I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. Happy New Year!! This is the start of 2022 and it really marks a new change for me — after teaching piano lessons for 30 years, I have just wrapped up my teaching in December. If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you know that I took a new job with Schmitt Music back in September. I hadn’t anticipated a job change, but decided to take the opportunity; and Schmitt Music was so gracious in allowing me to continue to also teach for the fall semester in order to give my students time to find another teacher, since this job came up so close to the start of the school year and I already had my students all queued up, ready to go for the fall. So it has been an incredibly busy fall, with working two jobs; thanks for sticking with me as I took my podcast production down to just two episodes per month during that time. And now, while I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the fact that I’m not teaching anymore, and I will miss seeing my students every week, I AM really enjoying my new job with Schmitt Music; I’m their Institutional Account Manager, repping Steinway pianos to universities & colleges in our region, and am just loving getting to meet other amazing people in the world of music and music education! And, now that I’m not teaching any longer, I am really excited to be diving back into more frequent podcast episodes again! I have missed this, and look forward to discovering and introducing you to more of the incredible ways music enhances our everyday lives in a holistic way — whether we consider ourselves musicians or not! If you have a topic or guest to recommend, let me know! I’m currently lining up guests and would love to hear your suggestions, and what topics are of most interest to you.
Well, certainly one way that MANY of us enhance lives with music is learning a musical instrument. Piano lessons are sort of a rite of passage of childhood for many of us. I grew up taking piano lessons. My parents had a rule that I think is brilliant — each of their 4 kids was required to take one year of piano lessons. After 1 year, we could choose if we wanted to continue or not. My older brother and I started lessons at the same time — I was in first grade, he was in 4th. And actually our MOM started taking lessons with us as well, and I have wonderful memories of listening to her practice right after we went to bed. It was a delightful sound to go to sleep to. My brother took the 1 year and then switched to a band instrument; I continued with lessons, and eventually my younger brother and sister also took piano lessons. Neither of them stuck with lessons long term, but they both have a highly developed appreciation for music, and are certainly musically literate.
Today I’m going to be addressing the common question: What is the best way to FIND a piano teacher? While fall and the start of the school year is probably the most common time to begin music lessons, January is also a common time to start lessons — and also summertime/when school ENDS — can be a great time to get started on lessons or just try out lessons on an instrument.
First of all, today I’m going to specify what I’ll be considering “piano lessons” – I’ll be talking about traditional, private piano lessons. This is the most common form of piano lessons, it’s what I’ve taught most, and it’s most commonly what people are referring to when they ask this question. Traditional piano lessons are one-on-one with the instructor and student, in person, with the student learning to read and play music. What we’re NOT talking about are group lessons or specialized methods like Suzuki. I’m also talking about average neuro-typical kids — I’m not talking about child prodigies or kids with special needs. We ARE talking specifically about PIANO lessons because that is my area of expertise; however, for the most part, this information will translate to other instruments as well. I’m also going to be addressing PARENTS who are looking for a teacher for their CHILD, just because that is the most common scenario. If this doesn’t perfectly describe your situation (maybe you’re an adult student looking for your own teacher), that’s fine — just adapt the info to your situation.
One thing I have discovered in 30 years of teaching piano lessons, is that parents have a WIDE variety of expectations for the piano lesson experience for their child. I do think this variety has increased over the decades I’ve been teaching, but I also think that the variety in parenting styles has increased. When I was a kid in the 70s & 80s, it seemed like parenting was much more homogenous — my friends’ parents were highly likely to have similar rules and expectations as my parents. We probably ate similar foods in our houses. When I was raising my kids (who are now 16 and 19), there was already a lot more variation in expectations of behavior, chores & responsibilities, what kids eat or don’t eat, and also household budgets — it was much more common then and now than in the 70s to have dual-income households.
So I have found that the most important questions to ask yourself when you start your search for a piano teacher (and this is also a great question for teachers to ask prospective students and their parents), is what level of challenge and corresponding level of results are you looking for in this piano lesson experience?
Level of challenge and corresponding level of results
- At one end of the spectrum, there are parents who say: “I just want my child to have FUN with piano lessons.” At the other end of the spectrum are parents who are looking for a comprehensive musical education that involves playing for events, which may include recitals, exams, or contests. They want a firm musical foundation that includes music theory and technique, NOT just playing Merrily We Row Along.
- FUN end of the spectrum: I’ve found these parents may have had a bad experience with being nagged to practice as a kid; it may have been a real source of friction between the parent and child and they don’t want to repeat that, but they also wish they could play the piano and want that for your child. They recognize the value and gift of making music and playing an instrument, and having that outlet for expression.
- Now, inevitably, there WILL come a time when their child does not want to practice piano. This is just the nature of being a child and being human and resisting things that are hard and frustrating. When this happens, these parents are probably not going to monitor or enforce practice time that their child doesn’t want to do, unless there is some education that takes place between the teacher and the PARENT about positive ways to motivate the child. [I do have several episodes relating to this topic, which I’ll mention later.] But it’s very helpful to recognize if this is where you are as a parent, or if this is where the parent of your student is.
- These parents do tend to, in my experience, be pretty realistic about the fact that they aren’t going to see a lot of results if practice time doesn’t happen the way it should. They tend to “get” that results will be slow and inconsistent, and they tend to be ok with that.
- I’ll be honest — this was not my parenting style, and it’s not the teaching that I most thrive in, but there are a lot of parents in this place and am thrilled that they are pursuing piano lessons for their kids, and I do see the value in these lessons. I think it’s very helpful for the parents and teacher to recognize and accept “This is where we are right now.”
- CHALLENGE end of the spectrum: These parents often have musical background of some sort. They expect to get their money’s worth out of piano lessons and see results. They want a well-rounded, comprehensive musical foundation for their kids that includes not just learning to read music, but also learning music theory, technique, and performance experience ranging from recitals and worship or community-service experience to judged exams and contests.
- These parents tend to recognize the universal life lessons that are learned through music lessons. They have high expectations of the piano teacher (they expect professionalism, a certain level of education and experience and efficiency with results). When a child inevitably doesn’t want to practice, these parents aren’t usually shocked.
- They tend to be accustomed to enforcing expectations, and their kids tend to be used to doing things they don’t FEEL like doing at the moment (whether it’s homework, household chores) and reaping the benefits (good grades, smooth relationships with the adults in their lives).
- MIDDLE: There is for sure everything in between. Sometimes kids and parents may have been closer to the CHALLENGE end of the spectrum; but once a child gets to be in high school, sports and Honors classes and jobs force them to choose how rigorous they can be with their various commitments. I totally get it when these students, who aren’t planning a career in music, need to scale back the expectations of lessons and practice so that they can STILL KEEP UP WITH THE MUSIC LESSONS THEY ENJOY and ALSO prioritize the sport they plan to continue in college, or the job they have to earn money for college, etc. I’m thrilled that these students keep up with their piano lessons and reap the benefits of music training, even though the student and parents and I all know they have less time to devote to practice, they may have to scale back to a 30-minute weekly lesson instead of a longer lesson, and the results will be slower. That’s OK.
- So determining where you are on this scale of challenge and result is really the most important thing to figure out; and know it can change — whether with the situation I just described, or as parents become more aware of the life lessons learned in music lessons transferring to other areas of life, or for other factors.
So once you evaluate that question and that scale of challenge, what is the best way to find a piano teacher who will be an appropriate fit for your child and situation?
Ways to find a piano teacher:
- Word of mouth: I do find this is the most common way to find a teacher and tends to bring the best results — meaning a good fit for teacher and student/family! If you have a friend whose child is in lessons, you probably have a good sense of where they are on the scale of FUN – to – CHALLENGE; what results they’re getting; and how good of a fit they feel their teacher is! If this isn’t something that comes up in conversation, start asking questions. If your kids are in soccer, start asking other parents if their kids are in piano lessons, and find out more about their experience. Ask neighbors, other parents whose kids are in school or church with your kids. Ask your child’s music teacher at school for recommendations, ask your church worship leaders for recommendations. Post on social media to get feedback from your friends and community. I’ve seen these types of posts on FB, within Facebook parent or Mom groups, on Next Door, which is a neighborhood-based social media platform. As you’re receiving and evaluating referrals, again just keep that scale in mind. Someone else at your school may love their piano teacher, but you’re at significantly different places on the scale, you’ll want to chat with the teacher first to find out if your and their expectations are compatible.
- A 2nd great option for finding a great piano teacher is going to Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) website. This IS a US association; if you’re outside of the US, you may have an equivalent association. MTNA has a Find a Teacher link where you can find member teachers in your geographic area. You can also go more directly to your state’s affiliate (e.g., in MN, it is MMTA). Most if not all of the state associations also have Find a Teacher links on their websites. Teachers who are members of MTNA and the state affiliates are highly qualified, are probably very active in continuing education and professional development, and through their memberships they are able to offer a wide range of opportunities to your child in terms of performance opportunities and exam programs.
- A 3rd great option for finding a great piano teacher — check out music schools in your area. One of the local music schools here in the Twin Cities is MacPhail Center for Music — I featured them in at least one episode. They have a stellar reputation and have highly qualified teachers who offer lots of opportunities for students in multiple locations. Some of these schools, MacPhail is one of them — have extensive online teaching programs. MacPhail’s existed prior to covid; and ironically, the interview I did with them focused on their online offerings and just happened to release days before the US shut down in March 2020 for covid. And in the interview, “lockdowns” were kind of novelty we were hearing about in other countries, and I was saying in the interview, You could be in South Korea on lockdown, and still be having your weekly piano lesson if you were doing online lessons!” Now in the 2 years since then, MANY more music schools and individual music teachers have expanded their offerings to online lessons. So even if you don’t have a reputable music school in your area, you can still take advantage of one in another part of the country or world as long as they offer online lessons!
- A 4th option: check with music stores in your area. I work for Schmitt Music, and our stores contract with teachers to offer piano lessons and other instrument lessons right in our stores. We have stores in several states; I’ll include a link in the show notes. If we’re not in your area, check out the music stores that ARE in your area.
- A 5th option: This can be a particularly attractive option for those who have a small budget — Find a high school or college student to teach your child. This is how I first started teaching piano lessons. I was in 10th grade and a family friend was on the phone with my Mom one day, I happened to be practicing, and the friend said to my Mom, “Wow — Mindy is really good on the piano. Has she ever considered teaching? I have a neighbor with young kids and they are looking for a piano teacher.” I HAD considered the idea, but had no idea where to start, and God bless Darlene Krol, the family friend who then referred her neighbors to me. The rest is history and I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years! MY daughter also started teaching piano lessons in high school. She had been taking piano lessons since Kindergarten, she was a natural-born teacher who loved working with kids, she was a contest-winning pianist. I had a few students who were far on the FUN end of the spectrum. As I said, I definitely see the value in these lessons, but they are not where I thrive as a teacher and I felt Adrienne, my daughter, would be a perfect fit for these students! She was more than qualified to teach the level these students were at, it was an excellent learning opportunity for her and really helped solidify the concepts she had previously learned but now had to TEACH to someone else, and these young students LOVED having a weekly lesson with a cool high school kid (MUCH cooler than a Mom like me!).
- Now I will say that there is ALWAYS value in hiring an experienced, highly qualified piano teacher. Even if you are low on the expectations scale and just want your kid to have fun, paying for a great teacher will probably be getting you a teacher who is good at cultivating intrinsic motivation in your child so that they will WANT to practice, and will learn to recognize and appreciate the frustration tolerance they’re developing through practice time, and how those and other skills transfer to other areas of their life (e.g., performance skills developed for musical performances will transfer to athletic performances, or presenting a report in front of class, or talking to that cute kid on the bus, or acing your first job interview). “You get what you pay for.” So if you can afford a great teacher and you can find one who is a great fit, hire them and count your blessings!
- At the same time, I recognize that not everyone is in a position to do this. If that describes you, check around to see if there are any highly skilled high school or college pianists in the area who want to teach! You can check with piano faculty at colleges in your area. Teachers LOVE to have their students TEACH, because their students are forced to understand the material even better in order to articulate and teach it to someone else.
Once you’re narrowing your options, I do think it is a great idea to meet with a prospective piano teacher before you make a final decision. Just meeting in person with the teacher and interacting with them — and seeing how they interact with your child — will tell you a lot and give you a good sense of what kind of a fit this may be. If your child has already had some lessons in the past, they can bring their most recent music along and play something for the teacher. Again, just listening to the feedback from the teacher and how it’s delivered and received by your child will tell you a lot.
Some questions you may want to ask a prospective music teacher during this meeting:
- What are the teacher’s requirements for students for practice time and performances? If the teacher requires all students to participate in a judged event with memorized music, best to know that now to avoid any surprises.
- What are the teacher’s goals for their students? [My goals were for students to have a love for music AND to help the parents/student accomplish whatever THEIR goals were]
- If YOU or your child have specific goals for lessons, be sure to discuss these with a potential teacher (e.g., compete, compose their own music, accompany their self singing, learn chords to play with a band, etc.)
- What kind of music do your students play (classical only? sacred? pop?)
And THAT is my overview of how to find a great piano teacher. Certainly there are other factors that my come into play, such as geographic location — how far are you willing to drive. My parents drove me 30 minutes one way to my piano teacher’s house every week! They saw the value in having a good teacher who was a good fit. I also had a stay-at-home mom, so again, lots of factors come into play in this decision. But I think that if you find a teacher who is a good fit on the FUN -to-CHALLENGE scale, these other factors have a way of working themselves out.
As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of related episodes that you may want to check out. Some of the most relevant are:
Link to episodes:
- Ep. 6: “How to Get Your Child to Practice… Without Resorting to Violence!” with author Cynthia Richards
- Ep. 106: How to Talk… when kids don’t want to practice, with authors Joanna Faber & Julie King
- Ep. 28: My CHILD is taking music lessons; what’s MY role? with Suzanne Greer
- Ep. 33: Looking for music lessons that fit your unique situation? Check out these options, with MacPhail Center for Music’s Paul Babcock
- Ep. 31: “Good Music, Brighter Children: Simple and Practical Ideas to Help Transform Your Child’s Life Through the Power of Music,” with author Sharlene Habermeyer
- Ep. 59: How does MUSIC learning impact OTHER learning? With Dr. Anita Collins
- Ep. 60: How does music training affect children’s Social-Emotional Learning, and how is SEL affected by a pandemic? With Dr. Assal Habibi
There are also many episodes related to specific situations, which we WEREN’T addressing today — lessons for kids with Autism, special needs, speech or learning delays & disorders, kids who are hospitalized with illness; I’ll include links in the show notes to these specific episodes.
I hope this episode answers some questions about how to find a great piano teacher who will be most appropriate for your child and family situation. If you know of someone who may benefit from this episode, please share it with them! Just hit the Share option in your podcast app. If you don’t see it right away, tap the 3-dots icon, and that will probably make it appear.
Shoutout to former guest Sharlene Habermeyer — I just mentioned her episode — it was way back in Ep. 31. Sharlene was one of those guests who I really connected with and we have stayed in touch. At the time of our interview, Sharlene was living in Chicago. Since then, she moved to Salt Lake City to be near grandkids. I was in Salt Lake City (Park City), UT, in December and was able to meet Sharlene in person — finally — for the first time! And it was absolutely delightful to have lunch with her. She is even more delightful in person and it was a highlight of my trip. I highly recommend her episode and her book, “Good Music, Brighter Children: Simple and Practical Ideas to Help Transform Your Child’s Life Through the Power of Music.”
As always, all links from today’s show – and a transcript of this episode – can be found in the show notes at mpetersonmusic.com/podcast; this is Ep. 119. While you’re on my website, I’d love to hear from you! Tell me how YOU found your music teacher, or if you have suggestions to add to my list! You can reach me on email (email@example.com), Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn. All links are on that webpage, as well as in the episode details right in your podcast app. Thanks so much for joining me today. Until next time, may your life be enhanced with music.