In school, you don’t usually get to choose your teachers. Some teachers are better than others, but in the end, you get out of class what you put into it. In the movie Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan said it best when she explained why math was her favorite subject. “It’s the same in every country.” Academic subjects tend to follow standardized textbook curriculum. However, in music, not all teachers are created equal. Very often, the right or wrong teacher could make or break success on your chosen instrument. This article will attempt to shed some light on how to find the right teacher for you. I’ve studied violin and singing for many years, but I believe the insights in this article will be applicable to all instruments.
Your teachers play an influential role in your life, so it’s important to get along with them. Think about what you would look for. Do you want a male? Female? Young? Old? American? Foreign? No one is better than another. It’s a matter of apples and oranges, finding the right fit for your personality. I’ve had a wide range of experiences with different teachers. I’ve studied with a laid-back young American lady, a strict Russian lady, an Iranian man, and an Orthodox Jewish man. Each one had very different training, different personality, and different ways of interpreting music.
What are your goals? What do you want to gain from your lessons? Are you looking to just have fun? Are you looking for a new extracurricular activity? Do you want a professional career? Do you want a solo career? Do you want to play in an orchestra? Are you looking to audition for a choir or an a cappella group? Do you have specific technical issues that you would like to work on (such as vibrato, bow grip, breath support)? When I was 11, I needed a violin teacher who could fix my shaky bow grip. I ended up finding a wonderful Russian teacher who was able to drill me until I got it right. In just a few months, I had developed an impeccable Russian bowing technique. I accomplished what could have taken years to achieve with another teacher.
It is important to find someone who is able to meet your needs. I learned the hard way with one of my voice teachers. I was preparing for an audition with a very exclusive choir, and I had gone to my teacher for help. She was very good at giving me exercises and building fundamental vocal technique, but she was not good a picking the right songs. I ended up with a song that did not flatter my voice or my range, and it had disastrous consequence. Anyone who watches American Idol knows that song choice can make or break a performance. When moving on to my next teacher, I was careful to find someone who specialized in choosing the right songs.
Many parents make the mistake of automatically going to the nearest teacher or the nearest neighborhood music school without a second thought. This can be a mistake. My town’s music school was not of the highest caliber, so my parents decided to take the extra half hour every week to drive me to New England Conservatory for my lessons. It was the best decision they ever made. Many of the faculty were members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and their students were winning concerto competitions.
When choosing a teacher, look at credentials. Where did they go to school? Where do they perform? Who were their teachers? How good are their students? Sometimes teachers host recitals for their students. Attending these recitals can help determine if they are a good fit.
On the other hand, credentials do not tell the whole story. The best performers are not necessarily the best teachers, and vice versa. Jascha Heifetz, arguably the greatest violinist of the 20th century was not the greatest teacher. One of my teachers saw a former Heifetz student perform at an audition. He had expected the Heifetz student to blow the audition committee away, but he ended up performing sub par. It is one thing to play well. It is quite another to be able to explain how to do it. Conversely, Dorothy DeLay, a violin teacher at Juilliard, produced internationally renowned soloists such as Itzhak Perlman and Sarah Chang, yet she herself never had a performing career.
The most important lesson I’ve learned is to not let your personal feelings impair your judgment. My first violin teacher was extraordinarily gifted at working with young children. In my first three years, I made great progress with her, but for three years after that, I was at a standstill. I was no longer benefiting from my lessons, and it was becoming a waste of my parents’ money and my time. My needs had changed and I needed someone who could work well with older kids. Unfortunately, we were afraid to switch teachers. My mom had become best friends with her and was worried about damaging the friendship. When we finally switched, the friendship suffered anyway, so there was nothing to be gained from delaying the process.
Always remember that your needs come first, and that your teacher is there to help you. You are paying money for these lessons, so they should be enjoyable and rewarding. If you are in the position of having to change teachers, remember that it’s not personal. Sometimes your needs change. There are many wonderful music teachers. Don’t be afraid to see what’s out there.