I teach guitar and music lessons in the Berkeley and Pleasanton areas. My passion for teaching is as strong today as it was when I began to teach guitar lessons in Philadelphia 25 years ago. I have taught well over one thousand students at every academic level (elementary school to university) ranging from 4 and 5-year-olds to seniors in their late 80s. Unfortunately, I have encountered plenty of music students who have been led astray by a former teacher(s) over the years. Many students do not make this realization until they have sometimes spent five or more years searching for a teacher who can genuinely help coach them; some end up quitting completely and never come to realize it. This is especially the case with adult students who decide that they are either unteachable or lacking in talent.
This is not to suggest that all of these teachers intended to lead their students down the primrose path. Most music teachers, self-taught or not, teach the way they were taught. Sometimes this works well for the student, but there are plenty of instances where it does not.
Central to the problem of selecting a good teacher is that most people make many assumptions when estimating the merits of a teacher; all too often, these assumptions are false. This applies to everyone from parents searching for a guitar teacher for their kids to an adult who has already had years of private music lessons.
False Assumption #1: Great Guitar Players Are Likely Great Teachers
Being an excellent musician does not mean the player must be a great teacher. Unfortunately, playing and teaching skills do not go hand in hand, and while there are some who excel at both playing and teaching music, they are a rarity. Just as there have been many great athletes who later became ineffective coaches, there are plenty of world-class guitarists who are poor teachers.
From a purely business-oriented model, it comes as no surprise that a famous musician is favored by most music programs, even if he or she teaches poorly. After all, these programs know that a well-known musician will draw more students to a school's music department than a very good teacher with little or no name recognition.
On the other hand, there are musicians who may be mediocre performers but possess all of the skills necessary to be excellent teachers. Therefore, it is unwise to choose one teacher over another because one is a more accomplished musician.
Assumption #2: A Classically Trained Teacher Is Best
Another common fallacy is that it is best to seek out a teacher who was classically trained. Many fail to understand that there is a multitude of schools and methods; some are draconian, while others offer varying degrees of flexibility.
In the realm of guitar teachers, a classically trained teacher may not necessarily be a good fit for a student. For example, if you are a beginner guitar player interested in playing jazz or blues, a classically trained teacher may be of little help.
Different styles of music are essentially different dialects. A teacher may be fluent in Mandarin Chinese and be an excellent teacher, but that is not very helpful for someone interested in learning Cantonese.
Consider what style(s) of music you are most interested in learning and seek out a teacher who has familiarity with playing and teaching it. If you are interested in learning classical music, then research some of the different schools and approaches to see which will most likely be a proper fit.
Assumption #3: More Teaching Experience=A Better Teacher
Although we encounter people with many years of experience in different fields who are utterly inept, an all-to-often tendency is to place too much importance on the experience of the teacher.
Who would you prefer as a teacher: a mediocre guitar teacher with 10 or 20 years of experience or a very good guitar teacher who has been teaching for three or four years?
Experience certainly has its importance, but to assume one teacher is better than another based on this aspect alone is fraught with problems.
Assumption #4: Showing Is Teaching
Many teachers teach strictly by showing or telling the student what to do; while this may be helpful up to an extent, it is not true teaching. For example, if I write out all of the chords to a song on a piece of paper and then ask the student to watch me play them, the student will only be copying me. Essentially, I have provided all of the answers for the student. Unless the student figures out his or her own way to make sense of the information, there will be only a superficial understanding of what is happening.
I doubt anyone would consider someone to be a good math teacher if the teacher asked the students to watch him or her solve the problems and have them copy the answers down afterward. Would that really be teaching math?
More than 90% of students who have come to me following lessons with other teachers have had teachers who simply showed or told them what to play. Seldom, if ever, did the teacher(s) did not challenge the students by having them discover the answers for themselves. Instead, they simply wrote out the answers and asked the students to memorize them for the next lesson.
A teacher who relies solely on showing and telling the students what to do is only hampering the student by creating a dependency on the teacher. A skilled teacher presents an approach to the student that fosters creativity and cultivates confidence in his or her abilities.
Since no two students are identical, a large component of the art of teaching is in finding an effective approach for each student. Some students may understand a concept when presented from one perspective, while other students may not see it at all. Therefore, the teacher must be creative and figure out different ways of presenting the same concept, so it may be apprehended by all students.
Assumption #5: Strict Teachers Are Better For Students, Especially Kids
Although some students respond well to strict demanding teachers, this is far from being the case most of the time. In some instances, a strict teacher can absolutely destroy a student's interest in music.
Finding a good match between the temperament of the student and teacher is crucial. If you know you or your child responds well to pressure and criticism from teachers, then finding a teacher with such a temperament makes sense. (Both of my musical mentors were this way; however, I respond very well to this mode.)
If you or your child is genuinely interested in learning music but has not a fierce intensity, then finding a teacher whose temperament is more balanced is likely going to be preferable.
Some students do not fare so well with demanding teachers. For one, it is very difficult to experience enjoyment in the learning process when the teacher is constantly pushing the student. In the end, these students end up feeling that they are simply not talented enough and should give up, rather than driving themselves to press onward and prove themselves to their teacher.
The finest teachers know exactly if, when, and to what degree they should push their students; this is one of the arts to teaching.
When considering a music teacher, do not stop with how well the person plays or how much teaching experience he or she has acquired. Ask questions about their teaching philosophy and approach. You will get much more insight into the depth of a teacher by asking such questions. If the teacher has an unreasonable or superficial philosophy, then you may want to continue on with your search.
As a passionate teacher, little pains me more than observing a student who has formed counterproductive practices and habits.
Poor teachers provide more problems than solutions for students. Improper instruction and advice from a teacher(s) may mean many years of unlearning down the road, so take your time and choose your teacher wisely.
Have you any additional tips regarding ways of selecting the right music teacher? Please share them below.