Who They Teach
It may be self-evident, but adults are generally better off studying with a teacher who specializes in teaching adults. Teaching adults effectively necessitates certain attitudes and a specialized skillset. (For example, I have a Master’s in Adult Education.) Yet the students of the vast majority of piano teachers are children. Many such teachers don’t feel confident or enjoy teaching adults.
If a teacher’s website is chock full of pictures of kids playing piano, and doesn’t mention adults at all, give them a pass. On the other hand, if their site specifically mentions adults, take them under consideration.
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Do you teach adults? What percentage of your students are adults? Do you have specialized training for teaching adults?
Professional or Recreational Emphasis
Many piano instructors teach under the assumption that a proportion of their students (usually children) will go on to study music in college and perhaps become professional musicians or teachers themselves. They may treat all their students as if they have professional potential, and hold high expectations (for practicing etc.) as a result. Such teachers may be excellent educators but also demanding (think the film Whiplash – though granted, most won’t throw chairs if a student hasn’t practiced enough).
Other teachers have a recreational focus. They may have been inspired by the Recreational Music Making movement that considers cultivating the joy of music making to be the most important thing in music pedagogy.
Of course, many teachers fall on a spectrum somewhere in between these two approaches or are willing to tailor their instruction to match each student’s needs and goals.
Questions to ask yourself: Would I prefer a teacher that will push me, possibly into uncomfortable territory? Or would I prefer a low-pressure recreational experience? Or aspects of both approaches?
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Who chooses the music I play, you or me? How much structure do you offer and how flexible is it? What expectations do you have for practicing?
Professional Experience and Orientation
Many instructors consider teaching their primary profession. Others may teach part-time and derive the remainder of their income from performing or other music activities.
Some teachers have taught for decades, others for only a few months. There’s something to be said for extensive experience, though it’s only a piece of the puzzle. A highly-experienced elder teacher may be on the verge of burnout, whereas a relative newcomer may be bursting with enthusiasm.
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Do you teach full-time or part-time? Do you do anything else professionally in music? Do you belong to a professional organization such as Music Teachers National Association (the largest music teachers association in the United States) or the American Federation of Musicians (the musician’s union)? What is your playing and teaching pedigree? Have you studied with famous teachers? Played with well-known musicians? What music or education degrees do you have?
As might be expected, better teachers usually charge more.
Questions to ask yourself: How important is quality of teaching for my musical goals? How good of a musician do I want to be?
Questions to ask prospective teachers: What are your fees? How does billing work? What is your policy for cancellations and makeups? All truly-professional teachers have a written studio policy; teachers without a policy are likely inexperienced or consider teaching to be a hobby.
Testimonials and Reviews
When purchasing a product or service, most of us like assurance that it will work as advertised.
The best way to check whether a piano teacher “works as advertised” is to read online reviews (e.g. Google, Yelp) like these reviews for Creative Keyboardist’s local studio in Portland, Oregon or testimonials like these (see right sidebar).
Questions to ask prospective teachers: How long do students study with you? It’s a good sign if at least some study for years. This question may also reveal how long the teacher has been teaching and how important teaching is to them.
Traditionally, students have traveled to their teacher’s home or professional studio for lessons.
Some teachers may offer in-home lessons, i.e. traveling to your home to teach you.
Some teachers also offer online piano lessons, as we do at Creative Keyboardist.
Questions to ask yourself: Would I feel more comfortable taking a lesson at home (whether in-person via a traveling teacher or virtually), where I can play my own instrument? Or would I prefer to travel to the teacher’s studio?
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Are lessons at your studio or at my home? If the latter, are they in-person or virtual?
Private or Group Lessons
Traditionally (and generally most effectively) piano instruction takes place in private 1-on-1 lessons.
Some teachers may also offer group classes. Classes are typically limited to 6 or 8 weeks. Most are oriented towards beginners, since it’s easier to teach a group when everybody is starting from the same place. If you’re looking for a taste of what it’s like to study piano, and you’re a beginner, taking a group class may be an attractive option.
Questions to ask yourself: Would I prefer the personal attention of private lessons, or the more social experience of group lessons?
Questions to ask prospective group class teachers: What is the instructor/student ratio? Is the class for adults only, or all ages? How long does it last? Is there a next-level class and/or may I continue studying privately?
Reading vs. Playing by Ear
Nearly all piano teachers will teach you to read music. Learning to read is vital. There’s more music written for the piano than any other instrument, and much of it is quite difficult. It’s arduous (though not necessarily impossible) to learn some of this music by ear, though learning it precisely as written by ear may be nearly impossible.
Fewer teachers teach how to “play by ear.” Learning to play by ear is also vital, especially if you want to play popular music or improvise, compose, etc. Most pop, blues and jazz players learn much of their trade by ear, though most also read music.
The best teachers for most adults teach both reading and playing by ear. Even if playing by ear isn’t important to you, studying with a teacher who offers ear training exercises is valuable. After all, the better your ear, the better a musician you’ll be overall.
Questions to ask yourself: What styles do I want to play? If classical, make sure to learn to read music well. If jazz/pop, consider the importance of ear training. But as mentioned, both skills are valuable for most piano players.
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Will you teach me to read music? Play by ear? Do you offer ear training exercises? Which do you teach first and why? If I don’t wish to learn to read or play by ear (for whatever reason) is that okay?
If you’re an adult beginner or “returner” (coming back to playing after months or years), you’ll benefit from using a systematic method that is also progressive (gradually increases in difficulty). Some teachers use published methods; others use their own.
Questions to ask yourself: How important is it to me to (re)learn the fundamentals (symbols, concepts, skills) in a systematic and progressive way?
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Do you use a systematic, progressive method? How would you approach teaching me based on my interests and goals?
You can express yourself by playing the Moonlight Sonata in your own way. Yet it’s another order of creativity altogether to improvise or compose your own music.
If musical creativity is important to you, make sure a teacher offers it. Unfortunately, most teachers don’t offer improvisation, arranging (creating your own version of someone else’s music), or composition, though this is beginning to (slowly) change.
As you might guess, learning to be musically creative is a core focus at Creative Keyboardist!
Questions to ask yourself: How important is it to me to learn to improvise, arrange or compose my own music?
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Do you teach improvising, arranging and/or composing? If so, do you specialize in specific style(s) such as classical, jazz or pop?
Recitals, exams, adjudications and competitions are various means that piano teachers (particularly “serious” teachers) employ to provide opportunities for students to perform, challenge them to become better players, and introduce them to the highly-competitive professional music world.
You may be excited by the idea of performing for others. Most adult piano students with a recreational focus, though, are seeking a low-stress experience. If the opportunity or requirement to perform in recitals or to be professionally evaluated in an adjudication is important to you, make sure a prospective teacher offers it. On the other hand, if your goal is personal enjoyment or a similar recreational goal make sure that recitals etc. aren’t required.
Questions to ask yourself: Do I want to perform for others? Would I like my playing to be professionally evaluated by someone other than my teacher?
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Do you offer recitals, exams, adjudications and the like? If so, are they required for your adult students?
In addition to learning to play, most adults want to understand the nuts and bolts of music, better known as music theory. Theory includes learning scales, chords and chord progressions, and applying this knowledge for analyzing and/or creating music.
For example, Creative Keyboardist’s introductory theory course, the Key Mastery Course, is designed to give students a deep and comprehensive understanding of scales, intervals and chords in all major and minor keys – the essential vocabulary of music. After mastering the vocabulary, students may progress to more challenging theory involving the “grammar” of music such as analyzing the form and chord progression of the music they’re playing.
Most teachers offer basic theory (the fundamentals of reading music being one example). Other teachers may possess enough training to teach college-level theory.
Questions to ask yourself: How important is it to me to understand music theory, and how deeply?
Questions to ask prospective teachers: Do you teach music theory? How far can you take me?
Try Out Teachers
While you may think of other considerations for choosing the best piano teacher, the differentiators just discussed are a great place to start. Once you narrow your list down to a few teachers, consider taking one or two lessons with each of them to confirm a good fit. After all, while learning chemistry is important, so is personal chemistry, especially in private 1-on-1 lessons that may continue for years. Inform each teacher that you’re trying out several teachers for the best fit; the best teachers will understand.