Tuesday, September 8, 2015

6 Tips for Amateur Music Teachers


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I have wanted to write a post on here for some time about my teaching experience. To be completely honest, I have hesitated writing this for a while because I don’t feel qualified to give advice on teaching music. I don’t have the credentials, the fancy piece of paper, the résumé, the thousands of dollars of debt to prove that I’m adequate for this position. But I do love to play the piano. I love teaching. And I love the few students I have been fortunate enough to acquire in the last year. I have learned a lot from my students and from my experience and I think what I have learned is worth sharing.

1. Establish good relationships with your students (and their families). If there is one thing that has helped me accumulate and retain my students it is the relationships I have formed with not only my students but their parents and families. One of the families I teach happen to be friends of mine from church, but the rest of my students are people who heard about me through the music store and word of mouth. I prefer to teach piano lessons in my students' homes. While I originally made the decision to teach "house call" lessons out of necessity and a lack of a central location to teach, I quickly realized that this was the best choice I could possibly make. 

My students are comfortable and focused learning in an environment that is familiar and safe to them. But more importantly, teaching lessons in my students' homes has allowed me to form meaningful relationships with their parents and families which is essential for the growth and success of my students. As a teacher, I only do a small portion of the work. The rest is up to the students and their parents. If the parents aren't on the same page as the teacher, the students will not receive the encouragement and motivation they need to grow and learn. 

No matter where you teach, be sure to reach out to the parents, guardians and families of your students. Find ways to get them involved and encourage them to encourage your students. They are the ones after all who ultimately decide whether or not music lessons are a worthwhile investment for their children. 

2. Be humble but don't sell yourself short. I know that one of the reasons parents appreciate me is because my lessons are not expensive. I keep my lessons fairly cheap because, honestly, I’m not the most qualified or talented piano teacher you’ll meet. I also don’t necessarily need the money. I already work full-time. Teaching piano lessons is one of those things I enjoy doing so much I don’t feel like I have to be paid in order for the experience to be worthwhile. On the other hand I know I have a gift for teaching and I can see that through the progress my students’ consistently make. I also know that one of the reasons my students take their lessons seriously and practice is because their parents pay for it. Tuition is motivation to practice for both parents and students.

I also remain humble and realistic about my qualifications. This is important. Teachers must be willing and ready to admit when they have nothing left to teach their students. I make it clear to my students and their parents that I only teach beginning and intermediate piano lessons and I look forward to the day when my students become more skilled than I am and I have to pass them along to a music teacher who can take them on to greater heights.

3. Keep yourself involved and in shape as a musician. We all know the saying, “Those who don’t do, teach.” And all of us teachers know that this is not true whatsoever. As much as I love playing the piano I personally hate performing on the piano. The prospect of playing solo piano on stage in front of an audience terrifies me. I’ve gotten better over the years but it’s still not the most fun experience in the world for me. Still, I try to stay in shape and take opportunities when I can to perform and contribute my talent to the community. Whether it’s performing at my students’ piano recital or playing for one of our local theater’s shows, I try and show my students and their families that I am keeping myself in shape musically and that I am actively seeking to grow as a musician and performer.

4. Host recitals and studio classes. I don’t pass out grades to my students or officially asses their progress in a formal way. Some of my piano workbooks have little quizzes and exams that are helpful for me and my students but ultimately I let my students’ progress speaks for itself. Recitals are an important opportunity for students and parents alike to see how much my students have learned and how far they have to go. Student recitals involve a variety of ages and skill levels and I know it’s fun for my students to see someone else play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and to remember when they learned that song for the first time (ages ago, of course) or to have their minds blown by another one of my students who is playing Bach Minuets. Since my first student recital this spring, I have heard so many of my students ask, “When can I play that [insert song title here] who [insert name here] played at the recital? I can’t wait to learn it!” Students need perspective, inspiration and motivation just as much as they need technical exercises and theory lessons.

5. Don’t be afraid to take breaks. I took the summer off of teaching piano lessons this year. I knew the summer was going to be busy for me. I also knew that it would be nice to give myself a break, step back and take some time to consider where my students should go from here. Taking a break can be scary. I mean, what if all your students disappear in the space of three months? What if you come back only to find that your position has been usurped? For music instructors who teach for a living, taking several months off might not be a good idea. But even a short break—a couple weeks off—could be the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself and your students.

I too easily get stuck in teaching ruts and suddenly my lessons turn into mundane routines, my students lose focus and I’m not sure what needs to happen next. Taking time off gives me opportunity to mix up my teaching method and maybe reorganize lessons. It also gives my students a break. Let’s face it, music lessons aren’t always the most exciting thing for kids. During the summer I had several students ask me multiple times over, “When are you going to come teach lessons again?” This was really encouraging for me. It was nice to know I was missed. It was also nice to know that my students weren’t entirely dreading music lessons.

6. Believe in your students. Last year I received a phone call from a parent who had retrieved my name and contact info through the local music store. She told me about her daughter and how much her daughter enjoyed playing the piano. She had taken music lessons in the past but they had never been quite satisfied with their instructor. She said, “I’m looking for someone who will believe in her. Does that make sense?” It made perfect sense to me. An instructor who doesn’t believe their student is capable of more is of no use. I might not be the most skilled pianist in the world but I know I have the ability to believe in, encourage and inspire my students. Honestly, my students do most of the learning on their own. I’m simply there to tell them they can do it.

One of my students has a habit of telling me, “I can’t.” Whenever I put a new piece of music in front of him, he automatically becomes intimidated. “That’s way too hard. I’ve never played anything like this before!” I tell him he can do it. I ask him to try. And then he does it and I always love the way his eyes light up when he realizes, “Oh, I actually can do this! I never knew I could do this!” I don’t give my students skills as much as I help them discover the skills they already have and let me tell you that’s the best thing ever about teaching.

Last week I kick-started lessons for the fall with all my original students (none of them disappeared over the summer) as well as two new students, both of whom have never played piano before! One of my new students is seven years old and after her first lesson was done, her mom told me, “She just came in and told me ‘Mom, I already know Middle C!’”  One of my younger students told me, “Dani, you’re making my brain work!” which made me laugh. And another one of my older students played Pachelbel’s Canon in D for me, which I am proud to say she learned all by herself over the summer. This pretty much melted my heart. If there’s one thing I love to see it’s that my students enjoy playing the piano. My goal as a teacher is to make my students independent musicians and give them the tools to find joy in learning and playing music. If you show your students how to find joy in music, everything else will follow.

I can see that new and exciting adventures are waiting on the horizon for this amateur musician and teacher!

Have you ever taken or given music lessons? What were some things you liked or disliked about music lessons and learning to play an instrument? If you are a music teacher, what tips have you acquired from your experience? Share in the comments below! 

8 comments :

  1. I wish we lived close enough for "house calls." :)

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  2. These are great tips! For quite a while now, I've been wanting to teach piano. How did you get started?

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    1. A family from my church asked if I wanted to teach their kids piano lessons. We started teaching in a music store and several other local families heard of me through the store.

      The best way to branch out and advertise as a music teacher is through local music stores. You can also always hang up flyers, pass out business cards, etc. around town to spread the word. I have not done a lot of advertising since I already work full time and only teach lessons on the side. I've acquired all my students pretty much through word of mouth. :)

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  3. Thank you for sharing a few of the things you've found in teaching, it was wonderful to read a little of that experience from the teacher's perspective ;). You remind me a lot with my violin teacher, whenever she shares her experiences with me of her teaching, and a lot of the things you've mentioned are things I really love about her as well! She does "house calls" too, which I must say is a great blessing! :D

    It never occurred to me that at times the teacher would feel stuck with her students - definitely as a student I go through times when I feel stuck with my pieces, but probably because I'm constantly working on my grades, I always have something to do and work on. . . but especially with the younger students, that must be a challenge for the teacher as well as the student to keep the lessons fresh and exciting in the material you use. I'm sure it must be exciting when students express how they feel excited about a piece, etc. I totally understand as well the delight of having a teacher who believes in the student :). With my first piano teacher, I struggled with always trying to "please" her and do my practices because I have to - I somehow never met her expectations! With my violin teacher I've very much found she works with me at my pace and interest, coaches and encourages, but does not pressure, and really goes alongside me through the process of learning which makes me feel so motivated to learn and play! Right now I'm working on playing "Theme" from Schindler's List for my 5th grade, and am loving it ^_^.

    Do you have an examination board system in the US, like they do in Britain or Canada? I think you and my sister Mary would hit it off real well, as she's actually studying music at uni, and is working on becoming a piano teacher :).

    God bless you in your teaching and all the best wishes, Dani!

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    1. Joy, your violin teacher sounds like she uses the same "method" as I do! For me it's a lot more about the personal growth of the student than it is meeting certain standards with a certain schedule.

      I would love to meet your sister Mary! I have yet to graduate but I'm considering going back to school within the next couple of years and would love to hear more about your sister's experience. :)

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  4. This was so relaxing and relatable to read through, Danielle. xx I've been playing the piano for over eight years now, and I have to say I've been blessed with a fantastic teacher. He is so sweet and so patient with me. Sometimes I don't practice as much as I should, yet he lets things go and understands I'm only human. I've heard horror stories of young pianists with mean music teachers who make them do finger "workouts", as they put it, and I find that ridiculous. You seem like you have a wonderful way of teaching these children, so kudos to you!
    ~ Sanjana
    peridotcove.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm so glad to hear that Sanjana! Thanks so much for the encouraging comment. :)

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