Beginning piano students are in a poor position to evaluate teachers. They have as yet no yardstick by which to measure a teacher’s skill; moreover, they often enter into their music studies with misconceptions and false expectations that can affect their choice of teacher and limit their musical accomplishment. The choice of a teacher is thus very much intertwined with one’s musical expectations.
How, then, is the beginning student to decide on a piano teacher? There are several indications of capability, though no guarantee that they will make for a good teacher.
I believe two things are most important in a teacher: his own training, and that he has attained a certain level of artistry. (I use the masculine pronoun for convenience – obviously, I mean “he or she” in all cases.) Only a well-trained teacher will be able to train students similarly. The teacher’s training in itself is not a guarantee of good teaching methodology. Some remarkable musicians may have learned so early that they do not consciously know how they learned. As music is an applied art, it is the teacher’s foremost duty to teach the how of music.
Teachers for Beginning Students
I feel that the single biggest problem in music pedagogy today is the assumption that a beginning student needs a musically less accomplished teacher than the professional-track student. Most people assume that a lesser teacher will do for the beginning stages, and that “more advanced” teachers are meant for later stages of training. Both require an artist-level teacher!
I cannot overemphasize what a fatal mistake such thinking is. If anything, the reverse is the case: It is even more important to have the best possible teacher in the earlier stages, since it is this work that will lay the crucial musical foundation. It is far more difficult to backtrack and relearn, even at a seemingly advanced stage, than it is to learn properly from the beginning, with solid methodology, no matter how talented the student may be. Only an expert performing musician knows the true demands of preparing music for public performance in any setting, no matter how informal, and the detailed training that it entails.
What usually happens is that students unknowingly learn piano almost exclusively with their fingers rather than via conscious thought, applied music theory and ear training. Each piece in the student’s repertoire is learned almost exclusively through muscle memory, and the most critical aspects of musicianship are left further and further behind as the student “progresses.” A very watchful piano teacher is required to recognize how the student learns music and to impart a solid learning methodology. This is something only very few are able to do, yet it is among the piano teacher’s most important tasks of all.
When choosing a piano teacher it is important to filter out authentic credentials, disregarding the meaningless ones. Authentic credentials include music degrees, a track record of concert performances and professional recordings – in other words, the things a professional musician does. Membership in music teaching associations may show seriousness of purpose (always a good sign), but they are no indication of professional competence, either as a musician or as a teacher. Most often, the lone requirement for membership in a music teachers’ association is paying the annual membership fee!
I believe that a music degree, preferably in music performance, is a minimal requirement for a music teacher. Such a degree is by no means a mark of a concert performer, but it does display seriousness and a certain level of musical accomplishment. A degree in music education is also desirable, though somewhat less so since it involves lower performing standards (albeit in exchange for more versatility, in effect lesser skills on more instruments). There are exceptions (pianist Emanuel Ax studied French at Columbia University; violinist Andrew Manze studied classics at Cambridge), but these only prove the rule.
Ideally, a music teacher should be an artist. How is a teacher to bring his students to a level of artistic performance if he cannot do so himself? Artistry necessitates mastery. I am not speaking merely of technique, but of understanding the nature and language of music itself. A truly good teacher is an exemplar and role model, a wellspring of inexhaustible creativity – in short, a professional artist. The beginner would be most fortunate to have the guidance of an artist-level teacher.
Does the prospective teacher have a strong performance history? Is there a record of audio and/or video recordings? Does the teacher have commercial recordings? These are all marks of a serious expert teacher, although generally also a master teacher who commands a commensurate fee. Such teachers are generally well worth their asking price.
Does a Teacher Need to Be a Performer?
A teacher need not necessarily be an active performer, although that is generally a good sign of professionalism, but he should have a history of professional performances.
A piano teacher’s overarching goal should be to make his students independent. This goal means imparting all necessary musical skills to the student, from reading music to applied ear training and music theory, solfège to how to practice and how to learn music, and ultimately how to think about music and interpretation. The preparatory music teacher cannot afford to outsource the teaching of any musical skill. This is the most critical, habit-forming stage, and it is this stage that requires the best and strictest teacher.
May the above words come as a warning to the student seeking to be entertained! Music’s greatest rewards are reserved for the hardest workers, for nothing can be achieved without concentrated effort. Speaking personally, my students all very much enjoy our lessons, which are have their share of spontaneity and humor, but they don’t pay me to be entertained. They come to learn and know that I will demand the most and best from them.
Thus, the more demanding the teacher – with respect to the student’s individual talent and current level – the better. (It goes without saying that no good teacher would place impossible demands on a student.) A piano teacher’s reputation for being strict and demanding is a very desirable quality! As musicians, we must learn to be strict and demanding of ourselves, for that is the path to mastery.
I recommend a classical approach to learning piano, one steeped in music theory, reading music and ear training. For this reason I also highly recommend against any method that lays claim to being an “alternative” to “traditional” methods. If a prospective teacher says that you won’t need to learn to read music for the first year or so, don’t be persuaded! Professional musicians do not teach methods that appeal to laziness, for true musical skills can only be acquired by careful, thoughtful, guided work. While a classical approach is difficult, a good teacher will guide the student step by step. Remember that it is not desirable – nor is it even possible – to skip steps when learning such a skill as playing the piano! Thus, when choosing a piano teacher, find one that will demand the most and best from you and who will teach you to expect the best from yourself.
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