to Find and Select a Piano Teacher
What age should my
child start lessons?
I do not recommend teaching children younger
than age 7 to play the piano. I wait to start piano lessons until children are
age 7, because I feel it's a safer age for children to engage in those fine
motor skills. There are other reasons, like attention span and reading ability
-- but these vary from child to child. The most important reason is the health
of their muscles and connective tissue, which is not fully formed at an earlier
You can find teachers who will start your
child at a younger age. That doesn't mean your child will have a head start. A
child's concentration and awareness will grow so much by age 7 that the child
who started at 5 and the one who started at 7 will be in the same place by age
8 -- except the one who started earlier will probably have some bad physical
habits that will require undoing (which is much more difficult than simply
learning well in the first place) -- simply because their concentration and
awareness is usually not adequate to guiding their hands at a young age. The
teachers I respect tell me they would prefer not to start children before age
7, or they take them with the understanding that they will give the children a
more general music experience for their first couple of years, and then
gradually move into specific piano study.
Along those lines, I suggest people enroll
their younger children in a Dalcroze or Kindermusic class. In those classes,
children learn a lot about music through movement, listening, and using
percussion instruments that require only larger muscle movement. They can
develop a lively and sophisticated musical foundation without having to use or
stress their developing tendons and ligaments. There is a fabulous Dalcroze
instructor in my neighborhood, Dorothea Cook, who is a beautiful musician and
teacher. She teaches at the Stony Brook Pre-College program, and also teaches
How do I locate
- Find out if local college music
departments have reference lists. Sometimes they include only names of their
students. Most of these will be inexperienced but inexpensive, but some will be
enthusiastic teachers who already have taught for quite a few years. The only
downside to them is that they will probably be moving on within a few years,
and you or your child will have to adjust to a new teacher then. If they are
wonderful musicians who love teaching, though, it could be worth it.
Sometimes music departments
include names of more experienced local teachers -- indeed, sometimes they have
vetted lists of teachers from whom they ask their own music majors to choose.
This kind of list can be a valuable starting
- School music teachers often have
reference lists and resumes of local piano teachers.
- See if there is a local piano teachers
group from which you can get names of teachers in your area. Try to find out if
they have group piano recitals you can attend.
- You might find a reference list from a
local MTNA, which stands for Music Teachers National Association. To find your
state MTA, add the name of your state to MTA (e.g., the Minnesota Music
Teachers Association, or MMTA). Some state MTA's publish online reference
- Ask friends who play well, or whose
children play well, for a recommendation.
- The Yellow pages, classified ads, and
local music and piano stores are all ways of finding teachers. In general
(though not in all cases), music stores take such a large cut for overhead and
administration that once teachers have some experience and a reputation, they
move on. Ask how long teachers have been working there. If you find a music
store that holds onto its teaching staff over a long period of time (Frank and
Camille's Keyboard Center in Huntington, NY is one such), bravo to the store
for treating its employees so well! The Yellow Pages and classified ads may
render good teachers who have recently moved to the area, so don't dismiss them
outright -- but just as with dentists and auto mechanics, a recommendation is
worth a lot.
Now I have a long
list of teachers. How do I know which ones might be right for
Make a list of what you want in a teacher,
and from your lessons.
- Do you, or does your child, want to learn
to play Classical music? Jazz? Popular? Someone who teaches and plays all three
styles well is rare, and it's always better to study with a teacher who loves
the music she teaches.
- Do you want to improve your technique? If
you can find someone who has studied the Taubman Approach to Piano Technique
for a number of years, you have a head start.
- Do you want many opportunities to perform?
Do you want to participate in adjudications and competitions?
- Do you want to audition for colleges? In
that case, it's handy to have a teacher who has advanced degrees in music and
therefore knows what colleges are looking for in terms of repertoire,
interpretation, and technical ability. They can help you decode audition
requirements and help you choose the right degree program for you. Now, I say
it is handy to have a teacher with advanced degrees for this -- but it is not
absolutely necessary. If teachers state that they prepare their students for
college auditions, do consider them
Now start comparing your reference list
with your list of what you need in a teacher.
- Look at how much education they have. On
many piano teachers' group reference lists, people list their degrees and
specialties. Now, some people have had wonderful private teachers, and are
excellently self-taught musicians (in spite of having no college degree in
music), and are born teachers to boot, so don't dismiss them on account of
having no college degrees, but definitely try out the ones with more
- Look for teachers that belong to musical
societies like local music teachers groups, MTNA and National Guild of Piano
Teachers. They're most likely to receive continuing education in music. If they
are active presenters to their groups, so much the better. People who are
adjudicators usually have some decent training.
- Look for teachers who perform. You may not
be able to tell this from a reference list, but if you can, consider that
teacher. They will know more repertoire and have firsthand knowledge of what
it's like to try to communicate music to others in performance.
Now it's time to
interview the teachers you selected.
- Try to interview several teachers from
your list. I personally don't feel you should have to tell them who else you're
playing for, but I do feel you should be open that you want to try out several
to see who seems to be the best fit.
- Find out what their policies are in
regards to payment and make-up lessons. These vary widely among teachers -- I
don't think any two teachers I know have the same policy. Since teaching is
their livelihood, they need their clients to respect their policies, but you
may be more comfortable with some policies than others.
- Many people suggest you attend a recital
of a teacher's students to check out his class. This may or may not be
possible. Some teachers have such a variety of students (college students,
piano teachers, amateur adults, children) that a recital for any one group
would be too small, and they only have their students participate in group
recitals with other teachers. Many teachers structure their recitals more like
parties or friendly get-togethers, so that it's a matter of sharing music with
friends rather than a pressured performance. A stranger who is there for the
purpose of checking them out will not contribute to the atmosphere they're
trying to create. Also, teachers have enough to worry about -- the lock on the
door of the facility, the piano, getting every student seated well, pumping up
each student so they all feel ready in their unique way, the food for the
reception... Being checked out in addition to all that may feel gratuitously
and unnecessarily pressuresome. If someone says no, that doesn't mean you
should reject them. Your or your child's own private lesson will tell you much
more about what your own experience would be, anyway.
- At the interview/lesson, the teacher will
want you or your child to play for her, then make suggestions. Some teachers
want to run lessons their way, and they will probably teach best while
functioning in their own comfort zone. At this initial interview/lesson,
however, you must be certain to answer your own questions. If you bring a list
of questions when meeting each teacher, and write down the answers, it will be
easer to make a decision later.
- Some teachers will give you their resumes,
although not everyone will. They should be able to tell you what their
education is, though.
- If you're looking for a teacher to help
you prepare for college auditions, ask teachers if they have had students who
have gotten into colleges, and what steps they would take to ensure successful
- What kind of technical system, if any, do
they have? It is of great importance that they help you become comfortable and
efficient -- and not just say that, but show you, right then and there. Many
teachers will say they help their students be "relaxed," but what they teach
will actually produce tension. So ask them to give you an example of a change
they think would be good in your technique. Don't be afraid to judge for
yourself if it helps you become more free, efficient, facile, or expressive, or
not. Keep in mind that no piano technique should ever produce fatigue,
discomfort, or pain. If a teacher has a "no pain, no gain" technical system,
that should eliminate them from your consideration.
- Does this teacher help you play
expressively? If you're looking for a classical teacher, does he/she teach a
variety of music, from Bach to Bartok? Or does he/she prefer all Romantic and
light contemporary music? Limited repertoire is fine for a child who's only
going to take lessons as a sideline until they leave for college, and then
forget about it. However, if someone wants to go on into music, even as part of
a general education degree, they need to be familiar with a greater variety of
music. More importantly, the greater variety of style periods one plays, the
richer the experience -- so even if someone isn't planning to go on into music
in college, it's nicer for them to learn a wide variety of music.
- Does the teacher teach theory? This can
be done in a wide variety of ways. I prefer teaching theory in the context of
learning the music -- having them read by interval, having them learn the
scales and fundamental chords of the pieces they're playing, and understand how
the composer uses them to create the piece. Others use separate theory books (I
would, but I haven't found one I like!!) or software (ok, Music Ace is fun).
The other danger of theory books (besides that of being unappealing to some
teachers!) is that students can study theory without using it to understand the
music they're playing. In my view, this kind of theory study is a waste of
time. However a teacher uses music theory, she should ideally be able to say
how she does it, and how she uses it to help students have a richer
understanding of music.
Now, I feel I must add here that
my beloved and fabulous childhood piano teacher taught me no theory at all, and
I was a straight-A music student through several post-secondary music degrees,
and even passed out of some (6, I think) ear-training classes by merely taking
the placement exams. So I'm not in the camp that feels theory is an absolute
necessity. When I started learning theory, though, it added a layer of
delightful discovery to learning music, and also helped me to understand the
direction of increasingly complex music. It also gives many students something,
sometimes the crucial something, to hold onto while learning and memorizing --
but only if it is integrated into how students experience the
- Do you, or does your child, feel
comfortable with this person? You will bring your bodies and your innermost
expression to that teacher. You don't want to feel inhibited.
You're ready to make a choice now! In
fact, it will probably be obvious and you won't even have to decide. Trust
yourself. You know enough to know what teacher is best for you or your child.
And if you decide later that you need something different, you can
I have gotten into
the college of my choice. How do I choose the right teacher for
Many steps are the same as the previous
steps. I would add these guidelines:
- Ideally, your first step towards finding
the right college teacher should begin when you are choosing programs to
audition for. If a school has a particularly appealing teacher, be sure to
apply for it (but always have backup applications!).
- Study the faculty list of each school or
- See if you can find recordings of any of
the teachers, or hear them perform live. If someone's playing touches you
especially, consider that teacher.
- Try to have a lesson or lessons with
interesting-sounding teachers even before your audition. Recruiting students is
part of their job, and they expect to have to set aside some time during the
school year on lessons like these. They may or may not charge for that lesson.
Avoid awkwardness by asking in advance. At the lesson, you can gauge if the
teacher will help you to improve. The ideal teacher will make you feel
respected and supported while filling in gaps in your musical understanding,
and helping you reach your expressive and technical potential.
- Audition in person if at all possible.
While you're at the school, try to talk to students about how they enjoy the
school, and about the different teachers. Their responses will be very
personal, so whether they are positive or negative, ask them what formed their
opinion. The answers to that question will tell you more than their initial
response. You should study with a teacher because she can give you what you
need, not because she helps people with problems you don't have!
- If you're choosing between several
schools, try to get a feeling at each place about whether students and teachers
are generally happy and stimulated, or burdened and depressed. Several elements
go into the making of a department's "personality," and many schools and
departments have marked ones. In the best cases, there is mutual respect,
support, and cooperation between members of the faculty. In other schools, it
can be very different, and in those schools, morale is lower. Even if you find
a wonderful teacher in a department like that, it's likely that he is looking
for another job and may not be there for the duration of your
- If you have been accepted to a music
school and have not yet met the teachers, arrange to have lessons with them in
the spring of your senior year in high school. The most popular teachers'
studios will fill before the fall term begins.
- Some college teachers are fabulous, while
others are... less than fabulous. Trust your judgment. Most teachers will not
give you everything you need, but they should give you some of it. Another
teacher at another time will give you other things. Do not study with teachers
who make you feel unhappy about yourself. If a teacher creates a feeling inside
of dissatisfaction with your current level of playing, that's different from
making you unhappy about yourself. It's ok as long as the teacher also provides
positive solutions, and helps you feel positive about your potential. Do not
study with someone who has a "no pain, no gain" theory of technical
improvement. You don't want to enter a program in order to fulfill your
potential, and end up injured.
Finally, trust yourself. You know enough to
make a good choice. Good luck!