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How to choose a music teacher

Feb. 16, 2019
How to choose a music teacher
A good performer or fun personality is not always the best music teacher. These questions will help you find the right music teacher for you.


Founder & CEO | Sage Music

You have decided to take private music lessons, but how do you choose a good music teacher?

This can be a very difficult task, especially for a beginner. If you have no experience with music, how can you ever know how to choose a music teacher, much less a good music teacher?

Undertaking the study of an instrument is a serious commitment of time and money. Of course you want to make a great return on your investment.

A good teacher will give you that return and will take you along a path of slow and steady progress, but bad teachers may actually do more harm than good: consider my story.

I started learning the guitar with a folk guitar teacher who I adored.  He was funny, he was witty, and he was playing all over town.  I thought he was a great teacher. The same was true of my first guitar teacher in college. He was playing everywhere in town, and doing so really well. I idolized him, too.

It only occurred to me how much damage been done by these two teachers when my performance ability and technique had slowly degraded so much that by my junior year of college I could not even play the same pieces I used at my audition three years earlier, despite hours of daily practice.

Instead of partying like everyone else in New Orleans on Friday and Saturday nights, my friends and I would bring my coffee maker to the practice rooms, plug it into the outlet in the hallway, drink coffee, and practice until the wee hours of the morning when no one else was around to disturb us.

With this kind of commitment, how was I getting worse?  As it turns out, even though I was playing fairly advanced music, I had never been instructed in proper technique and was lacking very basic musicianship skills and practice habits. 

The worst of all is that because of this bad technique I suffered permanent wrist damage from improper placement of my right hand - an issue I still deal with today.

After some resulting conflicts with my old teacher and some meetings with the administration, I got a new teacher, Stuart LeBlanc.

Stuart was a very dry teacher and was not as personable as the other teachers. In fact, he spoke very little.  He only spoke what was necessary for me to hear and nothing more. My first lessons with him were very brief, perhaps 15 to 20 minutes or less. My first impression of him was certainly not one of excitement.

My first lesson with Stuart was devastating to my pride. After 10 years of playing the guitar, Stuart tells me that I am a remedial student, and that we are starting over from the beginning.

With Stuart that first day I learned how to hold my guitar and how to move my right hand thumb correctly. I was playing only two open strings with my thumb, and I was soon sent home to practice two notes.

I felt humiliated having been playing the difficult Villa-Lobos etudes and Bach Suites the weeks before. Although, in retrospect I was not playing them very well, or with confidence and ease. "How did I ever get here?" I thought.

Stuart ended up being the best teacher I have ever had.  It is because of him that I am the player that I am today. He knew exactly what to do as a teacher, and I am indebted to him for enabling me to become the musician (and teacher) that I am now.

My only real regret is losing those 10 years that I had with my other teachers. There is no telling where I could have been today if I had been on the right track from the start.

So what did Stuart do? What is it that made him such a great teacher?  Obviously it was not his college degree or professorship that made him good. It was certainly not his ability as a performer. All of my other teachers had those things, too.

In the end, Stuart understood how the human body works most efficiently, he understood how the learning process takes place, he understood the importance of building good habits on the guitar, he understood the importance of understanding everything that you do, he understood how to make clear aims and goals and achieve them, and he understood how to teach all of these things.

Not only is he a good musician, he also knows how to build good musicians. These are quite different skills.

How to choose a music teacher by asking interview questions

The great guitar teacher and pedagogue Aaron Shearer summarizes these things best in his book "Learning the Classic Guitar" part I, published by Mel Bay. I suggest giving it a read. He gives four things a student should listen for when interviewing a potential teacher. I will paraphrase them here:

  • Does the teacher believe that sharing and performing music is the goal of studying music?
  • Does the teacher understand the importance of habits in performing music?
  • Does the teacher help the student avoid confusion and error?
  • Does the teacher talk about playing music with confidence, security and ease?

If so, you might have found a good teacher.

As my experience confirms, a good performer is not always a good teacher, so don't be impressed by a flashy player.

How to choose a music teacher by credentials

When someone learns to play an instrument as a music performance major at a music school, for example, they are never taught how to be great teachers.  That is an entirely different skill, with a separate degree in music education. Even more problematic is that the education degrees are intended for classroom music teachers, not for the private teacher.

So then what credentials can you look for in a private teacher, other than asking the questions above? There are organizations such as the Music Teachers National Association, who after a review of a teachers ability may award the credential of Nationally Certified Teacher of Music. Having been certified as a MTNA Nationally Certified Teacher of music in 2011, I think that they have the best certification aside from the Sage Music certification (more below). There are some holes in their pedagogy which I would love to see them fix up, but I do respect that they are trying to hold standards, which too few are doing.

You may also consult the MTNA's article on choosing a music teacher for more information. They have a good list of questions to ask.

Because there is no real training program for private music teachers, Sage Music has developed a comprehensive music teacher certification that all of our teachers take.  This ensures that all of our students work with well qualified and professional teachers.

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