Teaching piano lessons can be a highly rewarding profession, as well as a very frustrating one. I’d like to share some tips with aspiring piano teachers to make sure their experience is a rewarding one.
The first thing to consider when teaching piano lessons is your own skill and experience. Playing the piano at the level of concert artist should indeed be considered a prerequisite for teaching piano lessons. It is not necessary to be a virtuoso performer, but at least some advanced repertoire, such as Beethoven sonatas, should be performed with artistic finish. As the great French pianist Alfred Cortot pointed out, what does one have to teach if one is not him- or herself an artist?
Personally, I do find it unfortunate that teaching piano lessons is a profession with virtually no barriers to entry. Other service professions, including law, medicine and accounting, require certification, and no one would dare seek out such services from unqualified persons. Yet in most countries no such certification is necessary for teaching music, and there are thus many unqualified persons who set up shop as music teachers. Part of the problem is that beginning students simply have little or no way of distinguishing accomplished musicians and teachers from mere pretense.
On the optimistic side, more and more people are getting university degrees in the performing and teaching of music. Music pedagogy programs are demanding of a wide range of skills (and instruments), and my only reservation is that the programs can be so time-intensive that students have insufficient time to master their primary instrument.
Teachers should generally exhibit skills exceeding those of their students, though exceptional students will outdo their teachers. Piano teachers should therefore strive continually to “upgrade” their own skills sets!
However, great musicians by no means always make great teachers. Many top musicians are more intuitive than systematic, yet teaching piano lessons requires a pronounced analytic capacity even more than it does the right-brained creativity we associate with music. Piano teachers need to solve problems of posture, touch, rhythm and hearing, all of which require analysis of the student’s apprehension of the problem and the underlying problem itself.
As for the students themselves, the first consideration is their age. Not everybody is suited to teaching all age groups, either by virtue of temperament or teaching style or method. Being a renowned concert pianist may be useless if you have difficulty relating to or understanding children.
Children learn differently from adults, and young children learn differently from teenagers. Moreover, children interact with teachers completely differently compared to adults. Very young children have yet to develop their capacity for concentration, and for them a 15- or 20-minute lesson will suffice. (Children up to ages 5 or 6 may also learn better in groups.) 30 minutes are suitable for children roughly six years of age, and hour-long lessons should be reserved for teenagers and adults. (The longest piano lesson I ever experienced was Paul Badura-Skoda’s teaching of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which stretched to eight hours!)
I believe the ultimate goal of teaching piano lessons should be to make the student independent of the teacher. This requires years of training, while the student learns how to listen to his or her playing and acquires a musical technique and the requisite skills.
Focus on developing musical skills is essential to good piano teaching. Traditional methods immediately teach students to learn to read music, while other methods (such as Suzuki and piano-by-chords approaches) ignore music notation altogether, citing other advantages.
Similarly, it is extremely important for piano teachers to assess the student’s various musical skills and to identify and correct deficiencies. Often these deficiencies are not immediately evident, and years often pass without the teacher noticing them. How is the student learning music, through which primary modality? Can the student play blindly or only when staring at the keys? Can the student sing accompanimental inner voices—or is he not hearing them? These are all examples of musical deficiencies that must be addressed when teaching piano lessons.
Of course I believe that students should enjoy lessons. This should by no means exclude students’ thorough mastery of piano scales, piano theory and other essentials! It is the duty of the teacher to make sure students know all their scales, develop a solid feel for rhythm and can recognize basic harmonies both in their music and by ear. It is not the duty of teachers to entertain their students!
I very often find a lack of basic understanding of music theory to be lacking even in advanced students. It is not enough to learn the notes. We have to know what they mean, how they are grouped, which notes are consonant and which are dissonant, about counterpoint and voice leading, phrase and period structure, as well as rules for basic musical articulation and declamation.
Teaching piano lessons requires attention to some purely practical considerations. These include having, and maintaining, a high-quality piano, developing a suitable studio policy and offering pricing commensurate to the teacher’s level of expertise and experience.
A studio policy is a mark of the teacher’s professionalism. It lists expectations and prerequisites for the student, a cancellation policy, how missed lessons are handled (will you offer make-up lessons?), etc. It should include a fee schedule, with fees assessed per lesson or on a monthly, quarterly or semester basis. It should also notify students of additional fees, such as for sheet music. The studio policy needs to make it clear to students and parents that they are enrolling in a course of professional instruction, and that students will be expected to meet the demands established by the teacher.