Part Two: Lessons and Teachers
This is the second and final part of my guide to getting back into music after a break. Part one dealt with chosing and buying an instrument to play. It is aimed mainly at adult students, but the ideas for finding a good teacher are really useful for anyone. If you have any thoughts, great ideas or questions, do leave a comment!
There can be little doubt that the most efficient way to learn an instrument is by taking lessons with a good teacher. It is possible to “teach yourself”, but it tends to take longer and is a lot less likely to be as effective. The key thing here is to find a good teacher, not just any teacher. Before explaining why and how you know who is a good teacher, here are some reasons for taking lessons.
- A teacher can rectify faults quickly and easily, giving you quick effective solutions or preventing problems before they become habits.
- A teacher can provide a first-hand model (demonstration) of what the instrument should sound like, how to hold it, and so on.
- A teacher will know the best order to work through skills and material so as to maximize progress and make the while learning process easier for you.
- A teacher can demonstrate how to play tricky pieces of music that you are working on, and show you how to play them. Online video is good, but can’t come close to being in the same room as a professional showing you how to do it.
- A teacher can create a personalized plan for your learning, based on their experience and expertise.
- A teacher can provide extra motivation for you through encouragement, inspiration and focus
A good teacher will be able to do all the things in that list. However, just as there are fake instruments, there are also fake teachers! There are far too many really, really bad teachers around. Here are a few tips for how to spot a bad one, and what to look for in a good one.
“Fake” music teachers (or just plain bad ones!)
Unfortunately, many musicians have a low opinion of teaching. For them, it is just something they have to do when gigs are scarce. Well, it isn’t so much that they don’t like teaching that is the problem – everyone is entitled to an opinion. The real problem is that many of these musicians – the ones who despise teaching – still go ahead and do it anyway!
The problem is this: just because someone is a good performer, it does NOT mean that they are a good teacher. This is so important, and so often misunderstood by musicians and students, that I’ll repeat it: Being a good performer doesn’t make someone a good teacher.
A good teacher values teaching for its own sake, has spent years studying how to do it well, puts a lot of time and effort into preparing their work, is skilled at communicating with students, will consider the needs of their students as well as their own, and will be able to provide all the benefits in the above list.
Bad teachers are often just doing something they dislike or even find degrading as a way of making ends meet. Others enjoy it but are strictly amateurs who have no real teaching skills or qualifications. They may mean well, but they just lack the skills or knowledge to do the job effectively.
Either way, to get the most enjoyment out of learning an instrument, avoid these types of bad teacher: the disgruntled frustrated performer and the well-meaning amateur.
Here are some of the warning signs you can look out for to spot a bad or “fake” teacher:
- They often cancel your lesson. They give the impression that their time is far more important than yours.
- There is no real connection between one lesson and the next. You seem to do something different each lesson and there is no follow through from lesson to lesson. They may even be making it up as they go.
- They don’t seem to be prepared. “What do you want to do this week?” is a bad question to hear from a teacher –it probably means they have no idea what to do and haven’t even thought about you until you walked into the room. A professional teacher has a plan and a program, just for you.
If you notice you are playing the same thing as the student right before you and the one right after you each week, that is also a bad sign. It usually indicates “what will I do with everybody today?”
- They don’t know your name.
- Each lesson is more like “hanging out” with a friend, or just jamming than a structured, thought out lesson. If this is all you want, that’s fine of course, but that person isn’t really teaching you.
- They are rude or dismissive, or patronizing
- They tell you that everything you do is “brilliant” or “fantastic”, regardless of how good or bad it really was. Unrealistic feedback is not helpful. A good teacher gives constructive criticism and gives you solutions and alternatives.
There are so many good music teachers around that no one needs to waste time with these losers. Avoid them. If, after a few lessons you notice these warning signs either ask them to fix the problem, or leave.
How to find a good music teacher
There are three main approaches people take when choosing a music teacher.
This is a very simple approach. Find the teacher who is closest to where you live, work, or go to school. You may get lucky and find that they are also an excellent teacher. Then again, chances are they may not be the best teacher around.
Another simple approach. Call lots of teachers, look at their websites, and find who is cheapest. The benefit is that your lessons will cost a lot less, potentially saving you lots of money in the short term. The drawback is that you get what you pay for. If a teacher is very cheap, there is usually a good reason for it. They may be very young, inexperienced, achieve poor results, be lazy, be unreliable, just teaching for some pocket money but have no real passion for the role, and so on.
If a teacher’s main selling point is that they are cheap, it follows that they may not have much else to recommend them.
Also in the long run you probably won’t save any money. A cheap teacher, like a cheap instrument, tends to be false economy. You may end up having to go to another, better teacher, later on to help you fix the damage done by a poor teacher. The standard of teaching may be so bad that you just give up. An inexperienced or weak or disorganized teacher will probably take a lot longer to teach you what a first class teacher can cover very quickly. You pay less per lesson, but you have to do many more lessons to reach the same point.
Ask around, do some research, and search online. Find out who the best teachers are for the instrument or field that interests you. They will have a great track record of consistently excellent results, they will have a loyal following of good students, and they will have definite plans for how they will go about teaching you. It is likely that they will also have a profile online, in the music community and will be widely recognized as a leader in their field.
This is the kind of teacher you want. There may be a waiting list to get lessons with them. No problem – wait, it will be worth it. They will almost certainly cost more than other teachers, but again you usually do get what you pay for.
Some tips for finding a music teacher
- Do your research carefully. Look online. Does the teacher have any sort of profile or reputation? What have they achieved as a teacher? What have their former students achieved?
- Talk to some current and former students of your prospective teacher to find out what they like and don’t like about them. Not every teacher will suit every student. Learning music takes discipline, so lessons with a good teacher may not all be a laugh-a-minute. But there is no point persisting with a teacher who clashes so badly with the student, or is so severe that music becomes a misery and motivation disappears.
- Don’t be afraid to change teachers after a little while if it isn’t working.
- Just because a musician has a great reputation as a performer, doesn’t mean that they are a good teacher. In fact, many musicians who have always found music very easy have a lot of trouble teaching. They don’t understand the struggle involved for most of us!
- If the lessons aren’t working, say something to the teacher. A professional teacher will either take your comments on board and make changes, or will let you know that they cannot or will not change and that you’d be better off with someone else. An unprofessional teacher will take offense or ignore you. That is a good thing for you, as it tells you it is time to find someone else.
- Find out what the teacher’s cancellation policy is before you commit to lessons. If you cancel, how much notice must you give? Will you be able to make up lessons you miss? What if the teacher cancels a lesson?
- Find out how much the lessons cost, whether payment is in advance (it usually is), and how can you pay.
- Find a teacher who will teach what you really want to learn. If your interest is in jazz, get lessons with a good jazz teacher, as there is no point in you studying with a non-jazz player. If your sole interest is in doing exams or strictly classical repertoire, then make sure the teacher favours that approach. If you want to just play rock music, or folk, or whatever, find someone who is familiar with that and actually enjoys teaching it.
About the author
I am an Australian music educator and guitarist. I am Principal at Jazz Workshop Australia, a music academy in Sydney. I also lecture in jazz pedagogy at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at Sydney University.
Between 1993 and 2011 I directed the jazz program at North Sydney Boys’ High School. I have also conducted jazz ensembles for the NSW Department of Education Arts Unit and for SCEGGS Redlands School. I served two years on the executive board of the International Association for Jazz Education as representative for Australasia and Asia.
I can be contacted at info@JazzWorkshopAustralia.com.au.
This guide may be reproduced in part or in full provided the author is acknowledged. All rights remain with the author.