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I'm looking to start taking music lessons after a break, and am looking for a new teacher. Its easy to find people teaching music, but once you've got a list of names, how do you figure out who the best teachers are?

My past experience has taught me to avoid people just out of college because they are guaranteed to be inexperienced, but even among the experienced teachers, there is a huge range of abilities, both in skill in music and in teaching.

What sorts of questions should I ask a prospective teacher? What are some warning signs I should look to avoid? What are some signs that someone is really good at teaching?

In short, how do I separate the good teachers from the bad? I'm willing to take a few test lessons, but if I've got a list of a dozen potential teachers, I need to narrow that down to 2 or 3 before I start taking lessons from them.

  • What sort of lessons do you want to take? – piofusco Feb 11 '15 at 16:04
  • Local music stores usually have teachers. I taught at quite a few for years. This being the case, you could interview a few teachers (as @trrun731 suggests) in one trip to one such store that is convenient to you. – amalgamate Feb 11 '15 at 17:25
  • Note that when ever I got a student who had previous experience, it took a few lessons to get to know the students level and challenge them just the right amount. Sometimes students would convince me they were better or worse at guitar than they actually were. Sometimes I could strike the right note right away, but it was not always easy to do that with experienced players. The point is, once you select a teacher, give that person at least a month to hit their stride, before moving on. – amalgamate Feb 11 '15 at 17:32
  • @piofusco, I'm looking for advice for music teachers in general, since I've got a few possible things I might take lessons in. – Karen Feb 11 '15 at 19:41
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    If everyone avoided teachers who were just out of college, then how are those teachers ever supposed to gain the experience you seek in teachers? – corsiKa Feb 12 '15 at 0:32
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First, and most importantly, identify what your goals are.

  • What genres do you want to play?
  • Do you want to play solo?
  • Do you want to join a band?
  • Do you want to be able to pass exams?
  • Anything else you'd like to accomplish with your playing?

Talk to prospective teachers about all of these things, and ask about their history:

  • If you want to play in a band, do they play in a band?
  • Do they write their own covers - do you want to write your own covers?
  • Do they play and sing at the same time, and do you want to as well?
  • Can they point to examples of their other student's work or have you sit in on a lesson?

I started with a classical teacher who I asked to teach me rock, and it wasn't a good fit. So instead, I took adult lessons at a local school of rock, and joined a coached cover band program through them as well. This has helped me learn much more of what my goals are - the ability to comp along with chord charts, to play with a band, to write my own covers, to explore rock, jazz, and blues more than classical - however, my classical and sheet music reading skills haven't grown with this style of teaching, which I am okay with, as they are not part of my primary goals.

So, bottom line:

  • Identify your goals.
  • Interview any prospective teachers on how they might help you achieve those goals.
  • Ask for examples of their work. See if they have videos on youtube or recordings you can listen to.
  • Ask for one free lesson and let them know ahead of time what your goals are, and evaluate how they focused on those goals.

Good luck!

  • adding to your list... Do you want to be able to read music? What style of music do you want to mainly play? – amalgamate Feb 11 '15 at 22:02
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    I was always amazed at how often the free lessons I offered would not show. I also had great push back from store management on free lessons. Music and Arts considers it steeling and will fire teachers who do this and are found out. Have sympathy for those who don't give out free lessons. – amalgamate Feb 11 '15 at 22:06
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Being a great player doesn't always equate with being a great teacher. World champions have coaches; if the coach was that good, why isn't he the world champion? Often a good player is naturally gifted, and finds things so easy that he can't understand why his pupils struggle. Empathy is something a teacher needs.

Being on the same wavelength as his pupil is good. Being able to communicate in a way that is easy for his pupil to understand.

Inspiration. If I could bottle it, I'd be a millionnaire.But, can that teacher inspire you? It's a very subjective, inter-personal thing. Even a great teacher may not inspire all his pupils all the time.

Knowledge. When you ask a teacher a searching question relating to something you're studying, an immediate, accurate answer is probably expected. If not forthcoming, is one waiting for you, next lesson?

Qualifications. Not convinced that just because someone has taken the time to study, and may be good at passing exams, that they're necessarily going to be a better teacher than someone who's gleaned experience by being in the industry for years, but has no exams passed.

Age. A young teacher can be more enthusiatic, trying harder to build up his bank of pupils. An older one may be way more experienced, and have more time to give, and will have met far more different sorts of pupil, and therefore should be more adaptable.

Facilities. Do you need to get some recordings done during lessons? Do you want to be able to try out different kinds of instruments/equipment with some guidance from that teacher? Do you want him to organise ensembles for you to join in?

There are so many different facets to this question, and its answers, dependant on the pupil as much as the prospective tutor. As @amalgamate rightly points out, 3 or 4 lessons should be the bare minimum before deciding - unless you're convinced you made a mistake after the first!

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    You inspired me to think of this, How tough a teacher does the OP want? I have known teachers that yell and scream to "motivate" their students. It takes a real slacker to bring out my "you need to practice" lectures in me. Some use recitals to motivate, or recordings. Think about what level of motivation you want from your teacher, which is separate from teaching skill, but can get in the way of or improve learning. – amalgamate Feb 11 '15 at 18:40
  • @amalgamate - motivation is subjective too. With some students I need to get heavy, others, to show how upset I am, others to threaten to stop teaching them, I'm sure you have loads of different schemes, but each student and situation IS different. – Tim Feb 11 '15 at 20:17
  • I agree, though I am more a soft shoe myself. Some students will be a better fit with a particular teacher for these reasons even if the teacher is not as good as others who don't fit their sensibilities or internal motivation. Hopefully this motivation consideration is not the main focus for choosing a teacher, but it should probably be considered. – amalgamate Feb 11 '15 at 20:24
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My past experience has taught me to avoid people just out of college, but even among the experienced teachers, there is a huge range of abilities, both in skill in music and in teaching.

Why exactly?

What sorts of questions should I ask a prospective teacher? What are some warning signs I should look to avoid? What are some signs that someone is really good at teaching?

You need to be totally proficient in the instrument you teach. That old adage of those who cant do teach is rubbish. Only those who can do well can teach and not everyone that does well can teach.

Patience is another essential part of being a teacher. Also one of the more underrated features of a good teacher is his / her ability to put his own ego to the side and do what is best for the child in the situation he finds himself in. Being able to see past the mere fact about what you want is essential.

Just reflect on what kind of teachers inspired you at school / college and try to find the teacher that most espouses these values.

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    I would agree on the "Why exactly?". I would have given my left foot to be taught by a guitarist I once had the fortune to jam with who had just finished college. But he got a job as a session musician and disappeared. – Dave Engineer Feb 11 '15 at 17:37
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You seemed to have answered your own question.

My past experience has taught me to avoid people just out of college, but even among the experienced teachers, there is a huge range of abilities, both in skill in music and in teaching.

Hard to argue against such an open minded statement. Yes, some inexperienced teachers are bad. Some are good. Some are technically good, but bad at teaching. Technical prowess and age do not a good teacher make.

What sorts of questions should I ask a prospective teacher?

I would ask about their availability. You want to be given proper attention. How many students do they currently have? The more time they have to devote to you, the more you can take advantage of their teaching and and reap benefit.

Second, their experience. Are they a gigging musician? Are they a professor teaching students part-time? You could take all of these into account. Asking current/previous students to gauge a teaching style.

What are some signs that someone is really good at teaching?

Trust your gut. I find that within a short conversation I can usually gauge how much I can learn from someone.

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    Don't forget to ask how much they charge! – dumbledad Feb 11 '15 at 17:29
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    I used to charge the highest price in the store to try to weed out the bad students, but in the current economy we are all trimming our prices. So it is currently less of an indicator of quality if it ever was one. – amalgamate Feb 11 '15 at 17:36
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    @amalgamate - Teaching can be a thankless, under-appreciated profession, and yet, the greatest fulfillment anyone can ever do. – piofusco Feb 11 '15 at 21:45
  • @piofusco As a theory teacher I know this very well. – Neil Meyer Feb 12 '15 at 8:36

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