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Practical Homeschooling® :

How to Pick a Piano Teacher

By Brittany Joy Glenny
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #54, 2003.

Learn to tell a good piano teacher from a bad one and even how to start your own piano teaching business.
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Brittany Glenny

"Why is she playing that same piece again? Isn't she making any progress with this teacher?" Linda, mother of four homeschooled children, thinks as she heard her six-year-old Kari plunking away at "Hot Cross Buns" on the old upright for the hundredth time. She's frustrated, but on the other hand, Linda thinks, "What do I know about finding a good piano teacher?"

Discovering a good piano teacher can be difficult. It is vital that homeschooling parents find an excellent teacher because the home is the main source of music education. You want an instructor whom your child likes and respects, but good instructors are hard to find. Being prepared with questions to ask potential teachers can make the process easier. The following are questions every parent should ask prospective teachers.

"How do you decide if a child is ready to study an instrument?"

Homeschooling parents of new students should consider this question, above all.

Most teachers expect that a young beginning student be able to recognize letters and numbers, which refers to their overall mental development. Also, some teachers expect them to be at a certain emotional and physical level of development to handle keyboard lessons. These requirements vary from teacher to teacher, but if you do not ask this or other questions, your child's lessons may not be successful.

"How much do you charge for lessons?"

Finances play an important role in making a decision. Many parents do not know how much lessons should cost. Expect to pay at least $20 to $25 for a half-hour lesson with a teacher who has a master's or doctorate degree. The location of the teacher usually affects lesson costs. Suburban teachers tend to charge much more than rural teachers. In the Twin Cities teachers charge up to $100 per hour, and teachers in bigger cities like New York City may charge up to $200 per hour. However, rural teachers often charge $25 or less per hour.

Lesson costs can also be affected by the demand for the instructor. "Pre-college piano instructors are known because of their students' winning competitions," says Mary Beth Shaffer, private pre-college instructor and piano instructor at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. She suggests that several of her students' parents found out about her through word of mouth, particularly from parents of her students whose children have won competitions. Depending on the location and demand of the teacher desired, lesson costs may vary. Before making your final decision, you may want to find out about the teacher's professional and educational experience because that may affect the price.

"What is your professional and educational experience in music?"

Good teachers often have a master's degree in performance, causing them to charge more. Sometimes they don't go to graduate school but have had performing experiences under their belts - the more performing knowledge the better. Teachers with a performing background have learned to work through and solve musical problems. They know how to guide their students along when encountering similar situations.

However, an advanced performance degree or fantastic performance experiences don't necessarily make the teacher good. The best, most natural performers sometimes make the worst teachers because performing always came easy for them; they may have trouble understanding their students' struggles. Therefore, it is necessary to find a teacher with both teaching ability and performance skill.

"Do you offer group lessons?"

Sometimes teachers include group lessons or music appreciation classes with the lesson fees. Piano labs can be helpful for teaching homeschooled children music appreciation skills: sight-reading, ear training, music theory, and music history. Shaffer offers these piano labs once a month to teach music history and theory skills through games, depending on the age and level of the class. She assigns her students into small groups, according to ability and age. Shaffer finds that small groups, with five students maximum, work best for group lessons.

"Are you a member of a professional organization?"

Professional organizations include MMTA (Minnesota Music Teachers Association), NMTA (National Music Teacher's Association), NFMC (National Federation Music Club), and National Guild. Most of these groups have two purposes - teacher workshops and student programs. They're a network for teachers and provide exams and competitions for students.

Through this musical outlet, piano students gain a lot of musical skills and confidence. Also, the teacher is active in some form of continuing education, especially music. Therefore, a teacher's membership in professional organizations benefits the student and teacher.

"How much do you expect your students to practice?"

This question is more specific than the previous ones, but it is also vital. If the child does not meet the teacher's expectations, the parents, teacher, and child will be frustrated. Most teachers expect beginner-level students to practice daily at least 30 minutes, six days a week. If children can't do this consistently every day, they should avoid cramming by spreading out their practicing as much as possible. As the child advances, he or she should practice about an hour a day. Remember, every teacher will have slightly different expectations.

"What are your policies regarding parents' involvement in lessons?"

Some teachers may not want you too involved in your child's lessons. On the other hand, some teachers, especially in the Suzuki method, require parents to attend lessons. See if the teacher is flexible to your needs.

Every child is different. Some children need their independence - musical and emotional - away from the parent, and others may need the parent's support, particularly at a young age. Instead of attending lessons, some parents have their child tape record the lessons or keep a notebook in which they list lesson assignments and details. No matter what you decide, incorporate a good balance, based on your child's needs.

"What are your policies regarding fees, cancellations, and make-up lessons?"

Most good private, pre-college teachers have a studio policy sheet, which provides parents with important lesson information. It should inform them about the teacher's payment expectations and other business details. Parents usually sign this agreement biannually. Parents should know these things in advance, saving them trouble in the long run.

"How do you make lessons both enjoyable and productive?"

Besides knowing all of the groundwork details, you will want to know how the teacher makes the lessons fun. Does the teacher have a sense of humor? Does the teacher also know how to get things accomplished in the lesson? If possible, set up a personal interview with the teacher to find out how the teacher relates to your child. The key to making the lessons enjoyable is that your child gets along with the teacher.

For Jan Miller, mother of six homeschooled children, finding a piano teacher with great personal qualities has been crucial to her children's success. Discouraged with the progress of her 16-year-old son Ian, she searched for a new piano teacher with specific qualities that she had in mind. She wanted to find one who would be the student's cheerleader, encouraging him personally and musically. Miller also says that the teacher, as an encourager, needs to fill in the gap for the child's musical weaknesses: "It has to do with matching the child's strengths with the teacher's ability to support and build on those strengths and help them to grow in the areas they are not strong in."

Finding a good piano teacher is a long process. Upon interviewing teachers, you will want to get the answers to these nine leading questions. You'll never regret the thorough search for a perfect piano teacher. These crucial questions can help you uncover the best teacher for your child. These nine questions are your ticket out of hearing "Hot Cross Buns" for the hundredth and first time.

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