Sunday, April 17, 2011

Finding a Teacher

Many of my students have come to me after having studied with other piano teachers. Some have recently left the other teacher because they are seeking something different. Many of my adult students had lessons many years previously with other teachers. It's sad to say that most do not remember their experiences of their lessons as a child in a positive light. I'm always amazed and impressed that these students are willing to take the chance to try again, even though they have unhappy memories of their early lessons. I've heard countless stories of students being rapped on the hands for hitting wrong notes. I've heard of teachers yelling at students, of teachers telling students they were worthless, untalented, and so on. I've heard of teachers picking up the students music books and ripping them up, even throwing them out the window! I've heard of teachers telling the student to "come back when you can play fewer wrong notes."

Thank goodness that times have changed and most people would not tolerate a teacher who uses physical violence or punishment, or who yells at or harshly criticizes the student. But there are still a great deal of very poor and destructive teaching methods that are accepted as normal. Here are some of the ones I find most common:

1.) Over-emphasis on scales, finger exercises, and mechanical repetition. A woman came to see me recently, and told me her current teacher spent 45 minutes of her 60-minute lesson having her play scales. The last few minutes of the lesson were for her pieces, and when she asked to be able to play more music, the teacher replied that there wasn't enough time and she would have to take a two-hour lesson for that! Even if the scales were necessary, the teacher should just make sure the student is doing them correctly, then let them do them at home, so the lesson could be spent more productively. I suspect this teacher did not really know how to teach actual music, so he let her just practice her scales while he earned $60 per hour for it! Many teachers seem to give hefty doses of scales and finger exercises, which students usually hate, and by the time they have completed these they have little enthusiasm left for practicing. But more important, scales comprise a very small portion of what one might call "technique." Practicing scales and finger exercises in a mechanical way teaches you to play mechanically. There is little likelihood that if you spend hours playing that way, that you will be able to miraculously flip a switch and play your pieces beautifully and expressively. I believe that heavy reliance on scales and so-called finger exercises is the refuge of an unimaginative and burned-out teacher. If this is how the teacher learned to play the piano, this may be the only way they know how to teach, and they have probably not even questioned whether this is a desirable way to learn. But YOU, the student, should question it.

2.) Teachers who cannot really play. Your teacher does not have to be a concert pianist, but should certainly be able to play pieces of moderate level of difficulty with some ease and fluency. Parents of a new student of mine told me that a previous teacher struggled to play the pieces their child was about to learn. No teacher can possibly teach technique or any other aspect of playing the piano if he/she does not have a fairly high level of mastery of that aspect himself. The teacher needs to be able to recognize what the student is doing that prevents mastery of the technique, and to show the student what needs to be changed, and to demonstrate the technique. It simply won't work for the teacher to "explain" the way to achieve some aspect of playing, without being able to show it. The old saying "Those who can't do, teach" does not apply to every teacher, thank goodness, but, sadly, it still applies to many.

3.) Teachers who can only play and teach one style. If your teacher plays only classical music, and insists that you play only classical music, you might want to re-think taking from that teacher, even if classical is your main interest. The teacher should also be able to help you play by ear, harmonize a simple song, play songs from charts or fake books, in case you should decide one day you want to do that. If the teacher says, "Just do those things on your own," it means they don't know how to do it themselves. It is simply good musicianship for a teacher to have familiarity with various genres of music. Unless you, the student, are quite advanced and you know you are concentrating on one genre, you might want to have your options open by having a teacher who can help you broaden, not limit, your horizons.

Here are some things to consider when interviewing a prospective teacher:

First, will the teacher make the learning enjoyable? Even someone who is “serious” about music has chosen this field, hopefully, because of a love of music and an enjoyment in creating music. Unfortunately, many teachers have squelched this love and enjoyment through rigid methods, excessive repetition, mechanical and non-musical exercises, harsh criticisms, and so on.

Second, will the teacher help bring out the individual’s natural abilities and inclinations? No two people will play alike, and the teacher must not direct the student in how to express himself, but rather to give the tools to enable the student to express his authentic self.

Third, can the teacher teach more than one style? A true musician should have many tools in his toolbox, so to speak. This includes playing be ear, harmonizing songs, perhaps improvising, in addition to the traditional reading of printed scores. Many people are not aware that the great composers, from Bach and Beethoven to Liszt, were master improvisers, and they did so often in public recitals. This is an art we should all try to cultivate to the best of our abilities.

Fourth, ask the teacher to play for you and ask yourself if you enjoyed the playing. If the teacher tells you she cannot play because she is too busy teaching to have time to “practice,” beware! Anyone who has played for a number of years should always be able to play something, even if it is not the highly difficult pieces. And how can the teacher expect the student to do what he/she does not do himself?

Fifth, the teacher should have an excellent piano, a baby grand or grand in good condition and of fine quality. A small spinet or otherwise deficient piano indicates either the teacher is not serious about his/her profession, or is not successful enough to afford a quality instrument. The studio should be neat, clean, and free from distractions such as background noise. The studio should not have the teacher's personal effects or children's toys lying about, and should be pleasant to be in. The teacher should be dressed in a professional manner as a sign of respect and that they view themselves as a professional.

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