Choosing a piano teacher should be easy, right? Just find a teacher that is qualified and then get started.
But, how do you know if a piano teacher is qualified? It’s not as easy as choosing other professionals. If you need medical or legal advice, you look for someone with the appropriate license in your state and that determines a general level of qualification that you can be comfortable with.
It’s similar in the field of music, except you can be a piano teacher or performer with or without a formal education. And, there are no licensing requirements, at least, here in the United States. So, you can’t choose a teacher based only on education – like having a music degree – or by some licensing body. Making it more complicated, there are good piano teachers who have no degree but have learned to play their instrument at an advanced level through practice and study with a master teacher.
Conversely, having earned a music degree would demonstrate that a teacher would be an expert in their instrument, but would it tell you if they are a good teacher of that instrument? There is much more to being a good teacher. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a piano teacher.
Competency – A teacher must be proficient enough to demonstrate concepts on the piano so you are able to hear the correct way to play. They should also be able to sightread well in order to go through repertoire choices with you.
Teaching Skills – Just because a teacher can play a piece of music beautifully, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she can show you how to do the same. A good piano teacher should also know all the steps that are necessary to get you to play the piece perfectly. She should also be able to communicate those steps in a variety of ways until you understand them, and then determine if you are playing the piece correctly. And if you are not playing the piece correctly, she should also be able to diagnose the problem and offer solutions.
Personality – No, a teacher doesn’t need to entertain a student, but a teacher does need to have a personality that lets the student feel as comfortable as possible. Your relationship with your teacher should be one that lets you be expressive in your interpretation of the music. She should also be open to comments, both positive and not-so-positive, and to answer your questions honestly and without judgment.
Patience – When a student doesn’t understand a concept, it’s the teacher job to find a different way to explain it. If the student is having difficulty in general, it’s the teacher’s job to change the way she is teaching for this student. Maybe the pace of learning is too fast. Perhaps difficult concepts need to be broken into smaller portions. Or, maybe the student needs to understand the concept through a different sense – visually, analytically, verbally, aurally, or emotionally. This takes patience on the part of the teacher to understand how each student perceives, understands, and processes information.
Motivation – Learning the piano is hard work and nearly impossible if the student isn’t motivated. That’s why I believe most music should be chosen by the student, with the guidance of the teacher, who will help determine that the music is at the correct level and quality. A good piano teacher should be able to teach music concepts through many styles of music. This is especially true for adult students who tend to have preferred music styles that they already listen to. Letting students choose the music goes a long way toward motivating them to succeed at the piano.
Foundations Are Necessary – However — and there are always howevers — piano students still need to learn the foundations of music. For beginning students, this means that the concepts are presented in an way that lets new concepts build on previous learning. A piano teacher should have familiarity with foundation materials that are correct for the age and level of the student. If a teacher puts all students through the same materials, this might be a red flag that suggests the teacher is not assessing the unique needs of each student.
Filling the Gaps – Many students return to the piano after years or even decades. A qualified piano teacher will assess what foundations the student has retained and which are missing or forgotten.
To sum up — in a lot of ways, teaching someone to play a musical instrument is like an apprentice working with a journeyman or master teacher. The skills the teacher has learned over the years are passed down to each student.
While every piano student must learn the same foundations in order to play well, this does not mean that the teacher should the same method for every student. Instead, a good piano teacher will recognize that every student is different and must adjust to take those differences into consideration. It’s really a balancing act for the teacher — making sure you understand the foundations, but also motivating you to learn the piano by teaching to your unique abilities.