Meri’s Musical Musings

How important is the first private music teacher REALLY?

Posted on: February 16, 2012

When I first started taking private lessons, I was lucky that my first private teachers for clarinet and for piano were really good ones. Perhaps this was because I chose my own teachers, rather than my parents.  However, I have seen a number of students in which the student’s SECOND private teacher on an instrument sets them on a successful musical path. At the same time, many teachers say on music discussion forums that the first teacher is the most important one.  I have had many students on both clarinet and piano in which I am the second teacher in their journey, after coming from a poor-quality experience from their first teacher.

Many transfer students I get have significant technique problems or read music poorly, sometimes even after 3-5 years of study with their first teacher, who is often very inexperienced and usually inexpensive; typically below, sometimes well below, the recommended minimum fees for teaching lessons that are set by performing musician and music teacher associations. Frequently I see students with both their physical approach to playing an instrument AND reading problems. I mainly see the playing technique problems in clarinet students, and usually see the reading problems in piano students, especially those who with their first teacher were learning what are known as positional methods. In the case of the clarinet students, their first teacher sometimes push them to play very advanced pieces in only a couple of years of lessons or less. In the case of piano students, I’ve seen students who do not get to an exam boards Level 1 piano in 4-5 years.

Assuming the students and in most cases the parents want to change for the better, and are willing to learn much more successful methods of learning, and don’t mind going back to earlier levels and easier books, results are evident within the first few weeks to months of lessons. For clarinet students, this means we usually do major adjustments in their physical approach to the instrument, starting with the head and back, and sometimes their tone, which involves how they position their mouth relative to the instrument and increase the amount and speed of the air the student uses. For piano students, I assess what notes they can read and play, do some short sight-reading exercises on flashcards, have them play a piece they think they have been successful with, and work through a few pieces in the level of the method series I use that I think they will have quick success and find too easy, to build their confidence and trust.

Many students with a good second teacher see results within 2-3 lessons; their parents usually can hear and see the results within 6-8 weeks. Within  a year, they will often have at least one very successful audition, exam, or competition. In the cases of the piano students, some students who did not get to Level 1 piano in a major examining board with their previous teacher, end up playing Level 3 and 4  pieces in 1-2 years of study with the second teacher, and achieve excellent results. Within 3-4 years of study with such a teacher, the students, if they choose, can successfully apply for music programs after high school, and even if they do not, they can continue to experience musical joy in learning pieces on their own, especially if the teacher has fostered independent learning skills, particularly with piano students.

So, if a student does not have a successful first teacher, please try a second one, especially if the student still wants to play the instrument they had lessons on before. If the student succeeds with the second teacher, especially if the second teacher uses very different methods to help students develop musical skills than the first one, then the student changes their relationship with music for the better.

A few more words before you go to try another teacher. First, terminate lessons properly according to the previous teacher’s or music school’s rules, at least 1 month’s notice. Second, be prepared to pay at least 50% more for lessons with the new teacher, and sometimes, even two times or more than the previous teacher’s fees.  But, going to a teacher who charges 50% more but which helps most students progress at an accelerated rate without excessive physical or mental strain is the bargain in the long run!

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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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