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Finding a Good Teacher

Question: Dear Albert,

As you may remember from our previous correspondence, I am 59, an absolute beginner at piano, and I will soon be on the lookout for a piano teacher.

In your article entitled ‘Piano Lessons Online’ you said: “Still, piano teachers are not all alike. Unfortunately there do exist incompetent or only marginally competent ones, and the really great piano teachers are few and far between.” This is nothing new: it is the same for all professions and callings the World over. However, it is particularly relevant to my current situation.

The difficulty for me will be in deciding whether I’ve found a “good” versus an “incompetent” or only “marginally competent” teacher. As an absolute beginner, it is going to be very difficult, without help, to make such a judgement. Having read and carefully considered all the links on your site, but in particular Mastering Piano (the skills you need to acquire) and Teaching Piano Lessons (what teachers should teach and how to go about it), together with the numerous articles concerning what you need to practice, when and how to practice it, I’m confident that in a very short time I would be able to decide whether my teacher was “incompetent.” However, if I end up with a teacher who turns out to be only “marginally competent,” again, as an absolute beginner, reaching such a conclusion would take much longer.

So my first question is: Could a marginally incompetent teacher engaged for weekly lessons over a period of, say, several months or perhaps as much as a year, cause one irreparable harm? Obviously, at the very least, he/she is likely to impede one’s learning progress, but could the teacher actually do any long-lasting damage?

I would expect any half-decent teacher to insist on interviewing a prospective, older, beginning, adult student to see what (if anything) the student already knows, why they want to learn, if they are truly motivated to learn, and the likelihood that they will make the necessary commitment of time and money to the learning exercise – the answers to which will govern the teacher’s decision on whether to take on the student. If these questions were not asked of me I would simply dismiss that teacher from further consideration. However, even if they were covered and genuinely asked, it is still no guarantee that the teacher has the necessary musical knowledge, experience and teaching skills to classify him/her as “good.”

I suppose what I’m looking for are suggestions for questions to ask the prospective teacher in advance of engaging him/her without seeming downright rude or someone who thinks they know it all. Assuming that one has done the groundwork of seeking out references from reputable sources such as University Music Departments, Conservatories and such like, and putting aside as one must all considerations of possible personality incompatibilities, which can only be revealed over time, tactfully interviewing the teacher with appropriate questions seems to me about as far as one can go towards limiting the prospect of ending up with someone who just isn’t up to the task.

So my second question is: do you have any suggestions for what might be considered revealing yet inoffensive questions?

– Andrew Hart (Australia)

Albert’s reply: Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and asking these detailed questions. Let me distill your questions into their essence and address them individually.

1. Can a teacher do irreparable harm?

The short answer is yes. It has to do with how we learn music in the first place, with what takes place in the mind and body. Largely unbeknownst to them, most piano students learn music almost exclusively with their fingers – they learn which keys to press but fail to learn the underlying music. I cannot tell you how many so-called “advanced” piano students I have encountered who do not so much as know all their scales. What business does a pianist have trying to play a Beethoven sonata when he has yet to learn a basic musical vocabulary? Many students attempt complex music yet do not know what key it is in. They are paralyzed when asked to name any harmonies other than the most rudimentary in their music. How can such students interpret any piece of music if they do not know what it is they are interpreting?

It is the teacher’s duty to ensure the student’s progress in all areas of music. How is a student to become an independent musical thinker otherwise? Most importantly, the teacher’s primary task is to teach the student how to learn music, which is to say, how to practice. It is far easier to learn something right the first time than it is to relearn it properly. Learning music properly, so that it becomes not only part of one’s experience but also part of oneself, is anything but intuitive. It requires the guidance of an expert teacher, which, alas, are few and far between.

The fundamental challenge to learning music properly, and thereby cultivating a professional mindset, is that students are, by and large, lazy; in response, some teachers have developed methodologies that cater to students’ laziness. To greater or lesser extents, the result is that the student learns by rote, playing the notes but gaining little actual musical understanding.

It is not the teacher’s task to entertain students. A true teacher’s role is more properly that of coach, demanding ever more performance from his students while guiding them to their true potential. Music is, after all, a strict taskmaster.

2. What questions should a student ask a prospective teacher?

The prospective student is in a poor position to evaluate a teacher. It is the teacher’s job to evaluate the student, not the other way around. Students should never directly question a teacher’s professionalism – rather, professionalism should be evident over time.

A music teacher must be an accomplished professional musician, of good musical pedigree and with a strong performance history. Is the teacher an active performer? Does he or she have commercial recordings of serious repertoire? These are signs of seriousness and professionalism.

I’ll address how to find a teacher in a separate article, as the subject demands dedicated treatment.

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