The author making faces with an impish student before a piano duet (photo used with permission)
Finding the right music teacher for your child is very important in order to foster a lifelong interest in music. There is no tried and true formula for finding the right teacher, but you can visit several prospective teachers to find the right fit. Before you do, figure out the motive behind taking music lessons. Are you expecting your child to be the next prodigy that storms Carnegie Hall? Or do you want your child to develop an appreciation for music … or something in between? Some teachers only accept highly gifted and ambitious kids, while others want to expose children to music in more general terms.
I’m a registered piano teacher, and have been teaching since, gulp, 1985 (I was an infant when I started). While this refers mainly to piano teaching, most of these questions can apply to music in general. Here are the top ten questions I suggest you ask a prospective music teacher for your child.
1) What is your methodology?
Many teachers use the Royal Conservatory of Music method, a standardized system in Canada that includes technique, sight reading, ear training, and learning works of music from different eras. Many teachers use the RCM’s curriculum and teach from their home studios, not at the school itself. Most registered teachers are listed at the Ontario Registered Music Teachers Association and they are grouped by location and what they teach.
2) What kind of music do you teach?
This is important! I’ve had parents ask me about teaching pop or jazz, which is not my area of expertise. Mind you, getting a classical foundation, especially for technique, is an excellent start before switching over to another genre. It can’t hurt to do a couple of years of classical training before switching over.
3) What is the ideal age to start?
This depends on your child – I have taught as young as three, which is rare. The average age to start is around seven or eight, though I recommend five or six. At that age, music is more magical than about practising, something that switches in direct proportion to how far you go. Of course teenagers can start too, but it’ll be more of a juggle to get used to balancing homework with practise.
4) How long should my child practise each day?
This depends on the level and the objective. Ideally, practising is about achieving certain goals, which is a better focus than a certain number of minutes or hours. With very young children, I encourage 20-30 minutes of time at the piano, which can be divided into two sessions. From about age eight on up, 30 minutes and longer. Start prepping your bribing techniques now.
5) What is my role as the parent?
Your role is to supervise (either directly, or from the next room) and ensure enough practise is done. If you don’t read music, your child will insist you have no say, because “you’re not the teacher”. If you do read music, game over as far as your kid is concerned – your child really has to listen to you! Now, I may or may not be drawing upon my own childhood, but …. children are not to be trusted when it comes to practising. They will goof off the second you leave the house. They will swear up and down they did everything they were supposed to while you were out. Don’t believe them. I used to tape myself practising on the tape deck on an hour-long cassette, re-wind, hit “play”, and slip out the back door as my mom, The Matriarch, taught theory across the hall. Be prepared to enforce a few rules about practising. It won’t be pretty. Did I say my suspicion is directly based (maybe) on my own childhood? Offer heaps of praise when your child does practise or achieve his or her goals. My father bribed me with cash from time to time to practise, which of course I never let on to my mother until years later.
6) Ask if the teacher is punctual.
Some teachers are so caught up in a lesson they’re teaching, they don’t look at the time, and the next lesson starts whenever the next lesson starts (that was my own teacher). Other teachers nail the time down to the millisecond (that would be me).
7) Do you hold student recitals?
Recitals are a great way to learn the most transferable skill from music lessons: battling nerves, the art of performance, or how to be “on”, and how to prep for it. Being “on” will be useful throughout life, be it a job interview, work presentations, an audition, a first date, hosting an event, you name it. Recitals are great practise for this. I’m so worried my students will remember me negatively because of recitals that I always hand out chocolates afterwards so they have SOME happy memories of playing in them.
8) Do I pick up the materials or do you do that?
Some teachers are too busy for this; others prefer to pick up the books themselves to ensure the correct materials are chosen. I’m so type A that I go and pick up the materials myself to ensure they’re correct.
9) Do I need a real piano, or is a keyboard enough?
A real piano is absolutely ideal – the sound is better, and the development of finger strength occurs when using the real, weighted keys on a piano. Keyboard technology has gotten better, and the keys are heavier, but nothing beats the real thing. You certainly don’t need to invest in a concert grand at this stage, but for the first couple of years, you can invest in a high-end keyboard or lease one. Learning on an upright piano is fine, too. Some reputable piano houses include Robert Lowrey, Remenyi Music, and Steinway. See what your options are.
10) Find out the teacher’s studio policy and payment structure – and respect them.
I belong to a Facebook group that’s supposed to be about the art of teaching, but really, many of the posts are by frustrated teachers who aren’t able to collect the fees on time. Some teachers with full studios will not re-schedule missed lessons unless changed by the teacher; some offer a specified number of makeup lessons per term. Ask about last-minute cancellations, too. If there’s anything in the policy you’re not sure about, please ask; many will try and accommodate you.
Liz Parker is an Ontario Registered Music Teacher and previously, a BC Registered Music Teacher. She’s been teaching since 1985. She’s a bit of a ham.
Are there questions you have about classical music you’d like answered? Please email [email protected]