Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Choose a Music Teacher

How to Choose a Music Teacher

© 2012 Lori Fredrics

Kinds of Teachers

1) Master Teacher

A master teacher is the kind of teacher that a professional or anyone with professional aspirations should seek.

Master teachers have years of successful experience teaching professional musicians or students on the university level.  Some of the students of this kind of teacher should be high-level players therefore the master teacher should be able to provide you with an opportunity to hear their students either live or on recording. The teacher should have excellent testimonials, but more importantly, students who are winning auditions, getting work, and being accepted to high level training programs. Know how to read the testimonials. When a student says that the teacher is wonderful it might only prove the teacher is a nice person, not that he or she gets results. A professional/aspiring professional is not simply looking to enjoy the experience of the lessons, but to see improvement that will cause them to maintain/improve their career.

 The master teacher himself/herself should be a skilled performer and usually has high-level credits. It is nearly impossible to be the kind of teacher that can assist a student to become an excellent professional level musician or singer without the teacher being or having been a first rate player of singer themselves. Don’t trust vague credentials; seek out sound recordings, reviews or if the teacher is still actively performing go to a performance.

A master teacher has his or her own method. A disciple of another teacher is not a master teacher, at least not initially. A master teacher does not simply teach out of an instrumental method book or simply teach the 24 Italian art songs and arias (aria antiche) if they are a singing teacher.

Graduating from a big name school does not make one a master teacher. A graduate of Julliard was a CUSTOMER of Julliard.  A musician who taught on the faculty of conservatory or university is what you are seeking, if you are looking for a master.

Most master teachers (but not all) are expensive, but worth it, because aspiring musicians are trying to enter the most competitive field in the world.  Being competent is not enough; you have to be the best. But master teachers do not have to be expensive, sometimes, if you are lucky enough and think outside the box, you can find top level instruction  for the same price you would pay at your neighborhood music studio. My own most important technique teacher was a retired opera singer outside of NYC who had long career on the great stages of the world and charged me about half what professional singing teachers charge in Manhattan per session and he usually worked with me for two hours! Ask for recommendations and look for situations such as someone teaching out of their own home, so you don’t have to pay the overhead.

2) Professional Teachers
A professional teacher is a qualified teacher that can help you become a proficient player

Generally the teachers have bachelors or master’s degrees in music and some teaching experience fall into this category.  Thousands of music majors graduate every year with degrees every year with no employment prospects as performers.  Their main employment option is teaching beginners and children. Many do so even though they have little interest in teaching.
 The good ones, the established ones, that you can find by word of mouth can usually provide recorded examples of students so, or will invite prospective students to recitals where you can hear their present students play. They generally have waiting lists and getting on the list is worth the wait.

 The poor and inexperienced ones have never taught anyone who became an advanced student and they will not have anything in the way of sound clips to provide. The least inspiring ones teach mostly out of method books, which is a cookie-cutter approach to teaching. Someone else who knew what they were doing made the book(s) and they are just following along. The lessons are not tailor made to suit the needs and interests of the student.

 Many, however, do not play even well themselves. As a former university teacher myself, I have seen many poor musicians and singers, eek through the system and get degrees without learning their craft.  Often they have severe technical flaws that leave them unemployable as a performer and they pass those on to their students. These days a degree in music does not necessarily mean someone can play or sing well, but at least they have been through a formal musical education.

 Most children and adults without professional ambitions will do fine if they find a good professional teacher. But you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, an inexperienced teacher or uninspiring teacher who mostly teaches out of a book and can not relate the techniques they are teaching to the student’s present musical interests can cause frustration and discouragement.

 What kind of teacher will you generally find at your local music studio? Generally the proprietors pay them less than half of what you pay. Most places are not looking for the best teachers they can find, but for ones that will show up for work and work for the lowest wages. So when you sign up in the office you are probably handing over big money, for mediocre instruction. In a best-case scenario you are paying double the market rate
for competent instruction.  Luckily none of my friends ever has to do this, I know a network of musicians who teach and you can go directly to any of these teachers.

If you see the resume of a teacher at a local studio and it looks good, by all means call the musicians directly! No studio I know of has an exclusive contract, do a little research and contact them directly.  It is totally kosher to do this if you have not already worked with the teacher at the local studio. Most teachers that teach at local music schools also teach at their homes or travel to students. If you are a serious student you will spend years with your music teacher.  Spend your money on instruction, not the music studio’s high rent and administrative costs.

3) Unqualified Teachers

Unqualified teachers are those who do not have qualifications that indicate that they have the needed skills to help students progress to proficiency.

Anyone can put up a shingle and give music lessons.  Private music teachers are not licensed. When I was a freshman voice student, a sophomore, who was an older non-traditional student in my music program, became frustrated that she was earning all Cs, so she dropped out printed up business cards and started teaching. She didn’t understand the first thing about singing technique and had terrible technique problems, but her husband, had the money to rent her an impressive studio so I am sure she looked “professional” to her unsuspecting clients.

Not all teachers without “qualifications” are poor teachers. Students presently in their degree programs are technically not “qualified” but you can find a promising, but inexperienced teacher, suitable to teach a beginner that way. That may be the way to go if you or your child is studying music for personal enjoyment. Call your local university and speak to a professor of the instrument you want to study and ask for a recommendation. A much smarter idea than paying double at a local studio!

A further note is that many of the teachers that you find teaching in your public schools, while they have a degree that says they are a music teacher, are actually not actually able to play the instruments they are teaching.  Music Ed programs offer ONE SEMESTER, of violin, percussion, voice, brass etc, and then they set these people loose in schools to teach your kids, scary huh?  With only four months instruction, and not even private instruction on a particular instrument, the person is a beginner, and should not be teaching, but they do. Hopefully, the professional teaching trumpet to your kid in his/her school was a trumpet major, or minor, but that may not be the case.  On a brighter note I personally know many highly qualified, and in many cases vastly over qualified people teaching kids in public schools, so it really varies.

As I pointed out in the section about master teachers, a teacher needs to be an excellent player themselves in order to be an effective teacher. But that is not all that is necessary. Of course someone who is there to help somebody learn, should have strong teaching skills first and foremost. Especially in the vocal area, you occasionally find amazing natural singers or partially trained singers those who’s main area of excellence is themselves having an impressive voice choosing to prematurely take on students in order to fund their own studies. Beware of this type, often they are ego driven and the type that has distain for their students, blaming their  lack of progress  on the student’s lack of talent, when it is really their own shortcomings as a teacher that is getting in the way. A teacher can only offer you their musical/stylistic/linguistic/interpretive/ technical knowledge they cannot impart their own vocal instrument upon you. 

So to make a complex subject simple, see my outline below:

1) The only thing an individual needs to be an effective teacher is knowledge of the subject matter and the ability to communicate, so you don’t necessarily need a teacher with a teaching degree, go for someone who can really play their instrument and explain things clearly.

2) Cut out the middleman. Learning your instrument is a long commitment. The costs of not going directly to the teacher are astronomical.

3) Find a teacher who knows their stuff, is inspiring and can tailor the lessons to your needs.  An inflexible cookie-cutter approach is boring frustrating and uninspiring. If your teacher teaches from a method book without supplementing is usually a bad sign.

4) If you want to be a professional, go to a teacher who has an excellent record of teaching professionals. Realize that these lessons will challenge you and help you improve. Be wary of teachers that stroke your ego for profit instead of teaching you. A music teacher should not promise you a career, good teachers promise to help you achieve excellence not career success.

5) Never accept emotional abuse from your teacher. Your teacher should not yell at you or demean you. Your teacher should support you when you seek outside opinions on your progress. Your teacher should encourage your efforts to get performing experience, but may properly indicate that you are not ready to perform certain pieces or in highly exposed situations if you are not ready. Inexperienced performers who are interested in funding their own studies often take on students without a sincere desire to teach or the level of knowledge necessary to teach music. Avoid these types.  You can often identify these types because they will have little or no teaching experience or qualifications, but not be up front about this. Do your research

Your choice of music teacher is critical for achieving your musical goals. Choose wisely! Any friend, colleague, student, former student or reader of this article can feel free to ask me for assistance in finding professionals to aid in their further musical development.

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