Choosing A Teacher

By Diane Hidy

(This article by pedagogue Diane Hidy is one of the best around for those parents looking to find a music teacher)

Before I go any further, here's the bottom line:

GO WITH YOUR GUT.

    By the time you’re looking for a teacher, you’ve seen your child blossom around some adults and wilt around others. You’re looking for the best teacher for your child, not someone else’s. Your intuition will give you more information than any bio, resume or referral.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines to help you find that teacher. 

Most parents begin their search with someone in mind who might look like this: 

A teacher who’s patient, skilled, not-too-old but not-too-young, and adores teaching the classics, jazz and pop. She seamlessly incorporates new technology and cutting-edge teaching trends. She’s an expert in multiple intelligences and specializes in children with learning differences. She is a brilliant concert artist. She is a published composer and teaches composition flawlessly. Though her studio is full and has a waiting list, she has Tuesday at 4 pm ready and waiting for your child. 

Let’s be clear: this teacher doesn’t exist. You will have to make choices.

Please note: I chose to use "she" throughout this article. There are many fine male piano teachers, and I am not trying to dissuade you from including them in your search.

WHO?

The most essential thing is a natural fit between your child and the teacher. Set up a meeting between your child and a prospective teacher. Don't do all the talking. Let your child speak for herself. 

Look for simple things. Does this teacher

    •    Make eye contact with your child?

    •    Seem genuinely interested in what your child says?  

    •    Draw your child out?

    •    Have a sense of humor?

Humor is invaluable in dealing with children. It's better for your child to have a lesson that includes laughter. After all, your child is a child

Ask your child these questions:

    •    How did you feel when you were working with her?

    •    Was there anything she did that made you uncomfortable or confused? 

    •    Would you like to see her again?

    Some teachers, especially the younger ones, may not have much experience. Ironically, it’s the teachers just getting started who often have the least experience teaching beginners.  Keep an open mind about them, though. A young, enthusiastic teacher who’s willing to invest wholeheartedly in your child may be your best choice. Nothing is better than an experienced teacher, but nothing is worse than a teacher who is also rigid, exhausted, bored, or burned out.

If a teacher has a website, take the time to look at it and find out as much as possible about the teacher. I always appreciate prospective students who have spent time reading what I've written and listened to my recordings.

    One effective way to find out about a teacher is to attend a recital by her students. Whenever possible, I invite prospective parents and students to come and hear my students play. It's a simple way for them to experience the style of my studio and see how I relate to my students and their families. 

    If you’re just not sure, ask if you can take a trial lesson or two to see if it’s a good fit for your child. This is usually easiest to do in the summer when schedules are at their most flexible.

WHAT?

What are you hoping to accomplish with lessons? I find it difficult to respond when a parent calls me and says, “I don’t want my child to be a concert pianist. I just want them to have fun.” Obviously, I want my students to enjoy learning, but if they only want to have fun they might do better with a trip to the playground. 

Here are a few examples of more specific goals and choices:

I want my child in an elite, competitive, high-energy musical environment.

Choose a highly skilled teacher with a track record of competition winners who puts energy into finding those opportunities for your child. Consider auditioning at a conservatory if your town has one. The kinds of teachers you are looking for will most likely be teaching there. 

I want my child in a warm, healthy environment that fosters individuality, creativity and a love of music.

Look for a teacher with a collaborative studio where students play duets and performance opportunities are not competitive. (This describes my particular studio much better than the first one.)

I have a child with a learning difference and I want a teacher who can understand and embrace my child.

Screening for skills like teaching children with special needs means looking for someone who loves the challenge of unlocking an unusual mind or body. This teacher can’t wait to try to figure out what will work. Look for a teacher who is creative and willing to try new techniques, materials and ideas.

WHERE?

Is location important to you? How far are you willing to drive for the most appropriate teacher?  I have some students who drive two hours one-way to me, but I believe the closest appropriate teacher is always a better choice. You'll spend time driving to-and-from this studio, so make it as convenient as possible. Factor in the afternoon and rush hour traffic unless you have a home-schooled child or can schedule lessons on weekends. The best teachers will always try to refer you to someone closer to you if there is another good choice.

Do you want a teacher who comes to your house? The benefit to this is convenience. You don't have to leave your home or arrange transportation for your child. Unfortunately, traveling teachers can be hard to find. Sometimes you can find a young, enthusiastic teacher who will come to you. Sometimes an experienced teacher prefers teaching in student's homes. If there is a good one in your area, they commonly have a waiting list. Be prepared for a specific and tricky schedule, as traveling teachers factor in driving time, traffic and parking. Expect to pay a premium for this service.

WHEN?

Ask up front about a teacher's work schedule. Does she teach after school? Saturdays or Sundays? Evenings? Find out if she even teaches on a day when you could get your child there. For example, if your child could only attend a Saturday lesson and she doesn't even teach weekends, it's better to end the conversation right there.

That said, don’t be too picky at the beginning. The best lesson times fill up first, so you may have to start with a less than ideal time and move into a better slot as the teacher's schedule changes and your child has been there longer.

MONEY

Most teachers didn’t choose the profession because they wanted to be business owners but trust me, you want one that runs a tight ship. If a teacher has a clear studio policy it means they’ve thought through the issues that are important to them and clearly delineated them. This doesn’t mean they won’t be flexible or reasonable, it means they are support themselves by running a professional business. This is a good thing for you as a consumer as well as for them as a business owner. 

A good studio policy will include information about how much and when you’ll pay, how to obtain supplies and pay for them, and a cancellation policy. 

GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS

Look for a teacher who varies their routine. Many teachers use the same books and music year after year which can be beneficial; they’re good at teaching from them. But as their students develop and change, do you notice a tailored a curriculum for each individual student? Does it feel more like a factory where a child gets on the conveyor belt and hopes she doesn’t fall off?

If your child sticks with lessons into middle school and beyond, their piano teacher may become an important transitional adult - someone who is there during their teenage years as a confidant. Is she someone who you would want your child to confide in? It takes a village to raise a child, and a piano teacher can be an important ally in your parenting journey.

HOW TO FIND THAT TEACHER

Start by asking your circle of friends and acquaintances if any of them is particularly happy with their child's teacher. Most of my students come through personal referrals. This is my favorite way to get new students. People who already like me and the way I teach are likely to refer others like themselves. 

Most communities in the United States have branches of the Music Teachers National Organization (MTNA) or a state music teachers organization. The MTNA has a webpage called Choosing a Teacher. You may find it helpful, though I imagine I’d find it intimidating as a prospective parent.

Canada has a similar organization called the Canadian Federation of Music Teachers' Association. They also have a Find a Teacher page. The Suzuki method is based on learning entirely by ear at first. Their website offers information about the method and a search feature for teachers around the world.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Pay close attention to your child. If your child seems to genuinely like the teacher, that's important. Maybe even more important, does this teacher genuinely like your child? Your child will spend one-on-one time with this person for weeks, months and possibly years. Is this person going to validate them? Encourage them? Understand them? Like them?

Here are some additional questions you might consider asking:

    •    How many recitals do you have a year? Could you describe them?

    •    Do you do any exam or evaluation programs? If so, which ones?

    •    Do you teach music theory? 

    •    Do you have any group lessons or opportunities for students to get together and play for each other?

Take your time. Be patient and willing to wait until you find the right person.