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. Trust your instinct. You, the parents, have excellent instincts – otherwise your children would not have survived their infancy. The fact that you want them to have music lessons usually means that you want them to have something extra in life and you are willing to go to the trouble of spending time and money to get this for them. Trust yourself. Yes, look at degrees, certificates and qualifications but while these are important, they aren’t the most important thing to consider. I have seen teachers with every possible qualification who are absolutely abominable teachers. I also have spent a lot of time talking to some very famous musicians about teaching and, you may be surprised to know, expertise on the instrument is pretty far down on the list of what’s important to them in a teacher.
What was the first thing? The teacher’s human qualities.
So how can you judge this? Easy, you’re a human so you know one when you see one. Go observe a prospective teacher’s lessons. If a teacher won’t allow this or won’t let parents observe their children’s lessons, much less participate in them, then try someone else. If, on observing a more obliging teacher with or without your child present, you decide you would like lessons with this teacher, then it’s probable that your child will like it, too. It’s that simple.
Keep in mind that the most important teacher your child is going to have is the first one. That teacher by her way, example, intuition, motiviation and attitude is going to be the one who determines if your child loves music, making music, learns how to face a problem (playing a musical instrument presents lots and lots of problems that a child will have to learn to solve on his own), finds a passion or a hobby, improves his sensitivies and intuition, and so on. In our society we aren’t used to picking teachers: we have to take more or less what’s available at our local schools. Sometimes there is a bit of wiggle room, but our teachers are mostly chosen for us. Therefore, when picking our child’s first music teacher it’s tempting to fall back on qualifications, degrees and other people’s opinions as we have no experience in choosing a teacher.
But we do know a lot about human beings. We run from doctors we don’t like. We don’t make friends with someone who raises our hackles. We may decide whether or not to take a job opportunity on the basis of whom we will be working with or for. We make countless decisions based on our gut without realizing it – so should we ignore it when picking a teacher for our child? It’s the best faculty we have, otherwise we would be computers. A computer can analyze lots of things and come up with a list of potential teachers, but a computer cannot measure a teacher’s humanity. Only you can do that.
So when deciding on a teacher, remember that this person may be a strong and important presence in your child’s (and indeed your family’s) life for many years to come. She will have a one on one relationship with your child that may be the most important didactic relationship of his life. You should look for someone who is interested in your child and his growth and, by extension, is interested in you and your concerns. Someone who cares about your child but is detached enough to be able to see him clearly. Someone who effortlessly uses different techniques and styles of teaching according to the needs of her students. You may have to watch a few lessons to pick this up, but it’s important. You want someone who will bawl your child (or even you) out, if that’s what’s necessary or will be kind, compassionate and tolerant of foibles when appropriate.
You don’t go to a computer to analyze whether or not you like someone or should marry them. You don’t ask a computer to decide if you should hire someone. You don’t allow computers or even other people to make important decisions about your personal life because, as you know, their opinions could be wrong and their basis for them may have nothing to do with your reality. The one quality you do have that is infallible is your own humanness – it’s what you use to navigate through your life. So use it for your children. This choice of a teacher is one of the most important decisions you will make for them in their whole lives. Pick carefully and above all, trust yourself.
Post author: Eloise Hellyer