Most schools today provide large-group opportunities for students to participate in music ensembles such as band, choir, and orchestra–usually built upon an elementary music curriculum that included learning to sing, play the recorder, play Orff or keyboard instruments, and read music. Inspiring ensemble experiences from the school, church, or community can kindle a desire to progress with one-on-one attention in more depth, to supplement the school or music experience–to take private lessons.
Once you decide to get private music lessons for your child, it can be daunting to find a private teacher or to know how to choose one. Check with your child’s school music teacher first to ask for recommendations, or ask other music teachers in the school district who teach band, choir, or strings. There may be a professional accompanist for the high school choir who knows piano teachers. Ask the parents of children who are already studying music privately or perhaps someone at the local youth orchestra, a regional orchestra, or the closest professional orchestra for recommendations. You can also ask church or college musicians to recommend good private teachers, as well as checking with the state or local chapters of professional organizations such as Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), the National Association for Teachers of Singing (NATS) or state music education organizations affiliated with the National Association for Music Education. MTNA maintains a roster of over 3,500 teachers nationwide whom the organization has certified as having demonstrated competence in teaching music. Visit their website at www.mtna.org, then select “Find a Music Teacher.”
Your community may have a neighborhood music school with reputable teachers. Music stores often have studios where private lessons are given. Some school music teachers give private lessons in your child’s school building for an extra fee.
Beginners may be able to study with an experienced high school or college student at first. Bear in mind that while the cost of these lessons will be less than what is charged by a professional, the instruction won’t be on the same level; however, it can be more than adequate to get your child started.
Generally, private lessons on piano or violin can begin earlier than study on a band instrument or the other string instruments, which is typically fifth or sixth grade. Voice lessons are usually for late junior high or high school students. Group classes in early childhood music exploration typically begin in preschool.
The cost of music lessons can be an important factor when selecting a qualified teacher. Sometimes scholarships are available through community foundations or other sources; music teachers may know of special opportunities for which to apply. It might be an option to cut the cost of lessons by enrolling your child in group instruction rather than private study, if available. Some private teachers use a combination of private and group instruction. Although not ideal, it might also be possible to schedule private lessons for every other week instead of every week to help keep costs down.
What to Look for in a Private Music Teacher
A well-qualified music teacher has attributes such as:
- A love of teaching
- A degree in music (typically at least a bachelor’s degree)
- Experience in performing
- Experience in teaching
- Interpersonal skills
- Diagnostic skills
- Knowledge of learning theories and varied learning styles
- A well-equipped studio
- An acquaintance with a wide variety of music literature
- Membership in local or national professional societies
- Possible certification by a professional society
- Possible additional training in pedagogy (the art of teaching), or a combination of performance/pedagogy degree
- Possible training in specialties to prepare for work with preschoolers, the gifted, or those with special needs
- Possible affiliation with a community arts school1
It is very important that you find a teacher whose personality and style match your child’s needs. Does your child respond best to someone who is nurturing and relaxed or someone who is highly energetic? Teachers will have differing expectations for practice and performance.
Considerations for Selecting a Private Teacher
Before deciding upon a teacher, ask if your child can have a brief “mini-lesson.” Some private teachers do this at minimal or no cost. They may also invite you to attend one or more lessons with your child–or, you can ask to. This is an excellent opportunity to see if it is a “good fit” between the teacher and your child. A professional, competent instructor will not object to such a visit.
Depending upon your own musical experience and the extent of the initial lesson, you could look for some of the following:
- Is the teacher personable and good at communicating?
- Is there good rapport between teacher and student?
- Does the teacher give frequent, specific, and honest feedback, along with praise?
- Does the teacher make positive, supportive corrections?
- Is the teacher motivating and inspiring?
- Does the teacher have a sense of humor?
- Are activities varied and appropriate to the child’s age?
- For the young student, a mixture of songs and music exploration, perhaps including movement (especially in early childhood).
- For the older student, a blend of technical and musical skills.
- Ideally for all students, opportunities to be creative with music.
- Are new pieces carefully prepared/introduced at the lesson?
- Is the child encouraged to ask questions?
- Is more than one way used to explain, if the student doesn’t understand?
- Are visual aids or imagery sometimes used to clarify an explanation?
- Is the physical teaching environment professional and comfortable, with adequate lighting, ventilation, and decor?
- Does the teacher try different approaches to help your child succeed, tailoring the instruction to fit your child’s needs?
- Does the teacher provide specific practice assignments and set attainable expectations?
- For all instruments, is there emphasis on proper playing posture (or hand and body position)?
- For instruments other than piano, is there instruction in breathing (for winds and brass), intonation, tuning?
- Does your child learn about warm-ups, and does the teacher take time for doing warm-up exercises at the beginning of the lesson? This is particularly important for voice students.
- Is the repertoire varied to include songs in different languages or repertoire in different styles?
- Are sight-singing, vocal technique, breathing, and intonation part of the structure?
- Do materials seem appropriate for the age of the student?
- Does your child learn proper care of the instrument?
- Does the teacher give the student full attention or are there interruptions during a lesson?2
It is also important to know the details of your arrangement with the teacher.
- Where do the lessons take place? If you work, selecting a teacher in another town may cause problems. Some instructors will come to the house, but most require that you come to them. Weekend lessons are a possibility in some cases.
- How long are the lessons? How many lessons are per month/year? Does the teacher give lessons during the summer?
- What are the practice expectations?
- Are there student recitals or other performing opportunities?
- What is the payment procedure? If appropriate, ask about scholarships.
- What about missed lessons? Are these rescheduled? What sort of notification should be given if something arises, and are you charged?
- What are the ways you can provide extra support at home for your child’s musical efforts?
- Wilma Machover and Marienne Uszler, Sound Choices: Guiding Your Child’s Musical Experiences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 209. Machover and Uszler, p. 235.