How To Find A Good Piano Teacher

Piano teacher with girl

How does one find a good piano teacher for a child? The first step is to know what you’re looking for.

I have sorry statistics for you that your local piano teacher doesn’t really want you to know: 90% of kids who start piano today will quit within three months. Why, you ask? Read on.

Most piano teachers are honest people, but the piano is simply difficult to master, as any musical instrument is. Piano teaching is difficult, no matter how you do it.

And statistically, perhaps some large percentage of those 90% who quit were perhaps never destined to play very well in the first place. Personally, having worked with thousands of kids, I am of the opposite opinion: any child can love and play the piano in their own way.

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Still, there has to be a reason why most piano lessons turn out to be less fun than the child was expecting.

In fact, the reason the kids quit is the piano teachers themselves.

The sad truth is that most piano teachers don’t try to get their students fired up about piano: they simply go from page to page in a standard text and see if the child can stand it.

And believe me, it is boring to have to play these exercise pieces again and again.

Of course, going from page to page in a text is very easy for the teacher: there is little creativity required on the teacher’s part. And as all parents know, you’ll have to be creative if you want to hold the attention of your six-year old.

But most piano teachers don’t really even try, because they apply the same methods to the average child’s humble musical gifts as they would apply to someone clearly destined for Carnegie Hall.

These piano teachers acknowledge no difference between a budding professional and a potential hobbyist, and hold your child, struggling to maintain an interest in this rather difficult art, to the same standards as those used to train professional musicians.

A creative, intelligent teacher takes a good look at each individual student, and takes the time to find what factors will affect the piano study progress:

1. Is the child happy?
2. Do they have motor skills, such as finger coordination? Hand movement?
3. Can they distinguish left from right?
4. What is the child’s personality? Quiet? Exuberant? Belligerent?
5. Do they know how to complete a simple task?
6. Can they memorize?

The list of things to look out for at the beginning goes on and on. Each one of these factors affects how an intelligent piano teacher will approach that student, as an individual.

The first barrier to cross is expectation: what is the child expecting? Did they hear stories from Mom and Dad about old Mrs. Perkins, who rapped their fingers when they made a mistake? Or did they hear how wonderful piano lessons would be?

In any case, this piano lesson is their piano lesson, not yours, and you had better find out how to communicate with this child as an individual in the first five minutes or it’s over.

One approach that works wonders is humor. And playing. Make a joke and play a song for them. If you do that first, you answer two childish questions that the child will inevitably be asking themselves:

1. Is this teacher a mean person?

2. Will playing the piano be fun?

The answer to those last two questions had better be, “yes.” Otherwise, you have already created a barrier between yourself and the child.

And I have to tell parents, unhappily, that most piano teachers are not avid players, comedians or game show hosts.

Many are either very young and inexperienced, or old and tired of the business. It’s rare to have a good player as a teacher, but the rewards are endless: the hardest obstacle to hurdle at first is to instill the idea that piano can be lots of fun, and a good pianist vaults that barrier instantly.

Kids love to hear a tune, a funny song, something they know from TV or outside the lesson. The older they are, the more important this becomes.

Avoid the following kinds of piano teachers if you have a young child:

1. Disciplinarians: there is always time for discipline if you can get them to love it first.
2. Gruffness: you need someone who knows how to handle a child, and gruffness NEVER works. Gruffness is the last resort of the impatient.
3. Impatient: the first mark of a real piano teacher is the patience of a block of stone. Learning the piano requires repetition, which a clever teacher will disguise or make illuminating.

It is not easy to be a good piano teacher. Many factors will work against you:

1. Repetition is not inherently fun unless it is something that interests you
2. Mood: kids are people, too. They have good days and bad days. Have the sense to find out which it is. Modify your teaching pace accordingly.
3. Time of lesson: is it right after school? Does the child need rest or food?
4. Overloaded schedules: all kids have too many activities and to them, you are just one more. Don’t make it difficult and dull.
5. Do they want lessons, or are they doing it to please Mom and Dad?

You can only lose the battle of the piano once. Once the child senses that this is a negative experience, the battle is lost, and it is the teacher’s fault, not the child’s.

It is up to the teacher to give the child the feeling of victory during each lesson, no matter how small or undeserved that victory is.

Often what is required is to lower the bar so far that the child succeeds at something, no matter how small. Which would you prefer as a teacher, a tiny victory at some aspect of piano, or a profound sense of defeat over a task that only YOU deem necessary to master?

The point is that the piano and music is such a vast endeavor that there is always SOME small area that can be worked on if the child isn’t following your curriculum well. Here are some examples what you can do during a “bad” lesson.

1. Start playing. Move the child over, get them a chair, but start playing that piano and show them why they came in the first place.
2. Play ear training games. Listening games. Counting games.
3. Talk about the famous composers, play a piece by them, talk about the composer’s life. There isn’t a child alive that doesn’t want to hear of the adventure of the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri, and if they’re old enough, tell them the theory that Salieri murdered Mozart. Make it up if you have to, but hold their interest.
4. Stop concentrating on reading music. Play by ear. Memorize. Play by number.

Children that have been taught with this benevolent, fun approach, will reward you with a love of the instrument that may lead to unearthing some of the talent that lies with them. It’s your job as a teacher to find and nurture that talent, and it may not be the kind of talent you’re expecting.

For example, kids may have an interest in pop or rock music, and if you can play a tune on the piano that interest them, the battle is halfway won. It doesn’t matter what STYLE the music is, it matters that the music itself interests them.

Some kids don’t know Mozart from a hole in the ground, and you may have to play music from TV and the movies to reach them.

I’ve never met a kid who wasn’t interested in playing a tune on the piano if you make it easy enough to be pleasurable.

Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press

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