I find it sad yet true, and humbling, that I am not the best piano teacher for every student. No teacher is right for every student. Some teachers and students are a natural fit based on personality, learning objectives, and other factors. When choosing a teacher you will probably consider their playing level, teaching pedigree, etc. While these are important factors (particularly for advanced players), in this article I want to focus on what beginners should consider when looking for a teacher, specifically: personal chemistry and learning chemistry.
It amazes me how many music students – often advanced students – feel that they must tolerate an uncomfortable or awkward relationship with their teacher. Now, this might sometimes be worth it, if a teacher has something that only they can teach you. All things being equal though, wouldn’t you rather spend your time and money on someone whose presence you enjoy? I know I would!
Generally speaking, don’t settle for less than a comfortable and pleasant relationship with your teacher. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with a teacher who will push and inspire you, and who might even get on your case when you’re not living up to your own expectations. Indeed, it’s probably better to err on the side of choosing a teacher who will push you more, rather than one who will let you slack.
Personal chemistry is also important for parents. You may feel comfortable with a teacher, but does your child? If you sense that your child feels awkward, uncomfortable, or like they can’t be themselves with a teacher, you may want to look elsewhere.
You may feel comfortable personally with a teacher but later realize that your “learning chemistry” isn’t a very good match. Factors to consider include your playing level, learning objectives, and the types of students your teacher usually accepts. If you want to play as a hobby but your teacher prefers to work with budding virtuosos, you may find the pressure overwhelming.
Obviously, another aspect of learning chemistry are the styles you want to learn. Your teacher should not only play those styles but also be able to teach them. (While the old adage that “those who can’t do, teach” may sometimes be true, the opposite is true just as often – there are many good players who aren’t good teachers. It goes without saying that it’s best to find someone who is both a good player and teacher!)
Another aspect of learning chemistry is methodology. Does your teacher use an organized, methodical approach, or teach in a more spontaneous way depending upon your needs? Do they lead the lessons, or let you lead? Which do you prefer? Even more important, which would be best for you at this stage in your learning?
Does your teacher offer mostly verbal feedback or mostly demonstrate? Or both? Is it important for you that your teacher gives you ample opportunity to play and then provides feedback? Or would you prefer that your teacher spend most of the lesson playing while you observe? Apart from your preference, which do you think would help you learn most quickly at this stage?
After a few weeks or months of lessons, ask yourself if it still feels like a good fit. Consider if you feel overwhelmed by how much material is assigned. Do you feel you’re not reaching the level of competency you want to reach with a given piece before moving on to the next one? Or are you progressing too slowly, with your teacher nitpicking and keeping you on the same material for weeks or longer? One isn’t necessarily better than the other – it depends on your goals and learning preferences. You may realize that even though you don’t like a nitpicky teacher, that you will reach your goals faster by putting up with him or her. (Or maybe you won’t!)
Just as finding the perfect soulmate may be an impossible dream for most people, there is probably no such thing as the perfect teacher. Still, there are better and worse fits in terms of personal and learning chemistry. If something doesn’t feel quite right, communicating your needs may be all that is needed. You are, after all, the customer. The best teachers will either do their best to accommodate you, or let you know that you are better off with someone else.
If you’ve only ever had one music teacher, you may believe that his or her personality or style is what all music teachers are like. But if you try another teacher, you’ll realize that there are as many different ways to teach as there are teachers.
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