What makes for a good piano teacher?
This is difficult for parents and students to assess
Most parents and students have never taken piano lessons before so they don’t know what to look for in a piano teacher. Many students come to us from other teachers. They knew something wasn’t right. Some of these students learned very bad habits or took lessons for years and didn’t progress. What may have seemed like a “good deal” on a lower cost teacher, or someone convenient down the street, ended up wasting their time and money. Correcting bad habits or having to start over or learn the fundamentals is both expensive and time consuming.
In this article I hope to give you some insight into what to look for in a good piano teacher.
What are their credentials?
This is the first thing to check out and here are some questions to ask: How long has the teacher been teaching? Who taught them? Have they taken formal education on the piano? How long did they take private lessons? Do they have a University degree in music? A good teacher may not have a degree in music, but should have many years of private training from reputable teachers. Do they have experience performing? Where? How many students do they have? Will they give you references from any of their students? These questions will give you a good sense of a teacher’s capability.
We see many teachers who throw up their “shingle” and proclaim to be a piano teacher with few credentials and experience. They are usually teachers that discount their lessons below the prevailing area rate which should raise a red flag. Going the inexpensive teacher route is not wise. Ask yourself why they have to lower their rates. Students might not progress with cut-rate teachers and learn bad habits that are very difficult to correct later on. Spend more money on a good teacher and you will spend less money in the long run.
Do they teach the correct fundamentals?
First, do they require that the students have a weighted action piano, or better yet, a real acoustic piano? We do. Students that learn on non-weighted action keyboards don’t progress – plain and simple. For more information on this feel free to read my article on choosing a proper piano.
From time to time we even get requests to teach students who don’t have a piano at all and don’t plan on purchasing one. This is really ridiculous. There is no point in taking piano lessons if you don’t have access to a piano to practice on. You really don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a good instrument. Down here in Florida we see many quality used pianos selling way below normal market prices. Some start as low as $300.00. We provide assistance in helping our students to find good instruments. It’s ok for a student to start on a non-weighted action piano temporarily until they find a better piano, but it’s very difficult to learn the right touch and get the right harmonic feedback from these keyboards.
Second, do they develop the proper finger technique and posture at the piano? Students should be learning how to curve their fingers properly, along with having the proper finger movement and wrist/arm positioning. This may sound trivial but it isn’t. You can’t learn to be a good pianist without learning these basic fundamental skills. It’s the same concept as learning a bad golf swing from the start. Learn it wrong and you will have a very difficult time correcting it later on.
Teachers should be teaching scales and chords around the “Circle of Fifths” We see many students who took lessons for years who didn’t know what a scale or chord progression was. Why is this important? All music is created around a pattern of music theory called the “Circle of Fifths”. Scales and chords are all built off of this theory. We teach this right from the start. Students that learn music theory understand how to analyze and play complex music more quickly. Learning scales and chord progressions greatly aids in their ability to learn difficult pieces, (whether it be jazz, blues or classical), as all music is based on chord structures and scales. Its also the foundation in learning to “improvise” or create your own music on the fly.
We also believe in using Schirmer’s “Hanon” to develop finger strength and acuity. Think of it as calisthenics for your fingers. We use these daily exercises to develop the proper fundamentals discussed earlier.
Does the teacher teach the student how to practice?
There is a right and wrong way to practice. We have a very efficient way of teaching students to break apart and analyze a musical piece in order to learn it efficiently and quickly. Let’s face it, most students don’t like to practice, it’s hard work, however, that’s the only path to learn a piece of music. For instance, we teach students to practice for 20 minutes at a time. That may not seem like enough time, but our students get more results in 20 minutes than other students get by practicing much longer. It’s all about being taught the right way to analyze a piece and practice. Time practiced does not always mean good results.
What books does the piano teacher use?
The truth is there are many good books that teachers can use. We don’t believe in using just one book system. Quite frankly, we are always looking for new material. We use some core books but also use different teaching materials depending on the student’s needs and interest. Some like Classical, some like Jazz, some like Popular tunes. We can accomplish the same results by teaching with different material. We also supply our music books as a service to our students. There is nothing more frustrating for parents and students than having to search around to find multiple books across multiple vendors. We buy them in quantity and pass the savings on to our students. This saves time and ensures you have the materials when needed.
Does the teacher teach music other than Classical?
My first teacher was a tough German Concert pianist. He taught me primarily classical music using Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Clementi, Chopin, Schuman, Haydn and Debussy. He threw me in deep water and expected me to swim. He was a brilliant pianist and expected results at each lesson. He ALWAYS knew when I didn’t practice! My motivation was not wanting to disappoint him at my lessons because I knew there would be “hell” to pay if I didn’t show him results. In retrospect, this was good for me because discipline was not one of my strengths. I was the ultimate procrastinator but was highly motivated by hearing his other students play who were much better than me. I strived to be just as good.
Classical music is a great way to learn how to play the piano. We believe it should be the core of a student’s piano material but it shouldn’t be the only music they get exposed to. We teach the Blues right from the start when learning chord progressions around the “Circle of Fifths” We encourage students to experiment with chord structures and learn to “improvise’ or make their own music. This is rarely taught to students at early ages. Why not? Well, most teachers don’t know how to “improvise” themselves because they have only been classically trained. We believe the true joy of playing the piano is creating your own music on the fly. Many times I will sit and play the piano and someone will say “Hey I really liked that, who wrote that piece?” I tell them I just made it up. Learning the piano should be fun. Making it fun is encouraging students to experiment with sound. It’s not all about digging into a classical piece and working it out. A good teacher should encourage time for experimentation and fun. I ask my students to work on their own improvisations at each lesson. Students should also be encouraged to listen to different pianists. A lot can be learned by listening. What a great technology YouTube is! I try and expose my students to different pianists and composers every month.
If you want to understand what improvisation is all about I suggest you pick up Keith Jarrett’s “Koln Concert” CD or some of Ola Gjeillo’s Piano improvisations. You will experience some of the most beautiful piano music you have ever heard and they just made it up on the spot! I tell students that all music was originally improvised, which is true. The composers simply wrote down their musical improvisations on paper for others to play.
Find out if a teacher utilizes multiple different musical styles in their teaching method and if they encourage piano improvisation. This will encourage students to stick with their training; encouraging them to practice more in order to hone their improvisation skills..
Are you on the clock?
Most teachers charge by time. This is reasonable and if they have many students it allows them to earn a decent living. Teachers need to earn a living. If they can’t, they will have to find other work and might not be able to teach you or your child. However, they shouldn’t be kicking you out precisely 30 minutes either. We don’t “watch the clock”. Good teachers don’t. A good teacher should never schedule back to back 30 minute lessons. That just isn’t fair to the student. We always leave a buffer of time between students to give some additional coaching if needed. Yes, you have to make a living, but it isn’t all about income, it’s about helping the student first. This is the attitude a good teacher should have.
Does the teacher have written studio policies? They should. Make sure you know what their studio policies are and ask for them in writing. Our studio policies can be found directly on our website. This eliminates confusion about who is responsible for what and what is expected from the students and the teachers.
A good teacher these days should also have a website and should continue to develop it. My goal is to provide valuable information to my parents and students. Later on, I intend to develop a blog and allow students to share their compositions and interact with other students on our website.
Does the teacher take the time to develop student relationships?
Most students leave teachers because they don’t like them. Let’s face it, some students and teachers will never get along due to bad chemistry. This is the most challenging part of being a teacher. You need to find that “connection” with each student. Every student is different, has different goals and motivations for learning the piano. They like different kinds of music. They approach learning the music differently and have very different personalities. If they don’t like their teacher, they won’t practice or continue their musical studies. If you don’t have a good relationship with your teacher, you should look for a new one.
We have some students that you can’t tear away from the piano because they have an absolute passion for it. We have others that are the exact opposite. They have talent, but getting them to practice is a real challenge. As a student, I wanted to quit many times. My parents would have no part of it! I’m glad they didn’t, because I developed something as a child that literally saved me emotionally when I was growing up. I can’t imagine a life without being able to play the piano on a daily basis. The piano became an extension of my personality and is a powerful emotional outlet for me.
Look for a teacher that will take the time to develop a relationship with each student. My European concert pianists were tough but they also spent the time to develop that connection with me. We try to learn what makes every student tick and find out what motivates them to individualize a program around their interests. Sometimes, it is as simple as letting them play that popular rock piece they want to learn to impress their friends. A good teacher will take the time to figure this out.
Does the teacher hold regular recitals?
Recitals are important to both teachers and students. It shows off their hard work and accomplishments. A recital can be a scary thing for a student. It’s difficult for most people to memorize a piece of music and play it in front of parents and their peers. It also creates a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment for them after it’s over. Recitals also let students hear better students play which motivates them to continue on; to get better and want to learn more difficult pieces. Finally, a recital shows the parents what their investment achieved. Make sure your teacher holds recitals. They are a very important part of the learning process.
On a final note, I would also encourage you to read my article on computer music composition.
I hope this article is helpful to both students and parents in finding a good teacher.
If you live in the the area and want to talk to us about teaching you to play, feel free to visit our contact page where you can either call or e-mail us for more information.
2013 LandFlash Music LLC – All rights reserved
Author, Dave Sass