This article is one part of my Ultimate Parent's Guide to Kid's Guitar Lessons.
How can you find the best music teacher for your child? In this article, I'll outline four questions you can ask to ensure that your child's teacher is well-qualified. By the end of this article, you can start your search for a qualified music teacher knowing that you'll find the best teacher available.
The four actions you can take to find a high-quality music teacher are looking for recommendations, asking for evidence of successful students, checking out credentials, and sitting in on another student's lesson. It is unnecessary to get results from every single action on this list; even a few results can help you narrow down your options to the best teacher.
For people who live in densely populated places, there will likely be a plethora of options. Therefore, you'll likely need to narrow down the scope of the search. Try to narrow your search down to a half-dozen or so. The following steps will help you do so.
Ask for Recommendations
There are several ways to find recommendations. You can look for meaningful online reviews, ask any musicians you know, investigate your local music store, or ask your community.
One complicating factor is that some excellent teachers still have a minimal web presence. They can do this because they're able to maintain their business solely through referrals. Similarly, be sure to focus on the quality of reviews over the quantity. High-quality teachers will teach the same students for years, making it difficult to amass reviews.
Also, be aware that many music shops also provide lessons; these shops prioritize referring you to their lessons rather than the best lessons available. That being said, I worked in a Music Store with the drum teacher that taught Julian Lennon (John Lennon's son) and Frank Iero (drummer for the band My Chemical Romance). There are excellent teachers in music stores!
What you're looking for here is any teacher that a parent raves about. Prioritize professionalism first, followed by personality. Musicality comes last. Take recommendations for any instrument, as these teachers may be able to point you towards excellent teachers on your preferred instrument.
Ask for Evidence of Results
Results are what matter. I doubt many parents in my studio know the specifics of my degrees. They care about how I relate to their child and the results I get for them. I'd bet that you won't care about your teacher's background either, as long as they're able to engage your child in lessons and help them achieve a high level of musicianship.
A successful teacher can share results with you in several ways. Student testimonials and online reviews can talk about results, as can a word-of-mouth recommendation. Videos of students progressing through the years, a single student performance, or having students win local competitions are strong evidence of a successful teaching program. Ideally, you'll be able to see multiple students demonstrate a high level of skill because a single student can be misleading.
There are also more subtle proof-of-results. One example is teachers who display photos of their students, individually or as a group. Look to see if the studio has grown and if many students appear year-after-year in the recital photographs.
Here's an example from my studio: Each student in my studio gets a folder with their music and other miscellaneous items. In that folder is a sheet of green card-stock paper used to write down each week's goals for an individual song. When the student finishes a piece of music, they rip out the sheet, write their name on it, and tape it to the wall. The walls are covered in green sheets. This "wallpaper" is proof of accomplishment that you can see as soon as you walk into my studio.
I'd be very willing to send my daughter to a teacher who can demonstrate a track record of success with multiple students, regardless of whether they use their homemade method book or a published series of books—more on my concerns about home-brewed method books below.
Note that proof-of-results can take many years. You may find an excellent teacher whose studio is just starting and, consequently, has little proof-of-results. In this instance, I'd expect the teacher to articulate the curriculum and method they use clearly. I'd also want to know their credentials, which is less of a concern for teachers with a track record of success.
You can ask for the following things
- Recitals or performances; either an invitation to attend or video of a recital
- Reviews from parents in their studio; you could even ask if you could talk to one of the parents in their studio
- Their student's notable accomplishments, such as first-chair in the school orchestra, winning competitions, or similar.
- Ask about some of their long-term students, how the students are doing, and how the teacher has improved since they started.
Ask About the Curriculum, Method, and Communication
Before continuing, you need to be aware of the difference between a curriculum and a method. The shortest possible definition is clear enough for our purposes. A curriculum is what materials the teacher uses. A method is how the teacher presents the material.
For example, I am a trained teacher in the Suzuki Method, which utilizes parental involvement, prioritizes aural learning before reading music, encourages group classes, and more. I also use the Suzuki Curriculum, the progressive, 9-volume set of books created by the Suzuki Institute that guide the student from beginner musician to concert-level performer.
Keep in mind that I can use the Suzuki Method (really, methods) to teach any curriculum. And I do use it in my supplemental class materials. Similarly, a teacher could use the Suzuki Curriculum without any training or use of the Suzuki method.
When your child goes through a progressive series of materials and books, they'll feel a sense of pride when finishing a book and song. They'll know that they've completed a long-term goal and that more significant and more rewarding challenges lie ahead. This progression typically leads to students staying with lessons year after year.
While there are many such books and curricula out there, I use books from the Suzuki Method, the Royal Conservatory of Music (Canada), the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (Great Britain), and the Shearer Method for Classical Guitar.
Using a consistent teaching curriculum allows teachers to refine and improve their approach to teaching individual pieces. Creating a high-quality curriculum from scratch is a years-long process that requires plenty of experience. In my early years of teaching, I was unsatisfied with the curricula available to me and put a lot of time and energy into creating my own curriculum. In hindsight, this was a mistake. I was too inexperienced to create a quality curriculum. My efforts would have been better spent improving my skill at teaching an already-complete curriculum.
That is not to say that developing a unique curriculum is impossible. There are plenty of teachers out there who have done precisely that. I'd be happy to sign my daughter up for lessons with an experienced teacher who has developed their own program and given me evidence that it is successful (in the form of videos, etc.). Correspondingly, I'd be hesitant to sign my daughter up with a young teacher who has few students and uses their own custom curriculum.
It would be best if you also asked a teacher about the methods they use. How will they engage your child in lessons? What advice do they have for common practice issues at home? What parts of their curriculum do they find most challenging to teach, and how have they been improving their methods to improve students' results?
You'll need to stay abreast of what's going on in your child's music lessons, especially if you have younger children. It is challenging for young children to progress without parental involvement in practice at home. This involvement extends beyond merely telling kids to practice. You'll need to help guide them through their practice sessions. Even older kids benefit from some parental involvement.
Ask any potential teachers about their communication methods. How will they ensure that you're up-to-date on the goings-on in the teaching studio? Do they require the parent to be in the lesson, or do they schedule a few minutes after each lesson to chat with the parent? Is there an online platform that they use, or do they send an email every week?
I personally use a Folder of Awesomeness (or digital equivalent) to make sure that my students always know what to practice.
Asking these questions will help you gauge the level of organization in the studio. The greater the organization, the more likely a potential teacher has experienced or foreseen issues potential issues and created a system that prevents problems before they arise. All of these things indicate a high level of professionalism.
Here are some sample questions:
- What books or curriculum do you use?
- How do you decide when a student is ready to move to a new piece of music?
- Have you ever had any problematic students and, if so, how have you dealt with them?
- What advice do you have for practicing at home?
- How do you keep children engaged in the lesson?
Ask for Credentials
If a teacher can demonstrate multiple students' success over many years, I consider that sufficient credentials. However, if a teacher is starting their studio or recently changed specialties, credentials can indicate the likelihood of an inexperienced teacher's potential for success.
Generally speaking, the higher the degree of formal education a teacher has, the longer students stay with them. This longevity is likely because these teachers have a greater knowledge of the repertoire, greater technical ability to inspire students, and an ability to dive deeper into musicality.
However, degrees are not the only valid credential. It is useful to see if the teacher has done any further training, specifically in pedagogy, or continued their training with more advanced teachers. You may encounter some specific training and certifications: the Suzuki Method, Royal College of Music certification, and Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music certification.
The former of these is the most common in the USA, which, unfortunately, doesn't have a strong tradition of teacher-certification programs. The other two are seen mostly in Canada and Great Britain, respectively.
It is essential to know that the bar for becoming a music teacher is low. All you need to do is find a student. Many people have no training in instrumental pedagogy (the art and profession of teaching), even those who have a music degree. Even more impressive is the degree to which music degrees vary (pun intended). Some music degrees are focused on performance (often taught at so-called "Conservatory" schools), some focus on school-based music education (which is very different than individual instruction). In contrast, others focus on music production and arrangement.
I would prefer that my child's instructor attended a conservatory-style school and have some pedagogical training, either as part of the program or through a continuing education program.
Here are some sample questions
- Did you attend school for music?
- If so, what was your degree in?
- Was your school conservatory-style?
- Do you have any certifications or training specifically for teaching private music lessons?
- Did you receive pedagogical training at school or elsewhere?
Engage in a Lesson
Once you've whittled your list down to a few teachers, ask if you can observe the teacher in action. This is a substantial time commitment, so wait until your list is on the small side!
If you've found a teacher who looks promising, you want to make sure that you and your child are comfortable with the teacher's personality and teaching style. While a teacher may check all of the boxes, it's of no use if they "motivate" their students by being demeaning and degrading. Spending some time in the teaching studio will help you determine if they're a good fit for your family.
There are two ways to do this:
- Observe another student's lesson
- Attend a free lesson.
Either one will work fine; the latter can give you a better sense of how your child engages with the teacher, but the former can (if your child comes along) help engage your child in lessons by having them see what other students are doing.
With these steps, you should be able to find a music teacher who fits your needs. Leave a message in the comments below if you have any tips or questions!