Sunday, August 24, 2008

Finding the right teacher.

Assuming a piano student has support from his family and considers music a possible career choice, the teacher is probably the single most important factor that determines a musician's development. The wrong teacher can severely cripple a musician's future prospects.

A good teacher will develop the love for music in a small child and will stop bad habits from forming from the very start. In an older student, he will help the pupil make the difficult transition towards an increasingly more professional approach towards music. He will help him set the base for a good flexible technique and show him the different elements of style and interpretation. The end result of a great teacher is an independent student that knows how to practice and how to solve problems, with the sufficient knowledge to correctly understand a score, including all the things that are in-between the lines. Not only that, but a great teacher will help that student understand more about his own personality and how to have this come through in his music.

Unfortunately, without experience, it is quite hard to tell the difference between the quality of teachers, and sometimes one recognizes bad teaching too late, after a lot of damage has already been done.

[caption id="attachment_96" align="alignright" width="193" caption="The slick used-car salesman type. I wouldn't trust him with my child. "]The slick used-car salesman type. I wouldn't trust him with my child, no matter what he says.[/caption]

Parents looking for a teacher will tend to go with superficial factors, like the teacher's clothing, rates and how smoothly they talk without realizing that many so-called teachers out there prey on this, behaving like slick used-car salesmen. They butter up the parents with their oily talk, exaggeratedly praising the little kids at every turn and making up fake qualifications for themselves, all while the child develops an ever more deformed technique and most of the time, an aversion for music.

Older students looking for a teacher, tend to fall into the peer-pressure trap. They go with the teacher that all their friends are studying with, usually being talked down to by the other students (and usually ex-students turned into teachers) in their school until they finally cave-in and join the clique. Young teenage students tend to have big expectations and many teachers out there will prey on that, promising them the world, but failing to deliver. Even when all the students have obvious shared flaws (all of them the results of bad teaching) the teacher will heap on the praise. At this stage, teenagers and young adults are usually afraid to acknowledge a wrong decision (specially in conflict with the rest of the group), so they tend to enshrine their teacher. The bad teacher will take advantage of that and go as far as to call other teachers complete garbage. Outside opinion is this teacher's enemy, and they will try to isolate the students from other musicians. The only yardstick the students have left to measure their progress is their teacher's opinion and their peers' progress. They are good because teacher said so, all objectivity lost in the constant reinforcement from their friends.

[caption id="attachment_97" align="alignleft" width="230" caption="The power-hungry type. I wouldn't trust this crazy old bat with my child either. "]The power-hungry old lady type. I wouldn't trust this crazy old bat with my kid either.[/caption]

For finding the right teacher, you have to examine the results you want to achieve and what short and long-term goals you want to meet at different points in your development. In short, understand what kind of teacher you need, and find the very best teacher for that level in your area.

In a child's case, the single most important thing is motivation. When working with young children, the best teachers are those that do two things:

- They keep the child motivated.
- They prevent the child from acquiring bad habits.

You want a teacher with which the kids are obviously having fun. A good teacher at this level leads to children eager to play their instrument, or more correctly play with their instrument. It's fun, not work. They'll keep the kids active and entertained; clapping, singing and sometimes even coloring and playing games. But if that were all that is necessary, then any competent baby-sitter would be a great music teacher for children. The one thing a teacher that works with children should have is a complete practical knowledge of their instrument's technique. Musicians who are great at playing their instrument, but can't really explain how they do it have no place teaching children how to play. A teacher at this level must be able to clearly show a  student how to hold and play their instrument. He should be able to identify bad habits and correct them immediately. He also has to be able to tell the parents clearly what to look for so that they can supervise what their kid is doing and keep track of his practice time.

An important thing to have when working at this level, is a sense of structure. A teaching method, a book or a lesson plan available to everyone. Few things motivate more than seeing how you are advancing through the ranks. We all remember looking with awe at the very last pieces in our beginner's book, full of weird symbols and notes way out of the range we were playing at the time; wanting to be that kid who plays last at the class recital, with the hardest pieces. Having an outside source (a book, a website or even a guest teacher) to further clarify what the teacher is doing is also great. A clear lesson plan for each student is very important. Unlike further stages in a musician's development, here it is desirable for all students to follow the same road. They love to compare themselves to the other kids, and it gives the parents a clear idea of what is going on.

[caption id="attachment_99" align="alignright" width="293" caption="The Suzuki method is great for very young ages. Beware of sticking to it for too long, though."]The Suzuki method is great for very young ages. Beware for sticking to it for too long, though.[/caption]

At this level, one must strike the balance between playing enough short easy pieces to avoid boredom, teaching the basics of sight-reading and music theory and keeping the child eager for his next lesson. Music ideally has to be a sort of game in which the child, the teacher and the parents are all involved to some extent. At this level, there is no room for yelling and screaming from the teacher; if the teacher loses his patience easily, he should not be working with children.

Signs that things are wrong at this level are when the child doesn't want to take lessons anymore for an extended length of time (it happens to all of us at one time or another, but if it lasts long, it's probably the teacher's fault) and unnatural playing. If a child complains of back, neck or tendon pains, there is something seriously wrong. In the case of the piano, playing with flat or excessively curved fingers, locked elbows or wrists, a hunched back or hard inflexible joints are all signs of deficient teaching.

Most importantly, remember that whatever the level at which a student is at, the musical result has to be as good as possible. Even if the child is playing very easy pieces, a steady rhythm, a good sound and intonation and some elements of style all should be present. A lack of these is also a sign of a lazy or indifferent teacher.

Eventually it will be time to get a teacher more suited for an intermediate level. A problem that tend to plague some professionals is that they switched too late. Remember the basics of teaching a child: motivation and the bases for good technique. If the motivation is so strong that the kid wants to be a musician when he grows up, then the switch to a more advanced type of teacher should be done sooner than later.

Up until now, music's been more of a game. Like a sport, there comes a point where we have to change gears. Now it's time to start "training", and going down the road towards being a professional. An intermediate teacher will challenge you, and push you to give the most you can. During this period, a musician has to have a teacher that he can respect. Teachers at this point come in all kinds of flavors: the crazy screaming ones that bang on the piano with their fists when they don't get their way, the motherly ones that will make you want to cry with just a sad look each time things don't work, maybe the friendly one who will just shrug and kick you out. What you want at this point is someone that will nit-pick. A teacher that will give you repertoire that will push you to your limits, but that has the knowledge necessary to show you how to overcome them.

He will push you to work as fast and accurately as you can, always demanding perfection (even if what you are playing is something completely basic, like a Clementi sonatina). He has to cover all the bases, technique, interpretation and style.

A bad teacher at this point can do more damage than a buffalo in a china shop.

Recognizing a bad teacher at this stage is very important. Remember, we are looking to find the very best teacher we possible can within our area. Traveling is usually not the best way to go; there are bad teachers everywhere and you could end up with one of them, even if you are in a big city or in a big-name school.

The best way to judge a teacher is to do so through his students. Don't necessarily look for teachers with students who play very well. Many teachers will just showcase a couple of really good students, usually self-made or the product of another teacher's work while trying to hide the rest of them from view. Judge a teacher by the majority of his students, by the average. All teachers get one or two really bad ones a year, and they will quickly get rid of them, and all teachers occasionally get a young talent. The rest of them, those are the ones you need to be looking at. How do they measure up against the other teachers' average student? What level of repertoire do they play? What kind of progress have they made in the past year or so? How do his students do at masterclasses? How do they do in competitions? Have any of them progressed to study at a higher level? Most importantly, is there some shared flaw between them? If all the students have some kind of bad habit, like raising their shoulders, or clenching their jaw; if they are all out of tune, or play out of style, then it is probably the teacher's fault. Have they all suffered from the same kind of music-related injury? If pretty much all the students had severe carpal tunnel syndrome, or tendinitis at some point, then there might be a problem with the teacher. If the teacher says it's the weather's fault, or the student's fault for over-practicing in all those cases, then you can bet that he is definitely the cause of the problem.

[caption id="attachment_100" align="alignright" width="175" caption="A typical intermediate level piano teacher. "]A typical intermediate level piano teacher. [/caption]

Analyze your lessons. How much of your lesson do you spend just playing the piece over and over again? How much of your lesson does your teacher spend giving you information and criticism and how much does he spend just complaining, wasting time and repeating himself? After the lesson sit down and take notes of what you learned, write it all down. Even better, record it. Are you getting information from your teacher? Is he helping you solve your problems, or just yelling at you for having them? Have you had all your lessons?

Analyze his lesson plans. Are all of the students playing the same programme over time or are the pieces individually tailored to match each student's needs? Unlike with children, having everyone play the same thing just denotes laziness, or a lack of knowledge on the teacher's part. Musical teaching has evolved for hundreds of years, there are many things that most teachers agree on. Look around, read some books, look at some websites, attend some masterclasses. Is your teacher neglecting something essential? Is he flat-out telling you things that most people consider wrong? Can he play, or did he play once? Does he apply the things he teaches to his own playing? Is he teaching you one thing, but doing completely the opposite when he plays? Does it matter to him that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it? When you ask him that, does he give you a straight answer?

Repertoire is also a big deal. Make sure that you understand the reason behind everything you play. Each new piece you play should be helping you get better at a certain thing, and learn about all the different styles and composers out there. Make sure that your teacher is giving you things that are right for your level. Some teachers out there constantly make their students play things much harder than they can play well to make themselves look good, so that they can make more money. This tends to lead to the deterioration of a student's technique and quality of playing. At some point, the student will either be much worse off than when he started or get injured. Then those teachers will blame the student for everything and discard him. They'll get a bunch of naive young musicians and start the process again. Other teachers just make all their students play the same thing, because that's all they were taught and are too lazy to do anything but repeat what they once heard from someone else.

Remember, the goal here is to get the student to teach himself. Progress is measured not only in technical achievements and difficulty of repertoire, but specially in independence. Being able to work out things for yourself; understanding how to fix problems and having a big toolbox full of solutions for all the situations that might arise is what is most important. That ensures that you can continue to get better even if the teacher is not there.

Once this level of independence is reached, it is time for an advanced teacher. A teacher at this level is your colleague; granted, a colleague with a much vaster experience than your own. A teacher at this point is more of a guide or an example than a trainer. A teacher that is actively playing or has had a lot of experience forming good musicians is ideal.

From the moment a student starts with an intermediate teacher, he will be doing the bulk of the work. In the case of an intermediate teacher, they will build up the pieces together; the student working while the teacher pushes him. In a more advanced teaching relationship, the student will have done all the work and will ideally have the piece ready to play at their lessons. The lessons here focus more on interpretation; many times the student might disagree with the teacher, but the point of this level of development is contrasting different points of view to make your playing richer.

At this point in a student's development, what teachers are best should be much more obvious. I recommend finding a teacher in terms of the individual's qualifications. Getting into a big-name school or "going to Europe" does not guarantee a good teacher at all.

Making sure that you have the ideal teacher for your level is fundamental. An intermediate level teacher teaching a child will demotivate him and probably lead to bad habits. And advanced level teacher is often useless at an intermediate or a child's level, when a much more specific criticism or method is preferred, usually dealing with concepts too far advanced to be useful at that stage in a musician's development.

More than anything else, make sure that whatever you are playing, at whatever level you are is the very best you can do. You are your own teacher and responsible for your progress. You should read and listen to music. Attend conferences, masterclasses and concerts. If you are stuck with a bad teacher and doing nothing about it, then it´s your own damn fault.

[caption id="attachment_101" align="aligncenter" width="393" caption="If they only knew..."]If they only knew...[/caption]

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. I'm going to have to share this with my students!