How to Pick a Private Music Teacher for Your Child

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Parents of prospective music students often worry about how to pick an instrument and a teacher for their child. My immediate and instinctive answer to one parent who asked my opinion was, “Find a teacher you like and not care about what instrument she teaches. The teacher is more important than the instrument.” Heresy, you say. The commonly accepted way is for the parent, the student or the parent and student together to decide on an instrument and then go hunting for a teacher.

If you live in an enormous city where there are lots and lots of teachers of every ilk and instrument and you have no problems with money, time and transportation, then this is a good possibility. If, however, you live in a smaller center or have limited time and transportation at your disposal, then perhaps you had better think again.

You see, the real question is if you want someone to tell your child how to play an instrument or if you want someone to teach him. These are really two different things. You can divide teachers into two groups: the information givers and the midwives.

The Information Giver: There are lots of them around. They will tell you what they think you need to know and how to do it – and if you don’t or can’t do it, then so much the worse for you. Appearances can be deceiving as they often get spectacular results when they succeed – or rather when their students do. But take a look at how many students leave such a teacher’s studio, either having been sent away or leaving on their own because they and/or their parents feel they can’t live up to the teacher’s expectations. This kind of teacher will often have an excellent reputation. But, you have to ask yourself, reputation for what? If it’s for being “precise” and not accepting anything other than her idea of excellence, look out.

It all boils down to if you want someone who is interested in what she can do for your child or if you want someone who is interested in getting results. If the latter is your main interest, then the Information Giver may be perfect for you, but ask yourself if she is perfect for your child before you embark on the project of keeping this teacher happy. Because that’s what you will be doing. You will be spending a lot of your time and money trying to satisfy her. Her expectations are the center of her universe. She thinks that the music is all important, that the method or even the instrument and excellence in playing it are of the utmost consideration. But here the student comes last. How do I know this? I have had teachers like this, have had students who come to me from teachers like this, and have interviewed famous musicians who have had teachers like this who caused them great suffering.

The Midwife: This is a person who is interested in helping a child realize something important about and for himself. She is interested in helping a child learn to think and approach a problem. She wants your child to love music and playing it, but not at the expense of his psyche. Her bottom line is the well-being of your child, not her own. This means that she may put up with students no one else would. She may tolerate lack of practice and other common problems. Why? Because she knows that if she perseveres with her more difficult students, some of them will perk up and learn something important for them. She knows that she is giving more than instrumental lessons – she is giving life lessons. She just uses an instrument to do it.

Now I have made some gross generalizations here, and there are many subcategories that many teachers fall into and some even between the cracks. But these are the two essential categories to look out for. You want to know what is your prospective teacher’s mission statement, her mission in life. How can you know this? Ask her. Some teachers are surprisingly forthcoming about their goals and have no qualms about stating them.

There is another and better way, however. Continue reading

5 November 2018

Lesson Interrupted? How to Intercept Interference and Keep the Ball Rolling

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How do I stop parents from piping in and giving additional instructions to their children during the lesson?

Nowadays, many music teachers face this problem as we are encouraging, if not requiring, the parents of our students to be present at lessons. How to get parents to stop distracting their children with extra instructions and allow us to get on with our job?

First of all it’s important to remember that this isn’t about us or our authority. It isn’t a wrestling match to see who runs things. We may sometimes see such interruptions as disrespect for us or for the process. It isn’t. And even if it is, we gain nothing by interpreting it that way. As soon as we allow our egos to intervene, we are no longer seeing the situation clearly and can make a mistake, to the detriment of our students.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of the parent. Who has not had the following scenario at a lesson?

  1.  You ask Johnny a really difficult question like, “Where is the A string?”
  2.  He looks at you blankly.
  3.  Mother gets frustrated and jumps in with both feet.

This is completely understandable. Parents go to a lot of trouble to get lessons for their children. They don’t want to waste time or money, especially when they get from us so little of the former and give us so much of the latter. So they break in. It can be very frustrating to be a parent, to sit and watch your child struggle with something you know he knows or do something badly you know he usually does very well. After all, their child has only so many minutes with us a week and parents want to make the most of them. One thing none of us should ever forget is that it’s hard to be a parent – and there’s no training for it. Your students’ parents need your help and your understanding.

So first it’s important to remember a few basic points:

1. You are giving a service for which you are being paid.
2. You have to give customers what they want. The problem is that they often don’t know what they want and you have to help them realize what that is or change their minds if they have the wrong idea (see point 4).
3. You can’t teach effectively if you are worried about your own position or authority. Teaching is something you do with someone, not to them.
4. Teaching is essentially a sales job. We have to find a way to convince our customers to do things our way in a way that makes them think it’s their idea or in their best interests.
5. If you don’t succeed in getting them to do what you think is necessary, then go back to the first two points.
6. Contrary to what you might think from their behavior, almost all parents are there because they want you to teach their children and, by extension, them. They want their children to look good in your eyes and so try to help.
7. Even if point 6 is not true – that the parents really are evil and trying to undermine you – you still have to think that point 6 is the case and act accordingly. Sometimes truly unmanageable parents can be turned into the best behaved ones just because the teacher treats them like they are. People will live up to your worst expectations if you have them.
8. Let’s say that you just can’t bring yourself to assign good motives to some parents’ behavior. What are you going to do – make your student pay because his parents are so awful?

I’ll admit that I once had a mother I just couldn’t shut up. This mother was almost pathologically nervous and jumpy. As a result of her constant interruptions, her eight year old would talk back to her quite rudely during the lesson, not that I could blame her. It was an odd situation because normally parents will always allow me an opportunity, an “in,” to talk to them. She didn’t. So finally what I did say was this – and to the little girl, not the mother, under the guise of reproving the child for her manners: Continue reading

16 October 2018

Turning Your Perfectionist Student into a Perfect One: or How to Handle the Perfect Storm

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“I have a six year old student who, when she doesn’t get something right on the first try, plays the piece over and over, making the same mistakes or creating new ones. She then refuses to listen to any of my suggestions, getting increasingly frustrated and upset. On the rare occasion she’s willing to listen to me, she understands and fixes the problem pretty quickly. What to do?”

Finally a teacher asks a question about the perfect student – or rather the perfectionist student, not necessarily the same thing as we can see above. We teachers spend most of our working lives trying to instill some perfectionism into our more lassez-faire students. You know, the ones who when they make a mistake (if they notice it) just shrug their shoulders and go on, hoping you didn’t notice? I encourage my students to go through several steps when they make a mistake:

  1. Get angry – “What? How can this be? I’m much too intelligent to make that mistake!”
  2. Go, see and analyze why they made that mistake (perhaps the wrong hand position in beginners, not counting the half steps in intervals, etc.)
  3. Fix it, playing it slowly perhaps 10 times in a row (depending on the age of the student) without making a mistake.

The normal student sees himself as a victim of his mistakes – it’s easier and requires less energy than the above steps. Therefore,  I encourage these normal ones to get angry. Why? Anger must serve some evolutionary purpose, otherwise we wouldn’t all have it in our emotional make up. What could it’s purpose be? It gives you energy which you can use negatively or positively: you can either have a meltdown or you can use this energy to solve the problem that made you angry in the first place.

But what we have here is a little volcano who doesn’t need any help in getting angry. What she does need is help to stop it from turning into frustration. But first she needs help in learning to control her energy. That’s what anger is: energy in its most powerful form. Frustration comes from not using the energy properly. The problem is that she puts an extra step between Step 1 and Step 2 – she takes it personally, gets overcome by frustration and efficient learning thus goes out the window.

So the first thing I would tell this teacher is, “Congratulations, it looks like you have a budding soloist on your hands!” I have personally known four great and famous virtuosi who have made some small mistake in a concert and then wouldn’t look me in the eye afterwards. They were thinking about that mistake and were embarrassed. I was thinking of the magic of the music and their wonderful interpretations. Their noses were too close to the canvas, so to speak, and they were not capable in that moment of stepping back and seeing the whole picture – which is what the audience was doing. This level of perfectionism and fussiness is necessary to get to such exalted levels, but still they don’t let things get out of control when a little boo-boo happens.

They, however, are adults. This teacher has a six year old on her hands who doesn’t have control of her emotions or her energy. That’s what teaching an instrument is really all about: helping our charges to learn to control their energy and emotions so they can use them in expressing art. Not an easy task for teachers, especially when we are usually worried about getting our students to activate their energy and emotions instead of calming down an emotional atomic chain reaction like the one presented by this little girl.

So, what to do with a student like her? Ask the her any or all of the following questions. And don’t think she won’t understand them because she’s small. Ask which is better of the two choices: Continue reading

13 September 2018