Five Things Every Parent Should Know About Music Lessons
It happens nearly every week: A friend or parent tells me about their own or their child’s music lesson experience and how it ended in disappointment. Sometimes they identify the problem as the teacher, but more often they simply say they “lost interest” or “weren’t talented enough.” As they go into more detail it often turns out that they were studying with someone who had little or no training as a music teacher. It always breaks my heart to hear this because I know what a difference a great music teacher made in my life and I wish everyone could have such a powerful experience. Unfortunately, more often than not, most parents choose convenience and price over quality and skill.
There are many good articles online with tips for picking a good music teacher (just google “picking the right music teacher”) but I would like to dig a little deeper to explain why it can be so difficult to find a great teacher and why you should take all the time you need to make the right decision. Below are five things parents don’t always consider when looking for a teacher.
1) Great music lessons require great skill
Parents often think that if their child is “talented” and they give them lessons with a competent musician that good things are bound to happen. This is simply not the case. Great teachers inspire their students through a wide variety experiences that transform them into “talented” musicians. This is why some teachers have so many great students while others are constantly complaining that their students never want to practice.
Creating an exceptional music lesson experience is one of the most complex and challenging forms of education. Musical skill involves the most sophisticated muscle training to hit the right notes (technique), complex aural (listening) training to develop a “good ear”, a detailed understanding of the concepts, symbols and style of music (sometimes called “music theory”) and much more. All this must be accomplished while maintaining and developing the student’s love of music, setting inspiring goals, and gaining confidence as a performer. Is it any wonder so few music teachers can achieve this with any consistency among their students?
2) Most excellent musicians are not excellent teachers
Unfortunately, many excellent musicians have no idea how to teach what they do. There is no widely accepted or used certification program for music teachers and the vast majority of music teachers have never given any serious thought to how to teach. While it is necessary for school teachers, doctors and even hair stylists to continue their training to stay certified, anyone at all can offer music lessons without training. The career path the vast majority of music teachers have followed is to pursue performance, and when that does not work out, to settle for teaching. Needless to say, this is not a recipe for an inspired or inspiring teacher.
A great start with an excellent teacher will allow students of any age to make swift progress. This in turn will lead to self-confidence in one’s own abilities and a desire to learn more. Finding the right teacher can be difficult if you yourself have little or no musical training, but here are a few things you can look for:
3) A Caring Personality can make a huge difference
This may not be the most surprising element to some parents, but there are many who equate being tough with being good. While a strict teacher who can set and keep very high standards can be great for highly motivated, advanced students (provided they also have the teaching ability to actually give the student the skills to achieve these high standards), many studies have shown that the majority of top level performers began their training with someone who was caring and made the experience fun for them. Once the student has fallen in love with the instrument and the experience of playing, it is easy to raise the bar.
It is also incorrect to equate a caring personality with lower standards. Some of the best, most famous music teachers in the country are renowned for their caring relationships with their students. One of the most common things said about great teachers is not that they forced their students to achieve more, but that they made their students want to be their best because they loved them so much.
4) University Degrees and Teacher Training Programs Can Help
While a music degree does not automatically ensure that a teacher will be excellent, it does significantly increase the odds that they have studied how to teach. Most degree programs now require teacher training and supervised teaching as part of the music education, especially in graduate school. If the teacher has done additional teacher training such as workshops, Suzuki, Orff, or Kodaly training, this is also a major plus.
Teaching music is like learning music: The best way to learn how to do it well is to learn to do it under the supervision of a great teacher. In most Universities and most teacher training programs, young teachers will have gotten to practice their craft under the guidance of an experienced educator.
5) Clear Lesson Plans are Essential (and rare)
Unfortunately, most teachers never write down anything and just sort of “wing it” at each lesson. Perhaps this works if you are only teaching a couple students and all they want to learn is to play a couple pop songs. But to develop great love of music and great technical skills among 30-40 students a week, a teacher needs to have a detailed plan both for the long term and for each lesson.
A great teacher needs to keep track of the student’s progress in a multitude of areas including learning new pieces and new skills, reviewing old favorites, preparing for performances and becoming a well-rounded musician. It is nearly impossible to do this without writing things down. If you really want to check a teacher out thoroughly, ask them how they do their lesson plans for each lesson or what the student will be learning and when. While it is appropriate for the teacher to say “that depends on your commitment to practice,” they should be able to give you a general idea of how lessons should progress. Be wary of a teacher says “I teach whatever the student wants to learn,” since this often can mean the teacher has no plan.
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