Scouting a Piano Teacher

I have to thank “Lisa” for generating this idea for a new blog. Sometimes, the fountain runs dry until a student experience, teacher-related crisis, or musical event renew the supply.

Let me think about this whole issue of picking and choosing the “right” piano teacher. (Applies to adult student-seekers as well)

Hmm… I probably covered the emotion-packed farewells, but gave short shrift to the preliminaries of finding these instructors in the first place so perhaps I should amplify my journey and what I learned from it.

My very first piano teacher, already critiqued in another blog, was on faculty at the “progressive” music school in the Bronx, off Kingsbridge Road. So there was little if any choice in the selection. She came with the program.

Mrs. Vinagradov was kind, caring, encouraging, and knew how to play the Diller-Quaille accompaniments to my two-note melodies without missing a beat. That was what I needed as a primer level, six-year old student.

If I had to advise a mom about picking out the very important FIRST teacher for a child, I would say, look for the right “chemistry” as well as musical competency and sensitivity. One would not expect the initial beginning instructor to be a virtuoso, or even one approximating. COMMUNICATION skills should stand out as the clincher decision maker along with knowledge of beginning materials. The teacher should lay out her philosophy, course of teaching including theory, and a schedule of student recitals. I would hope she has a Bachelor’s Degree in Music or the equivalent in teaching experience/ professional study. (By the way, If a JAZZ teacher is sought, be clear about the skills of a particular instructor as it applies to a desired course of instruction. Better to know the teacher’s leanings, abilities in this direction before you go further)

My second mentor, also part and parcel of house faculty at the Bronx location, was a strict Classicist, holy terror and rhythmic foot-pounder. Needless to say, I had to run like the plague and find a more civilized replacement.

The next stop on W. 103 St. off-Broadway, didn’t produce anything much better, though this prospect was a nicer human being all the way around and played quite well. As previously mentioned in another writing, she couldn’t figure out a systematic, step-wise way to impart musical knowledge and gave me pieces way over my head that nearly triggered a nervous breakdown! Kaput, finished!

For the advancing student, a teacher who knows the piano literature, can play the great works with skill, nuance, sensitivity, and be able to communicate the many dimensions of the music including structural/theoretical, is one who should be in the running.

But these criteria may not be enough. The first reality check involves finding out if this individual will live up to his or her printed resume. It could be crowded with every public performance he or she has ever given, dating back to age 6. Or the CV may list a horde of Degrees, Masterclass appearances, and students who went on to world-renowned competitions. It could be a drop in the bucket if the one-to-one interaction between a prospective teacher and student doesn’t make the grade.

This speaks to the necessity of having the in-person appointment scheduled to try out the teacher as with any “product.” Oops I didn’t mean to say that, or to demean the entire community of bespectacled piano teachers. (I wear glasses, too) And none of us are products or commodities.

Finally, it would be wonderful if the very first teacher was the ONE who stayed on as the permanent musical fixture in our lives. But such rarely happens in the scheme of things due to life transitions, relocation, divorce, death and the rest, though there have been exceptions.

The great pianist, Murray Perahia, a musical poet of his generation studied with Jeannette Haien from age 3 to 18, which brings up the subject of when a youngster should begin individualized piano lessons, covered in another blog. But just a passing word. If you want a Suzuki teacher, who teaches by rote and not by written notes on the staff, you can consider observing this approach as compared to more traditional ones. But at least you should know your options. In that arena, read up on instructional philosophies by going to the library, checking the Internet, etc. (Be aware that most Suzuki teachers require the parent(s) to be very involved in assisting their children with learning and practicing from week to week) In most cases they sit beside their children while lessons are conducted and must thoroughly absorb the material. (cross reference, http://elcerrito.patch.com/blog_posts/the-suzuki-piano-method-pros-and-cons)

To summarize, try out any number of teachers for size and see how the relationship “feels” and goes. Look for substance, an organized curriculum, (having room for elasticity) and a love of teaching.

If your community has a Music Teachers Association like MTAC in California or MTNA (a national group) shorten the list of prospects by reading through any number of bios that might draw your attention.

Talk to other parents in your local school, church, recreation center, etc. and ask about what piano teachers they have engaged for lessons. See if the same name turns up over and again. If so, make it your business to attend one or more of these individual’s planned recitals and listen carefully to the quality of the performances. Observe the overall mood at the gathering and take note of the teacher’s presence; how he/she relates to performing students before and after their appearances.

If there’s a conservatory, university or community college with a music department in your city, scope out the chairperson, or write to him/her for a possible teacher recommendation. While in-house faculty may or may not give private lessons, an administrator might provide referrals to other teachers. In this regard, keep an eye out for public performances of musicians who live in your area and may be teaching privately. Internet and newspaper listings might assist your search.

Finally, if your child or teenager is very advanced and needs a top of the line teacher who can notch him up a rung on the musical ladder, attend the local competitions sponsored by the music teacher association in your area and see what instructors have students who were finalists and won prizes.

Listen for the interwoven musical sensitivity and technical skills of the performers.

Dare I mention business practices in the same breath with instructional competency? Obtain a copy of the teacher’s studio policies that should include the payment schedule, lesson cancellations and make-up practices. Be clear about what is expected on the $$ end of the deal. You don’t want any surprises late into the instructional phase.

Recommended Websites:

Music Teachers National Association:

http://mtna.org

Music Teachers Association of California:

http://www.mtac.org

Facebook: Piano Teachers Directory

RELATED BLOGS:

The Neighborhood Piano Teacher Lives On:

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/the-neighborhood-piano-teacher-lives-on/

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/the-right-age-to-start-piano-lessons/

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/the-joy-of-teaching-piano-to-young-children-videos/

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/the-joy-and-value-of-teaching-a-piano-student-over-many-years/

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/piano-lessons-the-two-way-learning-process-teaching-albertina-and-her-sister-ilyana/

About arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
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5 Responses to Scouting a Piano Teacher

  1. Lisa says:

    Excellent, thank you for this!

    Like

  2. Harriet says:

    I’m going through some angst over this right now (see my blog for the details). In searching out a teacher, I’ve gotten the real sense that adult students, of which I am one, are stigmatized from the get-go, no matter what our circumstances (and mine are a bit unusual). We are made to feel we should be grateful if anyone takes us! I wish I’d done more scouting before I made the commitment for a semester’s worth of lessons, but I’m trying to make the best of it.

    Like

    • “To the contrary, I feel I’m in the adult student ghetto, where much latitude is given and few results are expected. We’re all supposed to be doing it “for fun.” In a way, of course, that’s right. But in another way, if we wanted pure fun we’d spend our free time riding roller coasters”

      Hi Harriet, I enjoyed reading your blog entries, and highlighted this one, that relates to your comment.
      What you said about being stigmatized, I’ve heard before from a few adult students who’ve posted here and there on the boards..particularly at Piano World.com From my colleagues, I’m sad to say, there have been some unfair generalizations directed at adult students that indicate these are individuals who will not be expected to commit to the work necessary to progress in increments.

      Sad, that this would even be a prevailing assessment, when there is as much diversity in this demographic as others.
      From my experience, adult students have a lot going for them. 1)Since they come of their own will, and not from pressure applied by parents to take lessons, a bristling enthusiasm pervades. 2)They’ve often regretted having given up piano lessons as a child, or teenager, and wanted that second chance to come back, and commit to practicing and progressing.. learning pieces they had always dreamed about taking on, were it not for the premature exit from lessons in earlier years.
      3) I find that the adult students I have come to teach, may not have all the time they need to realize their aspirations due to work schedules, but they will try very hard to find time to practice from one week to the other.
      4) I certainly don’t stigmatize the adult student community, but feel these students should be appreciated for their multi-tasking: working, often raising a family, and still practicing as best they can.
      5)Many of my adult students are very upset to miss lessons due to illness, or other circumstances, and that’s because they have committed to the regularity of lessons…

      I enjoyed your insights about cramming.. and the woodshed analogy was quite compelling. For certain, one cannot cram when it comes to piano learning.. It is incremental, in stages.. not perfectly forward moving… but overall heading in a positive, fulfilling direction. That’s what really counts.. not necessarily a standard, expected measurement of gains.. but a process that develops over time.

      One can write a book about each adult student’s individual journey.. and to be truthful, and not perpetuate the generalizations that abound, one should…

      Shirley

      Like

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