In today’s world we all are very busy. We try to save time and accomplish lots of things by shopping online, comparing prices for the same product, and with little more than a second thought, putting it into our little virtual shopping cart. However, when one starts looking for educational services, one cannot assume that all things are the same or comparable by a convenient side-by-side product specs list. This is why convenient on the phone or online “comparison” shopping—when it comes to lessons—is not going to work.
When you want to buy a new Corolla, you can do all the work at home at your desk. Then simply choose the “cheapest” sale or dealer, then go, pay and get it. A Corolla is a Corolla (within a very small margin of factory error).
However, piano lessons, violin lessons, cello lessons, or what have you are not the same everywhere. Unfortunately, many parents cut corners here (even more so than buying a car) by just going to the most convenient or cheapest location for the service, thinking, “Whatever. We can get started quickly here and if little Johnny turns out to be good, we will then look for something more serious.”
And here is the problem: so many times these parents later come to us and say—and it happens over and over again (oh, how sad!)—“I wish I had known better to look for somebody good! Is it too late to correct Johnny’s technique?”
Well, the sad thing is—if the beginnings are not right—if the technique makes it impossible to play the instrument with comfort and ease—well, then, little Johnny will not show his potential. Meanwhile, other classmates will perform brilliantly in school talent shows, and who can imagine what is going on in Johnny’s head?
Inner musicality, in order to manifest itself in performance, must be delivered through our physical “being”—our arms, shoulders, hands, and fingers. It is complex. It is difficult at first—despite that it should feel natural—and it is not easy to teach nor easy to accomplish. There are no methods—no books—that teach it. The idea of “using” a book method and relying on it as a teaching tool is ultimately paradoxical. True and valuable teaching has to come from the master teacher who can demonstrate it, can explain it, has a plethora of exercises, games, and even picturesque descriptions of it, depending on the individual pupil at that moment. A master teacher can use any method as a starting point and bring up a well playing pianist. You don’t learn from the method book: you learn from the teacher!
When a parent starts looking for the first instrumental teacher, the parent should simply use common sense and try not to cut corners. Don’t waste your time and money on something “just for now”, “just to begin with and then see”. By “saving” money on cheap and convenient instruction, you may actually be throwing all that money and time away, because … your child may have to redo the entire training from ZERO should he or she still show interest enough to continue. Sometimes after just a few months of forceful, stiff, and incorrect use of the arms and hands, students are destined for “never playing well” again. You saved money? No, you wasted the money, the time and … perhaps the talent. Don’t forget that over the young life of a student, you may be investing as much or more than the price of a car. It is worth some serious consideration.
So, here are a few little educational pointers:
1) Make sure your teacher has a degree, or finishes a degree in piano performance. I repeat it again: It should be in “PERFORMANCE”, and can be in combination with the term, “PIANO PEDAGOGY” (the science of “how to teach”). A teacher with a music education degree prepares students for classroom teaching in general public schools—they are trained in class management, public education protocol, and only some music-related skills (quite broad, general skills, such as a few weeks of lessons on EVERY instrument). If you want your child to learn how to play an instrument, find a teacher who can play well enough to be admitted to the “performance” degree him- or herself.
There are three degrees taught and recognized in North America: Bachelor, Masters (2 years of graduate school), and Doctoral (3-10 years of graduate school). Make sure your teacher has one of those degrees and that it is in “performance” of the instrument you want to learn.
2) To reinforce the point 1 above, would you go to a dentist for abdominal pain? Would you call a plumber to paint your office? Why would you agree to have flute teacher teach piano? Why would you allow a violin teacher teach flute? And you would pay for it? Yes, all instrumentalists have basic keyboard training at the college—but it is as basic, as in only to prepare for them in theory, without much—or any—emphasis on actual technique or artistry. This is common sense, and yet we are surprised again and again. We have heard of violin and flute teachers having full studios of piano students… Why would anyone agree for this? Just because it is cheaper or next door?
3) Meet with the teacher and make sure there is a good personality match. Students should like their teacher, should look forward to coming to lessons, should NOT feel scared and worried. Good chemistry is one of the essentials. Striving towards perfection in music is stressful enough, so teachers should not create an atmosphere of fear. Nothing beautiful can come out of that sort of negative ambiance. Check the teacher’s accomplishments. Did his or her students win any festivals? Ask the potential teacher if he or she performs? Where can you hear them play a solo concert? There is an art to successful and confident performance—your teacher should be able to play what he or she teaches!
“But, she has younger ones only because that’s what she specializes in.”
Really? Does she say, “Okay, you’re older now. Please go away now.” Is there any reason why a good working relationship needs to end? If someone really is only comfortable with one level of student (be it beginner or advanced), that teacher is admitting to limitations. Investing time and money with that teacher is to inherit those sorts of limitations. Why do students go to other teachers after a year or two? That’s a very good question…
4) Get an acoustic piano. Don’t go “cheap” with a keyboard (digital piano is just a fancy term for keyboard). Music is all about sound—your child will feel much more inspired by the real acoustic phenomenon, whereby the sound reverberates through the instrument and the room, rather than from a speaker that artificially produces sound. Also, with exceptions to new hybrid instruments by Yamaha (check out HYBRID pianos, N2 and N3), there is no keyboard that has the same feel of action as the real piano. If you buy a keyboard today for $1000, it will be worth almost nothing in a year. It is generally a bad investment (and not too fun to play on after the first week). It is better to rent a piano (from stores like Sherman Clay), than to buy a keyboard. Renting a piano can cost $50 per month. Eventually, it is best to buy a decent upright piano, and a decent new one can be bought for ca. $5000. Buying a used piano is fine, but always have it checked out be the piano technician before you buy—so you are not buying a “cat in a bag” (and there are many howling bags out there just waiting to get opened!).
5) We recommend for parents to observe lessons and supervise the practicing at home when students are really, really young and when they are beginners. For students who already have 2-3 years of experience already, a parent’s job should be limited to making sure that the practicing sessions take place regularly. Parents should schedule regular trips to concert halls to hear their teachers perform (if they are lucky to have teachers who are actively performing—nothing can be more inspiring), and to the symphony. Expose them to all sorts of classical music concerts and your life will gain a new, beautiful dimension. It can be an amazing transformation for the whole family.
6) The results are best seen every six months, or every year… Progress in instrumental performance takes every day commitment. And since it is not one of those “quick and dirty results” sorts of activities, it takes time. Whatever is valuable in life takes time and effort, but then lasts for ever.