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How to get a good piano teacher

Beethoven and Liszt

Why get a piano teacher?

Getting a piano teacher might seem like a strange thing for me to recommend, given that I sell online video courses. Surely they’re enough to teach you piano? Well, good courses will save you time and money, by teaching you good habits and costing less than one-on-one lessons, but there are some things no course can provide:

  • detailed feedback on your playing
  • personal contact
  • accountability

The really important one is feedback. You can get personal contact and accountability without a teacher, by learning with a friend or making a public pledge to practise, but you really need a musician to correct you. With a course you can probably tell if you’re playing the right notes with the right fingers, but if you’re starting out you won’t have trained your eye or hear to recognise things like good hand position, legato, or rhythm.

Of these, rhythm is the really big one. It’s extraordinary the extent to which people are able to trick themselves into thinking they’re playing with the right rhythm when they’re not, even when they’re playing with a metronome. To me, it’s the piano equivalent of singing out of key. Have you ever seen those talent show auditions where someone’s singing completely out of key and have no idea? Don’t be like that with rhythm. Get a teacher. Rhythm is a trainable skill, like everything else. (My rhythm didn’t get very good until I worked in a jazz band, playing for 5 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end.)

Now, of course, getting a teacher can be very expensive, but there are ways to lower the cost. One way is to get someone to teach you for free. This is quite hard to pull off, but Quincy Jones managed it (then again, Quincy Jones pulled off a lot of stuff that’s hard to pull off, like attending his own memorial service). A more plausible way is to mostly use courses and only hire a teacher every now and then. However bear in mind that a teacher might not be interested in taking you on if you’re only going to have lessons very infrequently.

The underlying principle is: if you want to be musical, be around musical people. It’s no coincidence that many of the greatest musicians were the children of other professional musicians (e.g. J.S. Bach, Mozart, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Nas, to name a few). You can’t change who your parents are, but you can change who you hang around with.

What you want from a teacher

Assuming I’ve convinced you to get a teacher, which teacher should you get? I’d say you want a teacher who is:

  1. good at the kind of music you want to play, and
  2. can teach.

Part 1. is in two parts. Obviously a teacher has to be a good musician, otherwise they won’t know what to teach you, but they need to be specifically good at the kind of music you want to play. It doesn’t matter how good a classical teacher is, if they’ve never studied jazz they won’t be able to teach you how to swing. Similarly, the average piano bar pianist is not going to be able to teach you how to play Baroque ornaments. Think of different musical styles as different languages: a Spanish teacher is not going to be able to teach you how to speak Mandarin. They might be able to teach you how to learn a language in general, but not the specific language you want to learn. So don’t say you want to learn piano in general, be specific about which style you want to learn. (Of course, there are some teachers who have mastered various styles of music. These are the best, and might open your ears to new worlds. Every style of music has something unique to offer.)

With regards 2., it’s important to recognise that being able to teach is a completely different skill to being a good musician. A good teacher:

  • works out you know and what you don’t
  • and therefore what the next thing you need to know is,
  • then gives you the information you need in the right order and at the right speed.

None of this is easy, or comes naturally to anyone. I only got good at teaching after several years. If you find a good musician who’s not a good teacher they’ll most likely give you good information but in the wrong order and at the wrong speed. This will mean that you won’t be able to complete the tasks they set you, which will make you feel stupid, and – at worst – give up altogether, thinking that you have no musical talent. (I don’t believe in the concept of musical talent: the skill of music is made up of many parts, and different people find different parts easier, but that’s a subject for another blog post.) A lot of teachers simply walk their students through pre-existing courses, like exam-board curricula. That’s not terrible (at least you’re following a tried-and-tested structure), but it’s not very exciting either (no-one is playing exam pieces in sold-out stadiums). It’s better if you can find someone who thinks for themselves.

Ideally you want someone who is both a great teacher and a great musician. They’re difficult to find, because both skills take a lot of time to master, and if someone’s a great musician, surely they’d spend all their time producing great music instead of teaching? There are 2 good reasons why they might not. One is that they’re pursuing a musical career that doesn’t pay very well, or hasn’t taken off yet (composition is an obvious one: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and Schoenberg all made most of their income from teaching). Another is that they like teaching and / or feel a social duty to practise it (Leonard Bernstein springs to mind). The takeaway from both of these is: try and find a teacher who has a promising or successful musical career, but for whatever reason has spent a lot of time teaching.

How to find teachers

Okay, that’s all very well in theory, but how do you actually track them down in practice? I can think of 3 main ways:

1) Personal recommendations

This one’s obvious. It’s a good way to find anything, right up to a marriage partner. However, you might not know anyone who knows anyone (I’m talking about teachers again, now), and even if you do, you might miss out on someone better. So then the next obvious option is:

2) The Internet

You can plug some terms into a search engine or a classified ads site like Craigslist, or visit a tuition site. The problem then is, how can you tell if someone’s both a good musician and a good teacher from their profile? I’d say that:

  • good musicians tend to have good demos, of them playing or of music they’ve composed
  • good teachers tend to have good testimonials

Don’t be fooled by people who are merely good at marketing – I’ve seen some truly terrible amateur musicians who had impressive-looking sites. Look for proof. Conversely, maybe there are some great teachers who are terrible at presenting themselves online, but marketing is mostly about thinking something through from someone else’s point of view, just like teaching, so if someone’s terrible at marketing I’d be skeptical that they’re a great teacher.

There is a 3rd option, which is a mixture of the above 2, and which most people don’t think of:

3) Ask for recommendations at your local musical instrument / sheet music shop

Amazingly there are some physical musical instrument / sheet music shops that haven’t gone out of business yet. The people who work there will be musicians, and will either teach themselves, know teachers, or have customers who have good teachers. Plus it’s in their interest to help you find a teacher because a good teacher will keep you learning, which will turn you into a repeat customer. Win-win.

Getting lessons long-distance

I should put in a word for lessons via video call. First of all, don’t underestimate the value of in-person contact, if you have the option: compare the amount of time you spend talking to a friend if you can meet them face-to-face versus how much time you spend talking to them if they live in another country. However, lessons in person might not be an option for you, for whatever reason. Maybe you live in a sparsely-populated area, or you want to learn a type of music that isn’t taught locally, or you’re housebound and can’t find a teacher who’ll do home visits. We’re lucky enough to live in an age when we can hold high-quality video calls for free, so these things no longer prevent you from being able to get lessons. Everything in this article still applies, I’ll just make 2 additional recommendations:

1) Make sure the teacher is hearing a high-quality audio signal from you. That depends on several factors, like the microphone you’re using, the software you’re using, your upload speed, their download speed, the software they’re using, and their listening equipment. But it’s important to get it right so they can hear subtle things like legato and pedalling.

2) Make sure they can see your hands. You want them to be able to correct your hand position and fingering.

Now back to the search to find someone.

Preliminary email interactions

At this point, you probably want a shortlist rather than a single person you want to have lessons with, because a) it’s hard to tell who’s right for you without meeting them, and b) the person you want might not be available. How do you decide who to meet first?

1) Email them, explaining exactly what you want / need – not just musically, but also practically, in terms of lesson times – and describing what level of experience you have, if any. Ask for a phone call if you want. Just bear in mind that ideally you want to find a teacher who’s so good you have to persuade them to take you on, rather than the other way round. Don’t have the attitude that because you’re offering to pay them they should be subservient to you – you won’t learn anything from someone you look down on. Therefore:

  • don’t ask them questions that are answered on their website, and
  • don’t get them to give you a lot of free advice outside of paid lesson time (if you want to know which keyboard to buy, I wrote an article on it)

(As an example of what not to do, I once got an email from someone who said that he’d shortlisted 3 teachers and wanted them all to compete to win his custom by sending him an 8-week plan for his musical development. At the time I had a 2,000-word article on my website describing my teaching process and a ton of rave reviews. I told him to hire one of the other two teachers.)

2) Then, what are you looking for in their reply? A good teacher should be busy. Signs of being busy are:

  • they don’t have much availability
  • they have a strict cancellation policy

Therefore, don’t see these things as negatives, they’re signs that someone’s in demand. If you book a lesson with someone busy and then cancel it at short notice you’ve prevented them from giving that time to someone else, that’s why they have cancellation policies. I would make new students confirm that they’d read and agreed to my cancellation policy before I’d even let them schedule a first lesson. Aside from this helping me, this also established who was in charge, which helped them.

3) Don’t discount the value of convenience. If you have to shlep to the other end of town for every lesson the teacher really has to justify the hassle, otherwise you’re going to give up. Better to have something imperfect that you stick to than something perfect that you’re going to quit. I’m a music nut, so of course I’ll travel as far as I have to to get to the right person, but if you’re working long hours and learning piano in your spare time you might be better off with someone who’ll come to your house.

Trial lessons

This deserves a section all to itself.

A trial lesson is a single lesson to see how you get on before committing to more. They make a lot of sense. However, I should say up front that I never did them, mainly because of how I taught: I saw every student’s education as a long-term project and would spend at least 3 hours preparing for the first hour-long lesson, so I’d never risk investing all that time for only one. (I had no guarantee that a student would book a second lesson as I didn’t make them pay for them in advance, but it almost never happened that they only came for one.) I think if a teacher isn’t putting an insane amount of preparation into the first lesson, like I did, then it’s not unreasonable to book one lesson to see how you get on. Just bear in mind that the first lesson might not be that representative of the rest: the teacher will be getting to know you, which is a little less productive than teaching someone they already know.

A separate question is whether a trial lesson should be free. I can believe that some good teachers offer free trial lessons if they want to rapidly get a lot of new students, for some reason – if they’ve just graduated, say, or just moved to the area. But otherwise, I can’t see how it’s a good thing: if you’re getting a free trial lesson from someone that means that they don’t value their time and you don’t value their time. But a teacher’s time should be valuable. As I said before, you need to respect your teacher, otherwise you won’t do what they say and therefore not progress. I offer free trials to my courses (there are free previews and a 30-day money-back guarantee), but that’s different: it doesn’t cost me anything to give someone access to my courses. So be wary of free trial lessons and don’t ask for one.

As you walk into your first lesson

Okay, so you got as far as walking through the door (or having the teacher walk through yours). Before I talk about what to look for in a teacher, I should address the fact that a lot of you will be nervous. Complete beginners might feel uncomfortable doing something new, and people who have played before might feel like their playing is being judged.

For complete beginners, keep in mind that piano playing is literally just pushing buttons on a machine, and you already have lots of experience of pushing buttons on a machine – it’s probably how you navigated to this article. So don’t worry about emotion or self-expression to begin with, just focus on pressing the right buttons with the right fingers at the right time. You can’t express anything until you’ve mastered that anyway, by which time you’ll be a lot more confident.

And when it comes to pushing buttons on a machine, don’t worry if you find it hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Some people told me in their first lesson that they’d come to find out if they were any good at the piano. Well of course they were no good at the piano – they’d never played it before. That’s precisely why they were there. Piano playing is a question of practice rather than talent. You wouldn’t sign up to Mandarin lessons to find out if you were any good at Mandarin – you’d assume that it was a question of hard work. It’s the same with music. You learned English, so you can learn to play the piano.

As for people who have played before, don’t worry about feeling judged. A lesson isn’t about you or the teacher, it’s about the music, so just try and communicate something that’ll make them smile. When I was working as a teacher I often thought what a privilege it was to get paid to listen to music. And of course your playing won’t be perfect – no-one’s playing ever is. Lessons are a never-ending joint quest between you and your teacher to get closer to an unreachable ideal.

As you walk out of your first lesson

So, you’ve just finished your first lesson with a new teacher. How do you know if you should continue? The easiest and best test is trust your intuition. Ignore what you think you should do, and instead ask yourself: do you want to have another lesson with them? Because willpower alone is not enough to make you learn piano.

If you realise you don’t want to have another lesson with someone, it might not be because they’re a bad teacher. It might be simply that you didn’t click, for whatever reason. I noticed early on that getting on with a student was a more important factor in determining if they stuck to lessons than how fast they were progressing. Or maybe the teacher wasn’t right for you. Or maybe you realised that you liked the idea of playing piano but weren’t that keen on it in practice. (I often hear people say, I wish I could play like you, which always makes me think, you could if you put in the hours.) If you think someone’s a good teacher but just not right for you, it might be worth writing them a short, friendly email explaining that, to save them wondering why you didn’t come back.

But what if you’re undecided? I’d say there are a few boxes you should make sure are ticked in the first lesson:

1) You should walk out of the door being able to play something that you couldn’t play when you walked in. And I really mean play something, not merely know some theory you didn’t know before. It won’t be much, and it won’t be very good yet – you’ll need to practise it by yourself – but it has to be more than nothing. This means that you should probably have spent at least half of the lesson playing.

2) You should have a clear idea of what to practise before the next lesson. Most of your progress is going to take place outside of lesson time, so if you don’t have a clear idea of what to practise you’re not going to progress much.

3) You should feel good about yourself. Maybe some teachers find it effective to belittle their students, but I can’t see how it could help. Proficiency is about practise more than anything, so I would always work hard to show my students that they were just as capable of mastering this instrument as anyone else.

Once you’ve found a good teacher

That’s a lot of steps to get through. However, remember that a good teacher could save you months and months of practicing something wrong, so it’s worth spending several hours at the start to make sure you choose the right one.

If you manage to find a great teacher, then the next step is to be a good student, and the way to be a good student is to please, please, please shut up and do what they tell you, not just in lessons but outside of them too. The only times you should talk in lessons, apart from small talk, are:

  1. at the very start of the first one, when you’re describing what you want to get out of them, and
  2. if you don’t understand something the teacher has just said.

The students of mine who progressed the least were the ones who asked endless questions, or thought that they had a better way of doing things than me, or said that they worked differently to other people and therefore needed to do things differently to how I was suggesting. Of course everyone works differently, but a good teacher will adapt their teaching style to suit you without you having to tell them to. And if you think you have a better way of doing things than them you should stay at home and teach yourself.

The questions issue is more subtle. Some students come to their first lesson with a long list of questions, and it’s great that they have so much curiosity about music. However, think about what happens if you ask your teacher a series of questions. You want information in the answers, right? So if you ask a series of questions and your teacher answers them, you are dictating what information you get, in what order, and at what speed. But as I explained above, that’s the teacher’s job, not yours. So if you really want to know what some technical term means, tell your teacher at the start, but then let them decide when to explain it to you. You might have to wait 6 months before the explanation makes sense. And if there are some squiggles on the page of a score that your teacher hasn’t explained then you probably don’t need to know what they are yet.

I think the root cause of this kind of behaviour, when a student tries to take control of a lesson, is insecurity. They’re scared that if let go and do what the teacher tells them they won’t progress, because they’re no good at music. The truth is, if you have a good teacher and do what they tell you, it’s inevitable that you’ll progress. Maybe not as fast as you’d like, or in the way that you imagined, but the important thing is to always be moving forward. If you don’t try you’ll never know, so give it a try. (And if you give a teacher a sustained trial and you don’t move forward it might be time to get another teacher.)

Getting lessons for your kids

Some of you will be looking for lessons for your kids instead of for you. This isn’t my area of expertise, but I did teach mostly kids for a couple of years, and so do have a few thoughts. I discovered that teaching kids was 20% music and 80% child control, and wanted my lessons to be 100% music, and so decided to focus on teaching mostly adults and a handful of children who were self-motivated. In that respect children’s education is a specialist skill, so you should find someone who specializes in it. But who?

I’d say the main thing is to find someone who maintains their enthusiasm. Whenever parents called me up and said that their kids were talented, it always turned out that the kids weren’t particularly talented but that the parents were pretty pushy. I’m skeptical of the idea of musical talent, but to the extent that it does exist, it isn’t that important anyway. As I keep on saying, piano playing is mostly a question of practice, so the most important thing is that your kid is motivated to keep going. For that reason, I’d always be much more enthusiastic when parents called up and said something like, We have a keyboard lying around the house and our son can’t stop messing around on it. Do you think you could help give some structure to his experiments? You need a teacher that recognises that music isn’t just something that’s practised reverentially in a concert hall, but is on our phones, in our films, and at our parties. Of course, a teacher needs to provide structure too – if they just let your kid mess around and be creative the kid won’t progress much, and will eventually lose enthusiasm that way – but a good teacher can balance structure with fun.

Of course, you might want your kid to have lessons even if they’re not particularly motivated, so that they have the foundation to continue later in life if they want to (a lot of my adult beginners said that they regretted not learning an instrument as a child). I understand this, but the problem with a tiger mother approach – at least with regards music – is that the child might progress, but if they’re learning against their will they’ll have a negative association with music and give up as soon as they can. If they seem unenthusiastic, try to find a way to engage their enthusiasm. Is there a girl / boy they’d like to impress at school? Would they be happier starting with blues piano instead of classical? Can you find someone who’ll teach them the songs on their phone? Experiment with different approaches. Another idea is to tell your kid that they don’t have to have lessons if they don’t want to, but that if they do want to they have to stick to them and practise. That way they know that if they do have lessons it’s a result of their choice, and not something that you’re imposing on them.

A few additional tips:

  • Bear in mind that any teacher you hire has mixed incentives: on the one hand they’re teaching your kid, but on the other hand you’re the one paying. For that reason some teachers focus on impressing the parents by making sure that the kids can play a few impressive-sounding pieces without teaching the kids fundamental skills like sight reading. (It frequently happened that I took on kids who had been learning piano for 2 years and discovered that they couldn’t read a single note on a score.) Make it clear to any teacher you hire that you want your kid to have an all-round music education.
  • You might have heard of approaches like the Suzuki and the Kodály methods. They’re both good, but every approach has its limitations – Suzuki students tend to weak at sight reading, and the Kodály method doesn’t teach improvisation or composition. It’s best to find a teacher who’s familiar with several approaches and integrates them all into their teaching.
  • Try to get the lesson length right. In my experience, 6-year-olds can concentrate for about half an hour, older children can concentrate for around 45 minutes, and it’s only when children reach adolescence that they can concentrate for an hour. However it depends on many factors.
  • Schedule practice time for your kids, and remember that it’s your job to make sure that your kids are well-behaved during lessons, not your teacher’s.
  • Consider getting piano lessons at the same time, if you’ve never learned before. This way you can help your kids with their homework, and it can also encourage a healthy competition in them. Plus it’s a great way for you to learn: you’ll be incentivized to stay ahead, and trying to explain concepts to your kids will be a great test of how well you understood them yourself.

Final thought

Many years ago, the father of a student gave me money for a lesson that I didn’t have to teach as it was Christmas, even though he was Jewish. It’s the only time a client gave me holiday pay. A year or so later I got a job abroad and the family found another teacher, but they’d always send me a Christmas card. 2 years ago I found out that the son had died unexpectedly, aged 19, so I called the father and went to the funeral. We’re back in touch.

Another student once turned up to her first lesson out of breath, and explained that she had a rare genetic condition that meant that she had 30% lung capacity which was always going down. She was terminally ill in her early 30’s, and told me to charge for any lessons she missed due to sickness. I never charged her for lessons missed, but I did visit her twice in hospital. Miraculously, she had a double lung transplant and survived. A couple of years later I invited her to a dinner party with her then husband and they lived up with a bottle of reserve vodka.

Another student insisted on paying me more than I was asking when I was just starting out, and I recently wrote to him out of the blue to say I thought he’d make a great dad. Another one gave me free tickets to his charity events and I made him an 20-hour playlist to keep him sane to on his trip to the North Pole. Another promised to book at least 8 lessons at the start, and he ended up meeting Elton John and telling him about a piece of his he’d learned with me. All of my one-on-one students got access to my video courses for free, and many of them were able to take advantage of discounted theatre and concert tickets that I got hold of. On the other hand, there were some students who cancelled lessons frequently or argued with my cancellation policy, and I blocked their email addresses.

Learning a skill is not a goal-orientated activity, it’s a journey. You’re going to spend a lot of time with whoever you pick as a teacher, so pick someone you want to go on a journey with and treat them well. You’ll be repaid many times over.