teacher who is kind, patient, thoughtful, and tuned in (bad pun!) to the student makes for an outstanding learning experience. It’s great to read a prospective teacher’s resume, but if possible try to talk to one of their students and see if the student recommends them enthusiastically. Simply having a credentialed teacher does not automatically guarantee a good learning experience for the student, especially when the student is a beginner and a child.
2. Good teachers are not slaves to method books or approaches. I can’t tell you how many times people have poured out frustrated stories about previous teachers who forbade them to learn pieces they were interested in, insisted they had to learn certain songs or play from certain books (even if the musical genre was one that offended the family’s standards), or even reprimanded the student for daring to learn a piece on their own. What a travesty! There are a thousand and one ways to teach music without letting a particular method become a dictator. While good teachers provide guidance and help to select books and songs that are appropriate for the student’s ability level, they are not dogmatic. If a song offends the student, they skip it. (They might even skip it if it bores the student.) If the student wants to learn a certain piece, they help them find an arrangement of it suitable to their ability level. If a student experiments on his own, the teacher applauds the effort. The good teacher serves the student, not the curriculum!
By the way, if your children are currently taking lessons from a teacher who is inflexibly tied to a curriculum and you think that you’re the one with the problem, let me clear that up for you - you aren’t. They are. Good teachers are always willing to customize for their students’ needs and interests.
3. Good teachers give focused attention to your child. Just because a teacher spends thirty minutes of one-on-one time with your child doesn’t necessarily mean the teacher is focusing. Good teachers make sure their students understand what’s being discussed. They don’t assume that because they explained a concept once that the student remembers it forevermore. They review. They reassess. They spot problems, even small problems. They try to stay aware of the student’s frustration level. They ask for feedback. They are alert with more advanced students, making sure that they’re not boring them by covering old ground or assigning busywork.
4. Good teachers respect your time. They start and end on time. They don’t take chatty phone calls or text during your lesson. They don’t eat into your lesson time with endless small talk or long drawn-out anecdotes. They notify you of schedule changes far enough in advance for you to adjust your plans.
5. Good teachers are encouraging. They realize that cultivating a love of music in their students is the overarching goal. They know that the person who loves to play music will continue to pursue it, so they fan this love into flame. They critique in a tactful and constructive manner. They praise progress, even if it’s small. They are patient and polite.
7. Good teachers do a good job of passing on technical knowledge. They teach good technique. They teach musicality - that is, how to play music like a musician, not a robot. They help their students learn to sight read well. They teach students the theory of what’s behind the written page so that one day the students can branch off the written page if they want. They teach an appreciation for a variety of genres. They familiarize their students with basic music history. Some of these things take time and won’t be covered in the first three weeks of lessons, but if you plan to stick with the teacher for a length of time, it’s worth asking if they cover all these topics. (Hint: If you ask a teacher if they teach music theory and they say, “Huh?” look for someone else.)
If your child is currently with a teacher who does not seem to fit these criteria, listen to your instincts and change teachers. Your primary goal should be to instill a life-long love of music in your child. A bad teacher can discourage or blunt your child’s love of music. A good teacher will fan it into flame.
Raquelle and her sister Heather have taught music lessons to hundreds of students over the past 19 years. They offer lessons in piano, violin, harp and music theory. If you're interested in discussing lessons with them, visit their website at www.upstatemusiclessons.com.