By Penny Wayne-Shapiro
Has your child expressed interest in learning an instrument?
Is your child's orchestra teacher encouraging your young instrumentalist to take private lessons? (I hope so!)
Or did you always want to play yourself, and you've just decided that the time is NOW?
If so, please choose your teacher carefully! Choosing the right teacher will make all the difference between an empowering experience and a frustrating one. Here are some essential qualities to look for in a teacher:
Essential quality #1:
Only with deep experience gained over time can a teacher learn to work effectively with a wide variety of ages, learning styles and learning goals. Any truly experienced teacher will tell you that his or her teaching has changed and grown considerably over the years since that first student walked into the lesson studio.
Why is experience essential?
Most talented young conservatory grads can explain how something should be done, but that isn't nearly enough. It takes deep experience - and some mistakes made along the way - to learn to get inside a student's mind, to see that what's obvious to you is not obvious at all to that student, and to figure out how to bridge the gap.
And it takes maturity, creativity, and the ability to "think on the spot" to do that with a student whose learning style may be very different from yours, or who may be struggling today for reasons that don't even have anything do with the lesson.
You wouldn't want to go to an inexperienced doctor or mechanic who is learning their craft by "practicing" on you. Why should choosing a teacher for your child or yourself be any different?
Essential quality # 2:
Excellence (as teacher and performer)
You're entrusting your child's (or your own) musical development to this person. You want the experience to be a positive one: enjoyable, challenging in a good way, inspiring, and leading to increasing skill which will both enrich the student's life and lead to opportunities to play with others.
So excellence may seem like an obvious requirement. Perhaps less obvious, though, is the importance of choosing a teacher who has a record of excellence as both teacher and performer.
Why is excellence in both areas essential?
A teacher who is also an excellent performer will simply teach at a much higher level. This not just relevant for more advanced students - it's important right from the start!
A teacher who plays beautifully has a better and more subtle understanding of the instrument. S/he will have a plan for developing beautiful tone and phrasing, plus posture and hand positions that facilitate better technique, from day one - and will demonstrate these things to students in a more inspiring way. Whether the student's goals are simply recreational or something more, a more satisfying musical experience will be the result.
Also, when well-rounded musicians both teach and perform, the one skill feeds the other. (Speaking personally, solving my own practice challenges helps me to be much more effective in the lesson studio; at the same time I benefit from helping my students to learn. That cross-fertilization keeps my teaching alive and growing.)
Finally, you can be confident that a musician who has continued to teach even after achieving performing success has actively chosen to do so, because s/he enjoys it and is committed to the craft.
Essential quality # 3:
Experience and excellence, although vital, are not enough. It is only the teacher who has real enthusiasm - for music, for teaching, and for this instrument - who will instinctively impart that joy and inspiration to the student.
Why is enthusiasm essential?
Learning an instrument is a wonderful and life-enhancing endeavor, but it's not easy, and it's not always fun. The enthusiastic teacher who brings spirit, energy and creativity into the lesson room is the one who'll help you to keep pushing through the hard parts, cheer you on as you do so, and lighten the whole experience with a sense of humor.
Enthusiastic teachers are also the ones who are "life-long learners" - still challenging themselves and reaching for more, and in the process bringing their excitement and inspiration to all their students.
So - how DO you find an experienced, excellent and enthusiastic teacher?
First, do your research. Ask friends where they or their children go for lessons. How has their experience been? Is the teacher not only excellent, but also warm and encouraging to all students - not just the "high-fliers"? Is s/he able to teach to different students' varying styles and goals, while encouraging them to challenge themselves if and when appropriate?
Check out the teacher's biographical details online. Ideally the bio should not just say, "Teacher A trained at the B conservatory, teaches at the C school, and plays with the XYZ Symphony Orchestra," but should also give you a sense of the teacher's personality and teaching approach.
Once you've narrowed down the list, you're ready to check out the final piece of the puzzle:
Essential quality # 4:
The "fit" between a teacher and student is indefinable, and can only be checked out in person. Beware of any school or program that expects you to plunk down your hard-earned dollars without taking a tryout lesson first!
What should you look for at that tryout lesson?
You should be able to observe the lesson if you wish (essential with a young child). The teacher should do his or her best to make you and your child feel comfortable, and to be sensitive to issues such as shyness and learning style.
A good teacher will find ways to engage a student, even if it takes most of the lesson for the student to really warm up. Whether or not the student has any previous experience, s/he will find a starting point with activities that are comfortable and "doable", enabling the student to experience some success. At the end of the lesson, s/he will encourage the student and parent to take the time to discuss the lesson between themselves, rather than pressuring for a decision.
Once you've done your research and had a successful tryout lesson, it's time to jump in and start learning! If you've chosen the right private lesson teacher to guide you on your musical journey, the road ahead will be enriching, inspiring and fun.
[Note: At Wayland School of Music we offer a free tryout lesson with any teacher(s) you'd like to meet. We require all our private lessons teachers to have at least 10 years of professional teaching experience, and a proven record as performers. See our Faculty page and How We Teach to learn more about them. If you're ready to schedule a tryout lesson, fill out this form or call us at 508 358 7835.]
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