Auditioning a Music Teacher

[This article was published in the June 2007 issue of the Qatar-based feature magazine ‘New Era’]

When asked to name someone who has had a major influence in their lives, most people choose to mention a mentor figure – a teacher, sports coach or counselor. Having had a succession of piano teachers in my learning years, I can attest to their influence not only on my musical growth, but also in areas personal and psychological.

I began learning the piano at age six. In the years to follow, my teachers were chosen for me. If at all there was an interview, it was the teacher who had the final say in choosing the student. Understandable. For the most part, they were wonderful human beings, but their undemanding teaching methods (at least where I was concerned) and indulgent style left me unchallenged and I carried a certain void with me.

Recognizing the need to be challenged, I set out to find a teacher in my early teens. I was already in love with the piano, working zealously and enjoying practice as much as I did performance. Impatient to move ahead in my musical growth, I welcomed criticism, objective observation and discipline. My ideal teacher would be someone who would recognize my musical aptitudes and deficiencies, while shaping a curriculum that would bring out the best in me while setting a high standard of goals. 

If you want to study music privately, recognize that you are a free agent, and can and should interview prospective teachers. As a teacher, I encourage students to query about my teaching methods & lessons before they sign up. Just as you might seek the opinion of two or three doctors on a medical issue before accepting one diagnosis and treatment over the others, I see no reason why a student shouldn’t take trial lessons with a few teachers before deciding on whom to study with eventually.

If a teacher objects to giving a trial lesson, look elsewhere, and you will find many who would be happy to oblige with a starter lesson. Technicalities aside, compatibility of personalities is also crucial to a long-term relationship, and this is something that can be confirmed only after a few lessons.

Students with talent and drive may find studying with one teacher constraining, hence at some point in the learning process, they may want to seek the guidance of another teacher. When studying with two or more teachers, a concern voiced is that there may be contradictory styles of teaching or conflicting information given which would confuse the student. I personally feel that it is better to see the world through two pairs of eyes, than just one. An enlightened student will shoulder the responsibility of arriving at his or her own conclusions about valuable versus ineffective instruction.

One of the most beautiful rewards of teaching is sharing the art of music with others. It involves handling complex personalities and yes, the chore of disciplining a child, but the joy of watching a student’s face light up with understanding or play music from the heart, can fill a teacher’s heart with a sense of pride and happiness.

I believe the responsibility of being a guide, critic and friend is a sacred one, since the student has entrusted his or her creative development in your hands. Depending on the degree of personal interaction, a teacher’s influence on a student can be far-reaching, hence if you are contemplating the study of music, be sure to make an effort to locate a teacher with whom you can have a mutually rewarding long-term relationship with.

Finding the right teacher, asking the right questions:

– Topping the wish list, is finding a teacher who is a nurturer. A teacher who inspires a student can work magic, instilling a lifelong love of music for generations to come.

– There are several teachers who are highly qualified and certified, but make for average teachers. While music degrees and teaching certification are an advantage they are not adequate, since a good teacher also needs to be a psychologist, communicator and inspirer.

– Inquire about teachers in your area, consult with friends & (and) family, visit the local music stores and ask for recommendations

– Request a meeting with prospective teachers in person before making a commitment to a particular one. Teachers are usually willing and eager to explain their techniques and objectives and should not have a problem arranging for an interview.

– Nowadays most teachers have their resumes online or have their own personal web pages. This allows you a chance to get acquainted with them before the interview. You may however still want to ask them about their professional and educational experience.

– If there is a written studio policy, review it with the teacher before you sign up. Inquire about the instructional materials used and the teaching curriculum.

– Equally if not more important than lessons, is the work done by the student at home. Find out how much practice time is required every day. If the student is a young child, the parents should inquire their degree of involvement in the practice and scheduling of work at home, and how student evaluations are done.

Ramona Borthwick is a jazz pianist who was classically trained. Her latest CD ‘A New Leaf’ received critical acclaim in the US. She lives in Boston, MA where she performs and teaches. Visit her on the web at: www.ramonaborthwick.com

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