Choosing a Piano Teacher

Choosing a teacher for your child  … or for yourself … is the single most important decision you’ll ever make to assure you’ll learn quickly and correctly.  And above all, that music will become a permanent joy in your child’s life.

little boy

It is tragic to see the woeful stats on how few children ever play a note in their adult years, even after three or four or even more years of piano study as a child.  Very few have good memories of those lessons.   Even fewer carry with them a genuine love of music gleaned from a skillful teacher’s introduction to the great classics.

To make matters even more difficult, nowadays children are pushed into lessons after their mothers watch a few You Tube clips

It astounds me to see the lack of teaching standards in the USA.   In Canada, the Royal Conservatory of Music provides a stellar program of graded classes leading to the A.R.C.T. diploma which has become the yardstick for evaluating a teacher. Without that diploma, very few pupils will register for classes.  Although there are no legal  barriers to hanging out one’s shingle as a piano teacher, that diploma is a basic expectation throughout most of Canada

I am dismayed by the number of “part time” teachers, who take a few piano students on the weekends while keeping their main job as a dental assistance or legal secretary or some other middle range employment.   Most of these so called “teachers” have no qualifications whatsoever.  In Canada, they often claim they passed Grade 8 or 10 from the Royal Conservatory.  In America they don’t even cite these minimal qualifications.

BEWARE        Part time or “weekend” teachers who have a regular job and are picking up a little “extra” by teaching piano on the side.  Or stay-at-home moms who are doing likewise.  The only exception might be a teacher with exceptional qualifications.  My first piano teacher did indeed stay home with her three young children.  But she was a graduate of the  Royal Academy of Music in London and had been a performing concert pianist before her marriage.  She was a perfect choice.

An allowance might be made for a younger person still studying for an advanced degree in music.  I taught for a year before completiing my A.R.C.T. from the Royal Conservatory.  But I was honest with my students and parents and charged reduced fees.  I was also competing in various competitions at the time and was a very advanced pianist.

And some wiggle room must always be left when you find yourself in an area where there a few or no qualified piano teachers.   In that case, quite often a church pianist or a music teacher from one of the elementary schools might be a reasonable choice.   And if she loves teaching, you may very well find a wonderful beginning teacher for your child.   Even without all those degrees.

But do double check any teacher who is teaching part time.  And insist on hearing her play the piano.  If she can’t or refuses, find another teacher.

BEWARE:    Teachers who multi-task and insist that they teach violin AND piano or flute AND voice.  Professional musicians do NOT teach two entirely different instruments.   They may have a working knowledge of several as most orchestra conductors do. And many students at a good music school will have a passing acquaintance with one or two other disciplines.  But their “major” is ONE instrument.

In a pinch with no other alternative, an  exception might be made for a voice and piano teacher for a beginning student, since most voice students are required to have a basic knowledge of the piano.  And many are advanced enough to play their own accompaniment.

But otherwise choose a piano teacher who IS a piano teacher.  Being a ” Jack of all trades” isn’t an advantage here.

BEWARE:   Teachers who profess to teach the “chord method”.   This unfortunately is not the way for beginners to learn anything beyond a handful of chords, which without a thorough knowledge of  note reading will provide them with nothing more than the ability to bang out those few chords repeatedly on the keys.  The piano is NOT a ukulele which can be learned fairly quickly and can provide a lot of pleasure with a handful of chords used mainly to accompany simple songs.

Don’t be beguiled by the TV advertisements which show a pianist fluently running his hands up and down the keyboard as he extols the virtues of  his 3 months course in “easy” piano playing.    Take a good look at his hands.   Those agile fingers have been floating over the  piano keys for years and years.   No one can move like that in three months.  And while chords may be the basic structure of a piece of music  … think of a building consisting of nothing but concrete pillars and girders, but without walls, windows or any interior design whatsoever and you’ll immediately see that’s missing,

BEWARE:   Teachers who come to your home for lessons.   No professional has time to waste traveling to children’s homes.   If you have three or four children in your family or neighborhood, some teachers will make an exception here.   But very few top level teachers will do it.   You will have to go to their home or studio.

BEWARE:   A teacher who doesn’t have firm guidelines.  You may not like those guidelines, but the teacher has established them for a valid reason.   Mine are the age of the child.   I will not take boys under 8 nor girls under 7.   No exceptions.   I require half an hour a day practice time.   And an accoustic piano ( or touch sensitive digital) after six or eight months, giving the parent and child time to decide if they like the lessons and want to continue.

PLUS POINTS;    The teacher is comfortable with the parent sitting in on the lesson. I personally welcome this as the parents gets a first hand view of my teaching methods, particularly the tricks I use to encourage and build confidence.

PLUS POINTS:    A teacher who is an excellent pianist and who shares a few moments of “concert” leval playing as a treat for the child.  I can think of nothing so inspirational for a beginner than to hear first class playing right there before their eyes.  Even a cascade of lightening fast scales can grab their attention.

PLUS POINS:   A warm and engaging personality.   There should be room for laughter and fun in every lesson.  The old image of the grim teacher with a ruler in her hand poised about the student’s fingers is a nightmare.  If you don’t like the teacher on that first meeting, chances are you child won’t either.  Warmth and enthusiasm are musts.

Happy music teacher

THE TWO ESSENTIALS …

It amazes me that these two basics are often ignored by parents looking for a teacher for their child.  They ask about lesson timings, if they can arrange lessons on Saturday, if you give recitals and most of all what fees you charge.   Then they bound into “missed lessons” and summer vacations.   Nothing remotely important in terms of actually learning to play the piano.  Nothing.

The First essential is so obvious that I am stunned when it is rarely mentioned.

WHAT ARE THE TEACHER’s QUALIFICATIONS?

Parents often choose their auto mechanic or barber with more care than they give to selecting a piano teacher.  The first question is what education in MUSIC does that teacher have.   In Canada, a diploma in teaching or performance is earned through a series of intensive exams given by the Royal Conservatory of Music.

But in the USA there is no such “intermediate” option before taking a full four year course in music at the Unversity level.   So the question becomes simply , ” Where did you study piano and what degree or diploma so you have.”    Don’t be shy in asking these questions.   A genuine teacher will be happy to answer them.   A “part-time” teaacher with her eye on extra cash will squirm.  Let her squirm.

CAN THE TEACHER PLAY THE PIANO?

This is another issue which confounds me.   How anyone who can’t play the piano dares to insist that they can teach someone else to play is beyond my grasp.  The excuse is often given that they’re ‘teaching beginners” or that they’re teaching “the basics”.  Which is utter nonsense.   Those beginning lessons are crucial.   If a skilled teacher can guide the student through the nitty gritty of learning the notes and basic techniques and at the same time instill a love for music in her pupil, then the rest will be easy sailing.  That first teacher is the one who will either propel the student forward into loving and appreciating music for the rest of its life or discourage him so badly, he will never touch a piano again.   That first teacher is the key.

My first teacher was a concert pianist who gave up her career after she married and left England to settle in Canada   I will never forget those first lessons when she played fragments of the Pathetique  … the Moonlight  … and the Fur Elise, which she promised me I would play in a couple of years if I worked hard.   I stood there mesmerized by her hands moving over the keys  … and the sound  …. oh the sound was pure magic.

Years later, I played a flashy piece for a new adult student.   He sat there with his eyes like saucers when I finished.  Then after few moments, a skeptical look came over his face and he got up and crawled under the piano.   He thumped the underside a few times before emerging.   “I thought you had something electronic in there” … he muttered weakly as he stood up.   I played a little more while he hovered right over my fingers in delighted disbelief.

Make sure your teacher can play that piano.   There’s nothing more encouraging that listening to your teacher playing beautifully.  It might be the next piece you’re going to learn or it may be one you’re being promised for the future.  Either way it’s perfect bait for the  student.

And finally  …  give a new teacher a couple of months and if you or your child isn’t happy with the lessons, then don’t hang on.  Simply find another teacher.   Don’t waste time or money with a teacher who isn’t inspiring you or your child.

treble clef

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8 Responses to Choosing a Piano Teacher

  1. Pingback: Identifying the Best Piano Teacher -

  2. Pingback: Life and Lessons | Music and Piano Playing

  3. Piano Valentine says:

    Hello Happy Piano Professor, I’m Piano Valentine 🙂

    I must be much much more careful next time if I really take weekly lessons again later.

    Hahaha, I seldom came across any ‘perfect bait’.

  4. Piano Valentine says:

    Addendum:

    In my area there is no reqirement for becoming a piano teacher. Sometimes Grade 5 people teach Grade 2, Grade 8 people teach Grade 5 and the like. So it’s not an easy task for me to find a piano teacher here.

    • nikkitytom says:

      Sorry for the long delay. Unfortunately in the USA there are really no requirements for piiano teachers. In England and Canada we do have the Royal Conservatory exams which are a good yardstick. But there are still people with Grade 8 who think they’re qualified to teach. Very very few are. If you can’t find a qualified teacher with some credentials, I’d suggest possibly someone who leads a Church Choir or plays for Church services. Or a teacher in an elementary or high school who teaches general music classes and also is willing to take a private student. Sometimes you can find an excellent teacher that way.

      Good luck in your search.

      Aloha Nikki

  5. Matautu Seeti says:

    hi i find a piano teaching because my daughter wants to learn how to play piano pls thanks

    • nikkitytom says:

      Aloha Matautu …

      The best advice I can give you is right here in this article. Make sure your child isn’t too young … at least eight. And that you have a piano at home. You can use a keyboard for a couple of months, but eventually she’ll need a piano. You also have to use a little psychology … let your daughter know that lessons are a “treat” and not just more school lessons. But she will have to practice at least half an hour a day.

      I don’t know where you live, but you may have to interview a few teachers to find one which you like. The best hints I can give is that the teacher be warm and friendly. If your child doesn’t enjoy the lessons, she won’t continue. And the teacher should be able to play the piano. This is tricky because sometimes it’s hard to ask a teacher to play. A good one will.

      The single most important thing your daughter must learn is to read the notes. Try to avoid teachers who insist on exams, which are meaningless for the beginning student. Anything less than Grade 8 is a waste of time.

      Good luck and be patient., It may take a while to find the perfect teacher for your daughter

      Aloha …Nikki

  6. K Parkin says:

    It’s so helpful to find a straightforward summary of how to determine a good piano teacher. Everything you say makes complete sense to me. I wonder if I could ask you a question about the chord method – one of the books that is often suggested for learning is the Alfred course lesson books. Do you consider these books an example of the chord method?

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