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