Meri’s Musical Musings

Misconceptions about music and music lessons

Posted on: March 21, 2009

1. Private music teachers make a lot of money

There’s a lot of overhead in the business. Costs of accessories, books, continuing education, membership fees, repairs, software and instruments can cost a lot of money. Especially if the teacher invests in quality equipment. Don’t forget that most private music teachers don’t have insurance to cover health and dental expenses, and then there is the cost of looking professional. There is also much behind the scenes work, as in purchasing music, arranging it, designing lesson plans, returning inquiries about lessons, interviewing potential students, reading about new techniques and approaches to enhance learning.

    2. Music is an intuitive art

Studying music actually requires a lot of logical/mathematical thinking, in terms of getting the timing, harmonic structure, and expression right. Not to mention figuring out the most effective practice techniques and being aware of playing techniques.

3. Students do not need a lesson if they haven’t practiced.

That’s when they need the lesson more! When a student hasn’t practiced much, they have done at least one of the following: lost/misunderstood/ forgotten the lesson assignment they are working on, their playing technique has broken down! A student who has problems with practicing occasionally can give the teacher a break to work on theory, sight-reading, or ear training. A teacher can also check for mechnical problems with the instrument when the student’s lessons are consistent.

4. A teacher with a large studio is a successful teacher.

Most teachers with large studios tend to charge relatively little for lessons, and many teachers burn out after a few years of teaching. And a large studio means each student gets less individual attention. Not only that, there will be students who will likely need additional lessons to plan for an event, sometimes because the student wants it, but more likely because the student needs it.

5. A teacher who also performs is not that likely to be a good teacher.

Several of the finest teachers I know are excellent performers as well, probably because they are applying the techniques they teach students. Such teachers also give students opportunities to see the teacher in action and inspire students.

6. Music lessons are mostly about learning how to play an instrument.

Some teachers offer a comprehensive curriculum, which not only includes training on an instrument, but also music theory, ear training, sight-reading, rhythmic training, and ensemble skills. Beyond a certain level in most exam systems, students are required to complete written exams in other music subjects in order to receive their practical certificate.
7. Any teacher can teach any type of student.

There are a lot of poor quality teachers, and only a very few really good ones. In most cases such a teacher will not live close to the student. Not only that, there are specialist teachers who are able to work with certain types of students, for example, there are few teachers who are willing and successfully able to work with learning-challenged students, and a number of teachers specialize in producing students who earn extremely high marks on exams and are in the highest level ensemble.

8. Music teachers with a lot of experience are good.

Here is where the statement: “Experience only benefits those who learn from it”  applies. A lot of very experienced teachers are tired of teaching, have gotten lazy about some aspects, or don’t know or don’t care about modern tools and techniques to enhance their teaching. Some students relate better to younger teachers as well, and younger teachers can be more fun, especially if they combine that with serious study. A young teacher who has worked out some ideas on how to teach different aspects of music is more likely to be successful than a teacher who has been teaching for many years and has done relatively little analysis of the results they produce from their students.

9. The school music programs are adequate in terms of instrumental and vocal instruction, and students do not need private lessons if they are doing well.

Most students can benefit from private lessons, especially on instruments played in band or orchestra. As well, many school music teachers only know the very basics of various instruments except for the ones they seriously studied. Students in private lessons also enhance their musical experience by learning a variety of techniques to make their playing better, such as various alternate fingerings to be used in certain combinations of notes. And there are only a very few schools that do a good job, by the time most students reach high school age, there is often a very wide disparity between the best and worst players in a section.

10. Students usually receive adequate instruction in music theory or ear training in schools or special ensembles outside of school.

The level of music theory and ear training  students are required to understand in most school music programs and outside ensembles is often far below than what would be required on practical exams.

11. A quality instrument is not important.

There are many differences between good-quality instruments and poor quality ones, particularly in the tuning–a good instrument when played reasonably well will usually be very close to in tune on the notes that are stable in tone quality. The quality of woods and metals varies across different grades of instruments, and so do the bridges on string instruments. Some teachers will refuse to teach students on an unsuitable (eg: using a keyboard for piano lessons) or inadequate instrument.

12. The quality of a teacher-student relationship can be determined in one lesson.

The first lesson between a teacher and student can be nerve-wracking for both the teacher and student, especially if the student has played before (because neither knows what to expect) and many of the best teacher-student relationships develop over time; some of the teachers I’ve had are good friends with me now, though one or both parties may be afraid of each other for at least a few months. Some teachers don’t make great first impressions because they are naturally nervous, but if given time can prove to be a great relationship, especially in terms of musical growth and understanding. Many excellent teachers have lessons that are very intense, which may scare off sensitive students.

13. Students should be allowed to quit lessons when life gets tough.

Those are the times a student needs something that is stable in their lives! As well, students can earn credits towards high school graduation in some areas when they complete certain practical and theory exams. Not only that, but many students who are allowed to quit music lessons prematuraly (especially before they reach a solid intermediate stage of study) frequently regret that decision and return to lessons later in life.

14. Most students are too old to take music lessons.

Teen and adult beginners have some advantages over younger students, especially in their ability to comprehend and understand various concepts much sooner than a younger child for a similar length of study. Some teachers enjoy discussing ideas about playing, music, and even life in general with teen and adult students; it is rarely possible to discuss favourite bands and ensembles with children younger than about 10 years old. Older students tend to have much longer attention spans and rarely need various incentives to practice that are often necessary for younger children, such as stickers and prizes. The instruction cn be much more direct, and yet, at the same time, possibly more abstract.

15. The teacher should only teach what the student wants to learn

Good teachers recognize the need for a comprehensive curriculum, often incorporating skills and techniques used in several styles of music. Chords and scales are an important part of many styles of music. Good technique is essential to playing an instrument well in any styles. Some music blends different styles of music, especially music composed in the 20th and 21st centuries. And teachers may find things that are necessary for various students to learn even though the student may not initally realize it (eg: practicing transposing melodies and harmonies into different keys, which is particularly important for students who play transposing instruments.

16. The teacher is responsible for student’s learning.

Not all students who take lessons with a fine teacher will benefit from it, because the student’s attitude sometimes gets in the way. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink it. So it is with some students, teachers can provide efficient and effective practice techniques, but if students do not practice or use them outside of their lessons and insist on practicing things their way even when it’s not proving to be effective.

17. Good music reading skills are only necessary for classical musicians.

Life’s too short to waste using the trial and error method, and with good reading skills you can learn the pieces very quickly. And since popular music is usually much less difficult than classical music, a musician who reads classical music well is often able to handle popular music. Then there is a lot of music which combines two or more styles of music. Some of the best popular music can read and write music in standard notation. Some passages in music also sound one way, but are written in another. Far more pieces can be learned by notation than by ear.

18. Learning music theory is not essential

Music theory can be applied in learning and memorizing pieces. To be able to recognize that a given passage is a scale, a common pattern of a series of chords, or an arpeggio cuts down the need to read individual notes; instead you can focus on the patterns those notes form. Seeing the structure of pieces aids in the memorization, both in the larger sections and smaller ones. Even to know how your part fits with others (especially when you are not playing or singing melody lines–you need to understand how the music fits) Not only that, when you have fairly advanced theory skills, it’s much easier to harmonize melodies–which is useful in several music styles.

19. A pro teacher is essential only for people thinking about becoming professional musicians

The truth is, you never know who may decide to become one, and when! Professional teachers know and teach their students efficient playing and psychological techniques, which motivate them to go further with their music studies than they might otherwise, and will likely enjoy playing an instrument more with good technique and practice skills. Pro teachers also help students accomplish more in less time.

20. The only differences between most teachers are price and location

There are many differences between elite/aspiring pro teachers, and amateur teachers. Some teachers specialize in certain types of students (eg: teen/adult students, learning challenged students, just two areas that many private music teachers don’t want to touch). A pro teacher has a comprehensive curriculum in mind, while that of amateur teachers is often very limited. Some teachers specialize in intermediate and advanced students, or at least prefer to work with them (and know how). And if you can’t afford a teacher’s fees? Ask for alternatives, such as shorter lessons (you might say originally want hour lessons, but then you find out the student’s a quick learner and 45 min lessons would work well), a work-study program, smaller, but more frequent payments, less frequent lessons (though that should generally only be considered for disciplined intermediate and advanced students), or scholarships, perhaps through resources the teacher knows of or through a better-off family or friend. These alternatives are far better than getting cheap lessons from a poor-quality teacher!

21. Teachers accept any student in their studio

While this is true for a lot of  teachers, some established teachers are looking for particular types of students and families in their studios. They are  interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. Many of their questions are the “getting to know you” while others are used to determine the student’s (and/or parent’s) fit into the studio: some teachers look for positive mindset, work ethic, personality, long-term committment to lessons, people who respect the teacher’s fees, people who will take lessons consistently, people who understand the need for comprehensive music instruction, among other things.

22. A teacher’s only job is to teach the lessons

Some teachers like to go beyond the lessons, for example, interacting with students on social networking sites, (or at least be available for questions during the week by email and/or phone), organize lesson plans (and not just for the short term–some teachers do long-term planning too), creating new materials to use in their student, look over mechnical problems with the instrument (and recommend you places–po teachers often know the good places), organize events, provide group experiences, and assist students and families with the purchase of instruments.

23. Degrees and memberships in associations are reliable signs of good teachers

There are fine teachers who, for various reasons, did not or could not get a degree. Then there are teachers who have advanced degrees who have little skill in teaching. Membership in music associations often have requirements, which some excellent, but “unqualified” teachers cannot join.

24. Music lessons are the “try it for a few months” type of deal

Some teachers will not accept students who only want to sample lessons. In the very least, you should give yourself at least a couple of years with regular lessons with a good teacher to develop some skill and enjoyment from playing–the beginning is often the toughest time. School-age music students with a few years of quality music lessons prior to beginning school music classes will often be well ahead of their peers who haven’t taken lessons, which is especially true when it comes time to learn another instrument as part of the school music program–this is not true with many activities.

25. If a student does not do well with the first teacher, then you should try a different one, or give up on music studies.

I usually recommend trying a different teacher of the same instrument of high quality to help the student before changing instruments. And then the teacher cannot always be blamed, especially when most of the students play well, but one or two aren’t because of physical or mental challenges. A lot of people who don’t succeed with piano, violin, or guitar may find much greater satisfaction in learning to play brass, woodwinds, or even percussion. However, some piano knowledge will help any musician, especially as they advance in their music studies.

26. Music is mostly about having fun

Learning music can be lots of fun, but it’s even more fun when students do the work between lessons, and with mutual respect between teachers and students. Some seemingly tough teachers are only challenging students to play their best, while other “tough” teachers knock their heads on walls not knowing alternatives to student’s challenges, and revert to physical and emotional abuse.


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  • None
  • V V: Wish I had read this before I fell for their scheme ! Oh well - have posted my experience on Yelp and N49 and hoping others can avoid the pain of fal
  • clariniano: Thanks for the additional information. It was actually Yelp that deleted my reviews, because of so-called bias. I too have seen the horrible technique
  • No Thanks: Former Teacher at the Ontario Conservatory of Music I took lessons at the Ontario Conservatory and when I left for private lessons from another tea
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