The question of choosing a music teacher comes up often on the Musical Fossils message board so I’ve decided to review the topic in detail. Choosing a new teacher, getting rid of an existing teacher, or being dismissed by a teacher are all complex situations. In this article I will discuss what I’ve learned over the years about these issues.
THE STUDENT/TEACHER RELATIONSHIP
Rarely are students or teachers prepared for the enormous importance their relationship can assume. Students, in particular, bear the brunt. While I have 40 students, each of them only has one teacher.
Private lessons are not like classes that have a defined beginning and end. They don’t involve other students. The arrangement is open ended and between two people, like psychotherapy.
Music lessons have the potential to be very emotional affairs because both learning and music can elicit a strong emotional response. Working closely with another person in an exclusive relationship always has the possibility of intense emotions.
Learning is very complex and by no means a straight line process. Some days are good and some rotten. Some weeks hold great practice yet yield bad lessons. Others are full of horrible practice yet lead to astonishingly good lessons.
Some days we’re “up” and simply not bothered by our mistakes. Other days we’re “down” and conclude we’re just too stupid, slow and incapable for this music foolishness. It’s not the element of performance per say, just the mood we greet it with.
Sometimes a teacher’s suggestions are really helpful and energizing. Sometimes they feel like an attack and can lead to the sense we never do anything right.
It really is a rollercoaster ride that teachers and students go through together, and it is this shared experience that can create close bonds. For teachers, this is an every day experience. For adult students, it may well be the only current relationship they have of this nature.
The relationship can be a wonderful thing, but naturally it will also become strained at times, something uncomfortable for both teacher and student.
When you consider a teacher, know these things and try to assess if this is someone with whom you would want to experience this.
COMPASSIONATE WISDOM or WISE COMPASSION
A wise and knowledgeable teacher is very important. There are many things to know about music, the instrument, and the physical nature of producing music on that instrument. This knowledge without compassion can be cold, ruthless, and cutting. By itself it is not enough.
Compassion, on the other hand, is often misunderstood. Compassion is not wishy-washy. Teachers can be all gradations of demanding and still be compassionate. Being too easy is not compassionate. Being dishonest to spare the students’ feelings is not compassionate.
Compassion does not lack confidence or genuine authority. Don’t confuse it with not caring, for compassion always cares.
Compassion remembers the frustration of its own learning. It does not sympathize but empathizes. It does not overwhelm students’ feelings but allows each student to experience them with honor and respectful recognition.
Compassion can be quite firm and even angry. I know when my teacher was like this with me, it was quite effective. Granted, I hated him for a while at the time, but I got over it. He handled it with surprising mastery:
“Alexander Lipsky. He was my piano teacher, and I will never forget when he got angry with me. I wasn’t practicing enough and he gave me grief. He told me I was slacking off. He raised his voice. But—and this is the important thing—he made sure we were on good terms when the lesson ended. He showed me the difference between what I did, which wasn’t much, and who I was, which was still something good.” (I Remember My Teacher, David Shribman, 2001, Andrews McMeel publishing, Kansas, City.) (David studied with me for several years and became an important friend. Alas, he moved away.)
All people have their own characteristics, values and experiences. As much as possible, know your own. Never lose track of them in thinking about or talking with a perspective teacher. Too often students assume teachers are right because teachers are supposed to know everything; which, of course, they don’t. Teachers’ lives are also colored by their own characteristics, values and experiences.
No one has had as much experience dealing with you as you have. Trust your knowledge and experience in choosing a teacher.
As you talk with a perspective teacher, pay attention to any red flags that come up. Pay attention to them and seek to understand why they came up. That’s your self-experience talking with you and the feeling is there for a reason. Don’t ignore it and assume you’re wrong. At the same time, pay just as much attention to any positive feelings you may experience.
The following are questions to consider about yourself and what you want to gain from your musical study:
- Do you want to work with a man or woman, older or younger? Does it matter?
- Do you want to work to play as well as you can or just have a relaxing acquaintance with the instrument?
- How much time will you realistically spend practicing?
- Do you want to play for others?
- What kinds of music do you want to play? What composers?
- Do you want to do duets or chamber music?
- Do you want to accompany other instrumentalists or singers?
Know that teachers have feelings about these issues as well. Feel free to ask them at the very beginning. Know that many are uncomfortable teaching adults.
I always find it interesting to work with students who don’t fit my comfort zone but only up to a point. I will find reasons not to teach those who I believe won’t work well with me.
GETTING RID OF A TEACHER
This task is harder than you might think, especially if you’ve worked together for a long time.
There are lots of reasons to retire a teacher. You may not have enough money. You may just be tired of lessons. The circumstances of your life may have altered. You may feel this teacher is too demanding or not demanding enough. You may have had valuable learning experiences with this teacher but found the teacher ineffective in leading you to the next level. There are lots of reasons to quit lessons altogether or to move on to another teacher.
The key to all of it is to keep an open and honest relationship with your teacher. There are some teachers that make this impossible or very difficult and that is always a bad sign.
If early on you find yourself bothered by the teacher for whatever reason, deal with it then. Don’t wait in the hope it will get better. I know students who waited months and years to leave a teacher only to realize and regret just how much time and effort they wasted.
The earlier one leaves a teacher the easier it is. After a few years of working together, all kinds of loyalty issues come into play and leaving can be quite difficult. I would say staying with a teacher out of loyalty is never reason enough. Being afraid to leave a teacher because of loyalty and/or lack of nerve isn’t good either — though I’ve done it myself.
My last teacher was a great teacher but I’d had enough. I was raising two kids and teaching over forty-five students a week and I was tired. I knew I had insufficient time or inclination to practice as much as we both knew I should. I raised the issue twice but both times indirectly and apologetically. I was ambivalent within myself. Ultimately my lessons stopped when my teacher died. Looking back, I am not sorry for my timidity.
A TEACHER GETTING RID OF YOU
In a manner of speaking, that’s what happened to me by the death of my teacher. At our last meeting, I sensed that it might indeed be the last. His death was shocking nonetheless but the loss was utterly impersonal in that it was not directed at me.
Teachers die, grow old, move away, and change vocations, all of which are about them.
When teachers blame students, things are much more hurtful. I have a friend whose teacher told her she didn’t want to work with her anymore because in comparison with her younger students, she was hopeless. This memory is still painful for her and it kept my friend from risking lessons again for some time. I am happy to report that she is taking lessons again and quite successful. The teacher should have said she was no longer teaching adults because she found she preferred working with young people or she was more successful with young people.
Another stinging example came after years of work together. The teacher had moved into a retirement community and cutback on most of her teaching but kept this one woman. Ultimately, the teacher’s remarks became more discouraging until she finally said at a lesson,
“I haven’t been able to help you much this year so maybe you should find someone else. You haven’t done many of the things that I’ve asked and you’ve given up on so many pieces. I don’t know why you want to start this new piece. You’ll just give up on that, too.”
There followed a one-line e-mail from the teacher, a lengthy reply from the student, and nothing more. What a horrid way to end a long and fruitful relationship.
All this time, my friend was getting other help and encouragement from workshops in the US and Europe. Perhaps the teacher was just jealous. If so, she should have admitted it. Perhaps she was getting older and the burden of teaching was becoming too much and she needed to stop. In either case, she made it the student’s fault and that is never acceptable.
Neither of these students will forget the hurt and insult. In both cases it should have been handled better. Unfortunately, in a negative way, it does show the intensity and importance the student/teacher relationship can have.
Choosing a teacher is perhaps the most important decision a student can make. It needs to be done carefully and wisely and quickly corrected if a bad initial decision is made. Always remember, your teacher is hired by you and is your employee. It’s so easy to forget that basic fact and so rare that we’ve ever experienced that possibility before.