What to Look for in a Private Music Teacher A Guide for Parents Starting their Children in Music Lessons

When children begin music lessons there is always a lot more happening than just starting lessons. Parents bring their experience as former students or inexperience in music to the table. Experienced teachers bring well-formulated habits and routines that may or may not serve the new student. Inexperienced and young teachers may relate exceptionally well to a young student but not have the ability or experience necessary to efficiently move students from one goal to the next.

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Unfortunately, these factors and many more can often envelope the student and their needs from the start. And by ‘needs’ I simply mean the space to become the best versions of themselves when they are at the instrument.

Thankfully we are moving (very slowly at times) past the day-in-age when private teachers follow this traditional script:

  • A student begins lessons.
  • They work through a methodology that isolates the musical elements (like theory books, repertoire books, technique books, sight reading books, etc.).
  • Students subconsciously or consciously start seeing their music-playing experience as fragmented or split between all the different activities/books in lessons and can’t make enough time in the day to gain momentum.
  • Students (over time) lean towards a specific musical element or elements based on what comes easiest to them, parent baggage or inability of the teacher to teach beyond their weak areas – for example, a teacher with a strong jazz background trying to teach a Bach Invention when they’ve never studied this themselves.
  • Parents can get frustrated about their child not learning to read music well enough, or play by ear very well, or playing more fun music, or playing more regimented music.
  • Teachers can often realize they can’t cover all the elements in the lesson time – even with extra workshops. So they may default on two of the elements – repertoire and theory, for example.
  • Student starts to participate in festivals and performances making learning and prepping new repertoire the main focus.
  • Over time the students can get burnt out on this process.
  • There becomes a slight panic from the parents and/or teacher and realize that they’re losing a really cool kid and they don’t want them to quit.
  • They try to find a jazz teacher or someone who can help the student be more creative and “off the page”.
  • The student may start these lessons and realize that it’s really difficult for them because it’s demanding musical elements from them that they left behind years ago. So it’s like starting over again, on an instrument they’ve had some success on… This is not so fun.

Okay, so this is way oversimplified. But since I was the “jazz” teacher people would come to at the end of the list for years, I can say that some variation of this is very common in many music lessons. As I said earlier, this has all gotten way better over the last several years. But it’s still a pattern. And as a parent choosing how to start your child in lessons, you can see how your decision has a pretty epic ripple effect that can last years.

Here are some things to look for in a teacher when starting your child:

  • Find a teacher who is committed to students learning repertoire from the page and by ear equally. Both of these skills can be developed no matter who the student is. There is no reason that a student can’t both read and learn by ear a Bach Invention when they get to that point in their music… Or hear a song off the radio and go to the piano and play what they heard – after a few months or years of lessons.
  • Find teachers who can equally play classical music and an improvised musical style like jazz or pop up to an intermediate level in each. This person used to not exist – but now it’s getting fairly common.
  • If you find a teacher who is a great classical teacher but has never played improvised music, only start with them if they are taking weekly jazz/pop/gospel lessons.
  • Only study with a teacher who can play for you the following: a passage of a classical piece, an improvisation on a jazz or popular song and a piece that they have written.
  • Make sure the teacher can articulate how they will bring your child through the first 3-5 years of lessons and what your child can reasonably expect to do after/during that time.
  • The teacher should be perform in the community regularly (like a few times a month) as well as being 100% committed to their teaching studio. Ask them how often they miss lessons. For young students consistent, weekly lessons are key.

These may seem very lofty (and they are). There are many fine teachers who can’t do several of these things on this list. But as teachers we have to stay on top of our craft and continue to grow in areas that are uncomfortable for us. In my opinion it’s a horrible double standard for us not to venture into our weak areas when we ask our students to do it all the time.

For parents, I also wrote a post a while back on what you can do at home to help your kids have success in lessons – click here to read.