Meri’s Musical Musings

Sometimes, it’s not the teacher’s fault for lack of progress in music lessons…

Posted on: April 5, 2009

There are some private teachers whose students generally sound good and perform well. Yet, the same teachers often have a few students who are performing well below the level of most of the teacher’s other students. Often the first person parents of  low-achieving students blame is the teacher. It is not always the teachers fault—though there are plenty of poor quality teachers, especially on popular instruments.

Here are some cases in point:

E. is a 10 year old piano student who enjoys playing the piano and has done pretty well in competitions, often placing in the top 3. She won first place in one class, and second place in another at one competition when she had only taken lessons for 2 months from this teacher.  However, after Christmas break, behavior problems developed, she did not listen to the teacher nor cared about her teacher’s plan for her progress.  She failed her Grade 3 piano exam; most of her teacher’s other piano students achieve marks in the 80s.

S. is a 13 year old older beginner piano student  who also took voice lessons. She wanted to achieve a Grade 6 level on the piano and was thinking about studying music after high school. However, she frequently complained that the next piece in the method  book was too hard, practiced relatively little, and did not make much progress even after spending several entire lessons on trying to learn two pieces in a one-hour lesson, which most students her age are able to do 3 pieces, a few can learn as many as 6 within a couple of weeks within a hour. She showed similar lack of progress with her previous piano teacher who also happened to try to teach piano in a positional method, and was not doing too well with her voice lessons either.

M. is a 10 year old Grade 5 level piano student, who is capable of playing well, however, he had some behavior and learning challenges, though he has progressed quite well and generally practiced, although sometimes had difficulties with memorization. Until the last 3 weeks before the student concert, he had been struggling to perform his pieces. He played well at the student concert held a month before his exam, but while his teacher worked on developing his skill in strategies in memorization, he had memory issues during the exam and resulted in him getting a mark in the low 70s.

B. is a 13 year old piano student who had inconsistent lessons and only an electronic keyboard to learn on, even though he went to an expensive private school and the family lived in an expensive part of the city. He had been taking lessons for nearly a year, yet was not halfway through the first book, most students who have studied the same amount of time with consistent weekly lessons were well in the second book and a few were starting to prepare for conservatory exams. His mother made frequent excuses as to why they didn’t get a proper piano even though some of the pieces in the method book required the pedal and the full range of the piano. She also made many excuses about why his lessons were not that consistent, allowing her son to frequently cancel a lesson when he hasn’t practiced or had a lot of homework. Many pieces had to be adapted to fit the keyboard. He frequently was told both at school and at home he was playing well and making good progress when he was actually doing very poorly—the teacher had several students the same age who were in the same method books who started several months after him yet who quickly passed the playing level of her son .

J. is a 14 year old clarinet student who had studied with another teacher for 3 years. When she started lessons, her playing ability and achievement was below average for the length of study and there were some concerns from her new teacher about the way she played the instrument. At her exam seven months after she started lessons with her second teacher, she achieved a mark in the high 80s, which was well above the average mark for the exam level she did; the average mark for her exam level was in the high 70s. However, because her mom was concerned mainly about cost of lessons, the student changed teachers again for a several  months and then came back to the second teacher as she had achieved a barely-average mark (low 70s) for the next higher level with the third teacher.

O. is a 13 year old clarinet student who had taken lessons for 1 ½ years with his previous teacher. He was rushed by his previous teacher to play music that was way beyond his level and was not confident in his solo performance abilities; a week before when he started lessons with his second teacher, he did quite poorly at an audition for a high level ensemble. He also struggled with ear training. He had quite a few poor habits in playing technique. His second teacher decided to pull him back a few levels from what he thought he could play to restore his confidence in performing and develop his skill in naming intervals and playing back melodies by ear.   In a little more than 6 months after he started lessons with his second teacher, he achieved a mark on an intermediate level clarinet exam  in the highest rating category, earned a spot in a prestigious arts high school, won classes at competitions, earned a spot in a high level youth symphony, and repeated his top ranking mark on a late intermediate level exam during the next two years.

R., 8, a piano student had taken lessons for three years was trained in a positional method from her first piano teacher and could barely read music. Within her first year of study with her second piano teacher, she had completed three levels of a high quality piano method,  and was halfway through the fourth level; she practiced diligently—she learned many pieces to a high playing standard in 2-3 weeks, and easily handled 4-5 pieces a week, which her fast learning continued well into the sixth book of the method, after which her teacher decided she no longer needed to be in method books. She always completed her theory, and generally played with good technique; she often performed for family and friends and her parents gave that teacher several referrals. In two and a half years of study with her second teacher, she was doing very well in piano competitions and was getting ready for a Level 3 piano exam, after having achieved a mark in the highest classification on her Level 2 exam.

N. 7, a friend of R. took a few months of piano lessons with her first teacher with the same teacher as her friend. Her parents learned about how well her friend was doing, and decided to sign up with her friend’s second piano teacher. It was assessed at the first lesson she could recognize very few notes at sight, had poor playing technique, a poor ear, and had a poor concept of steady beat. Over the course of almost 2 years of study with her second teacher, the teacher worked diligently to improve her skills in different areas, with at least moderate improvement in most skills. In that time, she also completed a piano exam with a good mark and many positive comments on her playing; however she continued to struggle with reading skills and continued to read in a positional manner even when the music indicated a different finger number than the one she was accustomed to using when she learned piano in a positional method. She had difficulties with written theory and presenting the same concepts using a computer program was not an option as the family did not have a computer. She had a good memory, however, and her teacher learned that the best way for her to make sure she could play the pieces correctly by memory, which she would practice during the week, which she usually did diligently.

A change of teacher can prove whether it is the student or the teacher. If considering a change of teacher, look for the best possible teacher—even if you have to pay more or travel farther. Ask any of the examining boards where you live which teachers produce results in the high 80%-90% range consistently. Or talk to faculty of the particular instrument at a university or college you are looking for an instructor if they don’t teach themselves or are full, they often know who the best teachers are. Students of such teachers generally play with good technique and perform well.  If the student continues to progress poorly especially after changing teachers more than once, it is most likely the behavior of the student that is the reason for the lack of progress.  However, if the student achieves much more than with their previous teacher, then it’s clearly that the teacher was at fault.


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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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