With the current school year wrapping up and our thoughts turning to how to make next year even better, we're teaming up with our friends at From the Top to create "The Young Person's Guide to Making Music." All this week, we're tackling topics for music-loving kids and their families, from how to choose the right instrument to vanquishing the audition monster, with lots of input offered by From the Top alumni and their parents. Have your own hard-earned wisdom to share? Tell us in the comments section.
Once your child has zeroed in on the instrument he or she would like to learn, the next natural step is to find a teacher. For many families, that means scouting about for a good private instructor — which can be a challenge on lots of levels.
Asking friends and parents of your child's peers is a natural first step, but it doesn't have to be your only method. There are lots of ways to plug kids into your local music scene.
Don't overlook the local branches of national teachers' associations. Organizations like the Music Teachers National Association, the National Association for Music Education and the American String Teachers Association can help you locate instructors. Many states also have their own music teacher associations; try an online search with your state or city plus the phrase "music teachers."
If you're thinking ahead — starting now to look for a teacher for the fall, for example — you might still be able to attend a prospective teacher's year-end student recital. This could give you a sense of the age group he or she most commonly works with, his or her point of view as an instructor and maybe even particular strengths. If it's a multi-age recital, it might also be a great opportunity for your own child to get excited about the music she or he might be learning down the road.
If your child's school or if your community has an orchestra, band or chorus, encourage your child to sign up. Not only are such groups a great way for your kid to meet new friends who share enthusiasm for music, but you'll start to build your own network of contacts, resources and locally sourced wisdom. In addition, school and community music teachers tend to have their own networks of private instructors to draw upon.
Local conservatories or colleges with robust music programs may also be a great place to locate a teacher. Many such institutions are glad to help connect current students and alumni with newcomers.
But how can you tell if a teacher is a great find? This presents a particular minefield for parents who aren't musically inclined themselves, or whose own memories of childhood lessons are occupied by boring old bats or sadistic, tough-talking taskmasters. (Or, you know, both.) Given the layers of mystery and even snobbery that all too often surround classical music, novice parents might wrongly assume that bad teaching is just the way things are supposed to be.
See if a prospective teacher allows a trial lesson to test how the personalities mesh. And be sure to ask lots of questions. What's the teacher's background as a musician and as an instructor? What kinds of teaching materials and music does she use? How much practice time is expected for students, and does that vary by the student's age? Does the teacher have access to student ensembles? What kinds of performance opportunities will he provide? Will the teacher allow the student to record the lesson? (This can be a terrific practice aid, especially when it comes to remembering how something is supposed to sound.) Does she teach any music theory or composition? What are the expectations for students and for their parents?
A good teacher can be a friendly, encouraging and inspiring presence — even when a student hits rough patches. He will point out the student's weaknesses without being harsh or dismissive, suggest innovative ways to overcome challenges, and create engaging ways to tackle even rote activities like playing scales or honing fine motor skills. The instructor's age and experience might or might not be a deciding factor; for example, I'm consistently impressed by the range of tricks my own child's very youthful private teacher has up her sleeve to turn what could easily be drudgery into fun. (Not to mention the huge helpings of good humor and patience she brings to her tiny charges!)
But what if you try out a teacher for a little while and you're just not sure it's a good fit? It's crucial to trust your gut. It's better to make a change sooner rather than later, especially if you feel like a teacher's experience, energy or approach just isn't right for your child. Sure, that will probably be an uncomfortable conversation, but isn't that preferable to wasting money, time and your kid's initial enthusiasm?
Keep in mind that the teacher who is ideal for a beginning student might not be such a perfect pairing several years down the line — and a great teacher will know when it's time to pass the baton along. As Emmanuel Cabezas, father of now 20-year-old cellist and From the Top alumnus Gabriel, remembers, "After Gabriel went through most of the Suzuki program, his teacher suggested a traditional teacher who also performed with a symphony orchestra. Once Gabriel studied with him for a couple of years, he in turn suggested another teacher from a university."
From The Top parent Roberta McGuire cautions, however, that when and if you as a parent trigger a teacher switch, you should be "honest with your wish to make a change. No one appreciates being blindsided." Plus, you never know just how small the musical world is — for all you know, your current teacher and the new teacher might just share a stand in your local orchestra!
Have a suggestion to help other families suss out great teachers? Let us know in the comments section.