It is a truism heard by most music school applicants at some point: “Don’t worry about the school, just get the best teacher.” It’s a statement with a lot of truth to it. Music performance is an art that stubbornly resists efforts to turn it into a classroom subject. It is such a complex and all-encompassing discipline that it has to be taught in a one-to-one setting. Your studio instructor will be the center of your musical education, and to be successful you need to find one who will guide and support you.
What do I think we need to look for in a teacher?
- Successful and satisfied former and current students. Talk to current and former students of the teacher. Did they come to that teacher looking for the same things you are looking for? Do they feel they got those things? What are that teacher’s students doing after they leave him or her? Are they things you want to do eventually?
- A teacher who comes from good teaching. No one is (or should be) a carbon copy of his or her own teacher. And some wonderful teachers and players can come from a less-than-fantastic teacher themselves. However, we are all influenced by our teachers, and your future teacher probably was influenced by theirs. Who were they? What was their philosophy and style?
- A teacher who will be dedicated to your goals. Many good teachers will give us good advice and explain good technical and musical concepts to us, but not every teacher will stick with us as we go through to hard work of internalizing and perfecting those concepts. Is the teacher interested in their students’ goals, and do they individualize their approach for each student?
- A teacher you can trust and respect. For all of us, there are times in our learning process that we need to simply take what our teachers say on faith. Often it will take months or even years of work before we can fully internalize and understand a concept that we are taught. If we harbor doubts about the basic trustworthiness of our teacher, it makes that faith difficult to maintain, and hampers our growth.
- A teacher you like. You’ll be spending a lot of time alone with your teacher, and you’ll enjoy the process of learning more if you don’t grimace at the thought of spending an hour alone in a small room with them! This isn’t absolutely essential, and music lore is full of stories of the famous, cruel teacher and his terrorized students, who all adored him. I’m not sure all those stories are accurate, but even if they are, they don’t constitute the majority in my opinion. It certainly doesn’t hurt to like your teacher!
Which brings us to Prof Weisner’s Second Rule:
When it comes to teachers, test drive and check the ratings before you buy.
As much as possible, I encourage music school applicants to have at least one trial lesson before applying to a particular teacher’s studio. Many teachers are busy people and this can be difficult to do, but do your best to make it happen. In conjunction or separately from the lesson, have an extensive discussion/interview with the teacher. If they are too busy for a phone conversation, email can be a great method here. Based on your thoughts about your goals and issues, ask the teacher what he thinks about them and how he might help you work on them. I often recommend writing down a list of questions for the teacher before you speak with them so that you are sure that you’ve covered all your questions. You should also try to contact current and former students of the teacher and ask similar questions. I recommend trying to talk to more than one former or current student, and not placing too much weight on any one student’s opinion. Every teacher has certain students that they had a special bond with, and others that just didn’t ever work out well. Some of that may be the teacher’s doing, some may be the student’s, and some may just be other life circumstances unrelated to either person. By speaking to a group of students, you can hopefully get a more balanced perspective on their teacher.
Some of this may sound a little nosey or inappropriate; I don’t think it is at all. You and your parents are making an important choice for your future and you need to understand your options as thoroughly as you can. I’ve heard more than a few horror stories of students who graduated from a particular school bitter and unhappy about their experience after they made a teacher choice without meeting or learning about them. While there are no guarantees in life, there are more and less informed decisions and you owe yourself an informed one on this important topic. You have every right to know what you can and can’t expect to get from a teacher.