How to Find a Good Teacher

There three distinct steps in finding a teacher: telephone queries, calling references, and in-studio interviews.

Adult Students

The first step is to be clear on what your goals are in study. Do you want to play classical pieces? Jazz? Play for some practical use (church, school, children)? Some combination of goals?

How long do you allot yourself to reach these goals? The claim of "play the piano in 6 easy lessons" is fantasy. Remember that playing the piano is not like watching TV. YOU will be doing it, not sitting back and having it showered on you. Playing the piano involves reading the notation, listening/hearing, physical motor skills, and letting yourself go (interpretation). A multi-media event, if you will!

How long should it take? If you work hard (one hour a day or more), are an adult or mature teen, and have a good teacher, you can expect to be at late elementary/early intermediate level in one year. (This has been my experience, at any rate.) See elsewhere for a more detailed discussion of this in the first question of my Q&A file for students and parents.

Child and Teen Students

If you are looking for a teacher for your child, make sure you and your child talk about his own goals -and- your goals for him. They may not be the same. Also, make sure the child understands that playing a musical instrument will take effort on his part. He should agree to spend at least 30 min. a day on his music studies.

At the interview, I tell my prospective students that their schoolwork comes first every day, but after that, it's piano time. This is before talking on the phone, reading a book, watching TV, going out to play, etc. I also say that occasionally there will be days when a heavy schoolwork load or some other reason means that there will be time only for schoolwork and piano before it's bedtime; they must accept this possibility so they're not surprised when someday there's no playtime.

Where to Find a Good Teacher

The first place to look for a teacher is to ask friends/relatives who study. Ask what they like (and dislike) about that teacher.

Next, visit music stores and instrument dealers and ask for their list of teachers.

Your yellow pages can be another source. Besides teachers, look for the local music teachers' association and call the current president for a list of members. Most teachers' associations require a music degree for admission. (Some allow membership if the teacher presents "equivalent" preparation. Whether you feel comfortable with a teacher credentialed like this is a decision only you can make. Know, however, that improving skills and knowledge is a very good sign!)

Particularly if you are looking for lessons for a child, the school teacher, school music teacher, choir director (school and church), etc. can steer you in the right direction (toward teachers who are especially good with children).

Your piano technician is another good place to get teachers' names.

Call the local college or university's music department and ask for the chairperson of the piano faculty. Ask for recommendations of local teachers. Generally, a music department keeps a list of teachers for just this purpose. Note: These teachers may or may not have been screened in any way.

Also, look for a teacher in the classified ads of your local paper. If you have a local magazine ("Focus on the East Village"), check there for ads, too.

When you have all the names you can find (and after you have eliminated any who are obviously not a "fit"), see if any names appear more than once (for whatever reason). Call all these teachers first. If you do not find a teacher among these (see rest of procedure below), call the rest of them.

Interviewing the Teacher by Telephone

Your job here is to sift through the names you have and eliminate any that aren't a fit, for whatever reason (location, price, available lesson times, pedagogy/curriculum, training, experience, for example).

I encourage you to take your time as you search for a teacher. You are investing not only money but time (never recaptured!) and effort. Spend each of these currencies wisely!

Here are some general areas you should explore with the teachers as you do your research.

(1) What are the teacher's academic/preparatory credentials? How long has the teacher been teaching? Teaching in this particular geographic area? How much experience has the teacher had in teaching children like yours (age, sex, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, absolute beginner, etc.)?

(2) How much is tuition? Are there other non-tuition fees? If so, what, how much, how often, and are the activities these extra fees cover optional? Is there an early-pay discount? Second-student discount ("family plan" - - don't count on it!)?

(3) How are make-up lessons handled? What if your child comes home sick in the middle of the school day or wakes up sick? What if your family wants to take a vacation? Does the teacher allow you to cancel lessons (that is, not come -and- not pay)?

(4) Does the teacher use any specific methodology (such as Suzuki)? What are the primary elements of whatever method this may be, and why is this one preferable to another method or the "traditional approach"?

(5) Does the teacher use a "method series"? If so, which one and why? If not, what is used instead and why? A method series is a group of related books by the same author, divided into "levels." Usually there is a song book, technique book, theory book, and a book of supplemental songs ("recital" book or a smilar title). Some teachers use method series throughout a child's study. Others use only the first one or two (or three) levels and then move to other material. Some teachers - - I'm one - - do not use method series at all.

(6) What are the major parts of the curriculum? Generally, these would be literature (songs), technique, music theory, music history, and ear training. There might be composition, ensemble playing, or other specialized programs for students interested particuarly in them. Is pop music included? How much of the literature is pop and how much classical ("standard repertoire")?

(7) Are there any special programs in the studio, such as an electronic music lab, composition, or group sessions?

(8) How are materials obtained? Who pays for them? What other materials are needed for lessons? Metronome?

(9) How long does the teacher expect the child to practice daily? Does the teacher want the student to record pratice minutes? If not, how does the teacher structure home practice? Does the teacher expect you to assist with daily practice? If so, doing what?

(10) Are you welcome at the lesson? Although some teachers "discourage" it, they will "allow" it if pressed. Even if the teacher adopts the latter approach toward parental attendance, is this perhaps a red flag? It is my opinion that the teacher should want the parent there (especially for child under 13). This is so the parent will know what she will be hearing in the ensuing week, will know how to help at home during the week, and so on. I'd be suspicious if you are barred outright from attending the lesson.

(11) Are there recitals? How many, approximately, each year? Where are they held? (A transfer student would be interested in whether music may be used or whether memory playing is required.)

(12) Where is the teacher located? Does the teacher travel to students' homes? If so, is there an extra fee for this? More on a traveling teacher later.

(13) What are the available lesson times?

(14) Most teachers teach private lessons. Some offer group sessions for the child, in addition to a private lesson. I'd steer clear of a teacher who offered only group (or partner) lessons. You want teaching geared to your child, not others'!

(15) Ask for references. Particularly you want families that have children as closely-matched as possible to your child. If he's four, you'd like to talk to parents of other young boys. Parents of teen girls will be helpful, of course, but a "type match" will net you more information! Another interesting reference would be a child like yours who has been with this teacher for several years.

Note: Top-notch teachers will ask you for your goals and questions (see above) and then answer them with your goals and concerns in mind. This helps you understand how the teacher's program translates itself to your child. If the teacher doesn't seem to have paid attention/correctly interpreted your goals, is generally distracted (do you hear children or pets in the background?), or does not take charge of the conversation at this point in the telephone chat, this may be a bad sign.

Now that you've asked your questions, the teacher will ask his. He's trying to decide whether you might be a good fit with his program. Expect things like this:

(1) Does the child want to play or is it your idea? How does the child show interest? For how long has he indicated interest in learning to play the piano? If piano lessons are your idea (and this is perfectly fine!), is the child interested now that you mention it, not particularly enthusiastic but amenable, or says "no way!" ? If the child doesn't want to play the piano, it's going to be an uphill battle for everyone.

(2) Do you have a piano in the home? If not, how will you obtain one? When? (Go back to the consumer ed page and follow links there about pianos.)

(3) Are there siblings? How do they impact the availability of the parent to help the pianist if needed? (The teacher will ask you to make other arrangements for them during lesson times.)

(4) Does anyone else in the family play the piano? Another intrument? Sing?

(5) What other activities does the child have? This gives the teacher an idea of whether the child is over-scheduled and adding something more means the child will be stressed and/or will not have time or energy to devote to piano study.

(6) Who will be bringing the child to lessons? Do you have a back-up plan in case the driver is unable to get the child to the lesson?

(7) What sorts of music does the child enjoy? Any he does not? (Rap is usually the answer here!) What sorts of music does the family enjoy?

Note: Often, parents want the teacher to come to them. If this is the primary criterion for you, mention it right way. If the teacher doesn't travel, it's best that you end the conversation after a few closing pleasantries...unless you decide you want to hear what the teacher has to say and ask why coming to his studio is superior to having him come to you. More just below on the traveling teacher.

Checking References

I mentioned asking for references. The teacher gave them to you, so now check them! You want to get the very best teacher for your child. Honest feedback from other studio families will go a long ways in helping you make a decision. It's an effort to call references but one well worth doing!

What to ask the parents? Here are some suggestions:

(1) Does the student leave the lesson with a full understanding of what is expected by the next lesson? Does the teacher explain things clearly, looking for alternate explanations if the student doesn't understand? Does the teacher seem to be aware when the student doesn't understand (or is he oblivious to whether the student is catching on)? Playing piano at home won't be fruitful unless the student has understood what happened during the lesson and what he should be doing at home during the next week!

(2) Do the teacher's expectations seem reasonable? To you? To the child?

(3) Is the teacher patient? Receptive to questions? Kind? Organized? Prompt? Articulate?

(4) Is the teacher attentive and tuned in during the lesson? Or, does the teacher often seem distracted? Are there any other "demands" on the teacher's attention during the lesson (her own children? pets? telephone calls? meal preparation?)?

(5) How easy is it to get in touch with the teacher? Is there an answering machine or voicemail, or must you keep calling back? E-mail? How does the teacher communicate on routine basis about vacations, recitals, etc.? Printed newsletter? E-mail? Texts? Are financial matters and lesson re-schedules taken care of easily?

(6) Is the teacher receptive to requests for specific pieces of music?

(7) Does the teacher genuinely like children? Like teaching? Is the child excited to go to lessons? (Maybe the child isn't always delighted to practice at home, of course, but that's a different topic!)

(8) Does the parent feel she is receiving good value for the money? What is the overall evaluation?

After interviewing all the teachers by telephone and calling their references, you should have a pretty clear idea which teachers to eliminate from consideration. Call the others and ask for an interview ("May we come over to meet you?").

Interviewing the Teacher

The in-studio interview is a time for the teacher to evaluate whether or not your child will be a good fit for her curriculum and to get a seat-of-the-pants feel for how you and she will interact. It is also a time for you to confirm your estimation of the teacher. If, after meeting her, you may not want to join the studio. So, it's a time of mutual discovery.

For purposes of this discussion, let's suppose the prospective student is a child.

Before you settle on a day and time for the in-studio interview, you need to find out just a bit more information.

Note: Some teachers call these interviews auditions, which can be confusing if the child is a beginner. The implication of the word audition is that the teacher wants to hear the prospective student play something.

Interview Hints

To maximize the time for fact-finding and give the teacher the best opportunity to evaluate your child (not for brains, not for musical aptitude - - whatever that is!- - but for how well he will mesh with what and how the teacher teaches), here are some suggestions.

Ok, you've arrived at the door! Try not to be nervous, ok?! The teacher is glad to see you!

You'll have immediate impressions.

(1) Is the studio tidy and clean? Odors? Cat hair? Quiet? (Is the LottaNoiz Drum Club meeting next door?)

(2) Is the teacher himself "tidy and clean," or does he reek of cigarette smoke and body odor?

(3) What does the studio look like? Piles of music everywhere, leaning like the Tower of Pisa? Coffee cups half-full sitting on the piano with cigarette butts floating in them? Three birdcages of raucous parrots who've been trained to talk by a contingent of disreputable seamen? Or, does it look like the workspace of someone who knows what he is doing and takes pride in it? (Let's hope for the latter!)

(4) Is the teacher prepared to conduct the interview and take charge, or does she wait for you to start asking questions?

(5) Does the teacher introduce himself to your child first? Does he have a conversation with him? Or, does he say, "Hi, Jeremy," and then ignore him to talk to you? (Bad sign.)

If the teacher doesn't hand you a copy of the studio policies (bad sign!), ask for one. Take time to read the high points (money and make-up lesson rules) right then and ask questions if needed. Read the policy thoroughly at home; call with questions.

Now What?

You are now at the point of deciding whether to join the studio.

This presumes, of course, that the teacher has decided to teach your child. Most likely the teacher will.

Is it possible to find the perfect teacher at the first interview? Yes! If so, sign up! Sometimes it happens this way.

If this happens for you and your child, call the other teachers and cancel your appointments with them. Don't don't leave them dangling - - you may be calling them in the future if you decide to change teachers!

If you want to think further and/or wish to interview other teachers, say so. "We'd like to think about this" or "We have some other teachers we'd like to talk to before we decide."

Note: If you do plan to call other teachers, it is a courtesy to this teacher not to extend an interview past 30 minutes.

If you interview the whole lot of them, remember to call the ones you do not select to let them know you have chosen someone else. The professional and experienced teacher hears this with regularity and will NOT be upset. In fact, he will remember your courtesy, should you call again.

What if You Change Your Mind?

Suppose you agreed to start lessons. Then, before the first lesson, you decide this person is not the teacher for your child. What to do?

Call immediately! Don't just not show up!

Say something like, "I don't think you're the right teacher for us right now." or "I think I made a decision too quickly and did not interview enough teachers." Be apologetic. "I'm sorry about this. And I'm sorry we took up so much of your time. We enjoyed meeting you and learned a lot while we were there."

While the teacher will not be happy since he's already started thinking how best to teach your child and may have asked people to move around to give you a lesson time you needed because of childcare concerns, he needs to know you're not starting lessons.

It's no fun to make such a phone call, but failure to communicate doesn't speak well of your character. Make the call.

If you don't want the confrontation of a real-time phone conversation, call at a time you are fairly certain the teacher will be with students so you can leave a voicemail instead. Remember to thank the teacher for his time and expertise, rather than just say you are not interested at this time.

Another non-confrontional method is a letter (not a postcard).

About Tuition Cost

As in everything else, you get what you pay for. Gone are the days of the $2 piano lesson. Expect to pay at least $15 per half-hour for a degreed teacher. A fee of $20 per half-hour is more the going rate in suburban areas. For superb teaching from someone with top-flight credentials/experience, expect to pay two times that, perhaps more.

Yes, you always can get a teacher who charges $7 per half-hour, but is this false economy? I think so. See this file for more on the topic of less expensive and/or minimally-trained teachers.

Remember that you are investing (yes, investing) not just money, but time and energy. By joining the studio, you are reserving a place in the teacher's studio on a specific day and at a specific time. Taking music lessons is not like the intermittent hiring of a babysitter for a half-hour. You are in an on-going relationship. For a productive relationship, you're going to have to pay. And probably more than you hoped. Is it worth it to your child? You betcha!

If you find a teacher who is inexpensive, yet meets your other requirements, go ahead! After you've done the legwork, you'll know this person cannot be judged by lesson fee. (If you decide later that this person isn't the teacher for you, you can change teachers. You need not stay with this first teacher you select, which sometimes happens even if you have done a careful search.)

Note: The teacher is investing, too! He wants to do the very best job he can with your child. The teacher will be thinking about how to help your child pretty much all the time - - not just at the lessons. He will be hunting for appropriate music or supplemental activities. He will be thinking about how he can arrange a song your child wants to play - - perhaps it could be cast as a duet if it's too difficult for a solo? Could he write the second part in such a fashion that the parent (you!) could play it? What sort of game would help the student learn something new or look at a recently-introduced topic in another way? The teacher will be thinking about how to explain something another way. He will be thinking how he can help your child learn more efficiently.

One more note about tuition: What does a month's worth of dance lessons or sports participation, etc. cost in your area? This number will give you a good idea of what cost to expect for piano lessons.

Traveling Teacher

Often, people want a teacher to come to them. Yes, it's certainly more convenient for you! Although it is not always the case (and less so now than in times past), the traveling teacher usually travels because that is the only way he can attract students. Perhaps he has no music degree, no college training in music, or even a degree of any kind. Be sure to inquire about these credentials when you interview traveling teachers.

Another reason teachers travel is that they have nowhere permanent to teach. Maybe they've just moved to town. Maybe they can't teach in the apartment complex where they live.

I suppose there might be some who like the change of scenery during the day!

An in-studio teacher almost will always ask you to bring your child to him. His studio is where he has all the materials at hand for you. Also, as a pianist, it's good for your child to play a variety of instruments, not just your own, because in the real world of piano playing, the student will be called on to play in a variety of places, and not all of them will have a fine instrument, much less one whose touch resembles the touch of the one at his home.

If you do manage to talk a studio-based teacher into coming to your house, be prepared to pay the regular hourly lesson rate for the travel time.

Let's do an example! Suppose the teacher's rate is $30 per hour or $15 per half-hour. If you have a half-hour lesson, you will pay $30 rather than $15 if the teacher comes to you. This is because the teacher will add 15 minutes' travel time each way. During this travel time, the teacher cannot teach another student, so you are paying for that time. You are paying for an hour's lesson but getting only half that instruction time because the other half is devoted to the teacher's travel. Normally, after doing the math, people much prefer to pay for instruction only and do the driving themselves.

Evaluating Your Decision

You probably will know right away whether you're happy with your selection. Generally, after the second lesson (or third, at the latest), you will be able to see whether the teacher has figured out in detail what your child needs and how it will be be "delivered."

It will be too soon to see if your child figures out what the teacher wants of him and how apt he is in meeting the challenge. This takes a month or so.

If you're not sure, stay a month...unless the teacher and your child are such an obvious mis-match that the overall interaction will be damaging to the child and/or a waste of everyone's time. You want only what's best for your child, not what's best for your child -and- the teacher.

If you're definitely not happy, by all means, do change teachers after the first lesson. It's your child, his musical learning, and your money and time!

copyright 1996-2005, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.

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