Teresa Dybvig
Dedicated to the integration of heart, mind, body, music, and piano
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How to Find and Select a Piano Teacher
Starting age Locating teachers Selecting teachers Interviewing teachers College teachers

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 age.

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 separate classes.

How do I locate potential teachers?

  • 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 place.
  • 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 lists.
  • 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 me?

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 education.
  • 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 auditions.
  • 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 music.
  • 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 change.

I have gotten into the college of my choice. How do I choose the right teacher for me?

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 department.
  • 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 degree.
  • 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!

Copyright © 2010 Teresa Dybvig