A piano student who forgot his note cards (photo used with permission)
We’re well into September and the school year is under way, but it’s not too late to look into finding a music teacher for your child. Private music teachers understand you’re sorting out group classes (sports, dance, etc.) with a set time, and now you’re looking to book one-on-one music lessons that can be scheduled after other registrations are complete.
Finding the right teacher is important in order to foster a lifelong interest in music, and all that goes with it: learning to be expressive, committing to practise, punctuality, and how to perform.
There is no tried and true formula for finding the right teacher, but you can visit several prospective teachers to find the right fit. Figure out the motive behind taking music lessons. Are you expecting your child to be the next prodigy? Or do you want your child to develop an appreciation for music … or something in between? Be sure to mention this to a prospective teacher.
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 teachers, most of these questions can apply to music teachers in general. Here are the top ten questions I suggest you ask a prospective music teacher.
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, from Baroque to jazz. Many teachers use the RCM’s curriculum and teach from their home studios, not at the school itself (headquartered in Toronto). 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.
3) What is the ideal age to start?
This depends on your child – I have taught as young as three, which is rare, and as old as 60+. The average age to start is around seven or eight, though I recommend five or six. At that age, children see everything through eyes of wonder. They also don’t have the distraction of owning cell phones. Teenagers can start too, but it’ll be more of a juggle to adjust to balancing homework with practise.
4) How long should my child practise each day?
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. Plan 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, you have the advantage! 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 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. 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 neither of us 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. Other teachers nail the time down to the second.
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.
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.
9) Do I need a real piano, or is a keyboard enough?
A real piano is ideal – the sound is better, and the development of finger strength occurs when using the real, weighted keys on a piano. Keyboard technology has improved, 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; an upright is great. For the first couple of years, invest in a high-end keyboard or lease one. Ensure it has pedals.
10) Find out the teacher’s studio policy and payment structure – and respect them.
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.
Bottom line? Go with your gut. Bring your child and even your family to the first meeting with a teacher; based on that, you’ll have a good idea if it’s a good fit.
Liz Parker is an Ontario Registered Music Teacher. She’s been teaching since 1985. When students forget their materials, she isn’t pleased. However, she hands out chocolate at recitals so the kids grow up and have SOME happy recollection of their music studies.
Are there questions you have about classical music you’d like answered? [email protected]