10 Things To Ask

10 Things To Ask

Wouldn’t it be great if there were never any misunderstandings between teachers and parents? Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone was on the same page re things like practice, missed lessons, budgeting for music? In this blog post I explore two perspectives when seeking the right teacher/student combination. First, 10 questions I believe all piano teachers should ask in the initial interaction with a prospective student or parent, followed by 10 questions parents should ask prospective teachers. Although these questions are directed at piano teachers and students, they can of course apply to ANY instrument.

10 Things Teachers Should Ask

1. How old is your child?

This is a fairly obvious one. It’s also important to find out what year they are in at school, and perhaps even what school; if it’s an ‘alternative’ school like Steiner or Montessori that may give you extra insight as to the type of educational experience that parent is after.

2. Has your child learned music before?

Sometimes the parent doesn’t want to admit that they’ve left another teacher. You can assuage their concerns by saying there is no need to mention any names, you just need to know what has previously been covered. If they are comfortable doing so, giving you a summary of why they left the previous teacher can also be extremely helpful.

3. Do you own a piano?

It is amazing how many parents enquire about piano lessons and have not yet sorted out an instrument at home! I am embarrassed to say I have been caught out by this more than once. It is VERY important that there is a piano (or decent digital keyboard) at home prior to commencing lessons. If they have not bought one yet, it’s a great opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of various options, e.g. acoustic vs digital.

4. Where is the piano?

So often I find out that the piano keyboard is in the child’s bedroom. This is NOT ideal and leads to an unsupported and eventually non-existent practice routine. The best place for the piano is in a well-populated area of the house, so that the child does not feel isolated and the parents can easily support and supervise the practice.

5. Do you have time during the week set aside for practice?

This is another question to which in the past I have received very surprising responses. Everything from “oh well you know we only want to do it for fun” to “he/she is EXTREMELY busy you know” to “yes I intend for my 6-year old to practice at least one hour every day”. Few parents factor in the importance of actually timetabling in the practice. They figure it will just get fitted in somewhere between soccer and gymnastics and swimming… and of course we know that is unlikely. Best to have this conversation as early as possible!

6. Are you able to sit with your child during practice?

A child that is supported during practice is a child that will progress quickly. This probably doesn’t apply so much to teenagers, who can be very self-motivated and often won’t listen to their parents anyway! But parents need to understand that there are very few children who can go home from a 30-minute lesson, having taken everything in, and practice efficiently on their own for the whole week. They need supervision and guidance.

7. Have you ever learned piano yourself?

If the parent has learned an instrument before, your job is made instantly easier! However, I have met many a motivated parent who just loves to learn alongside the child. This question often leads to a discussion about the parent’s past experience with music in general, what it was like for them, and gives you some insight as to what they might be expecting you will offer their child.

8. Do you have any particular aspirations or expectations of your child?

This can follow on naturally from the previous question. Many parents have preconceived ideas of the level/standard their child should be at a certain age. I once had a conversation with a prospective parent who told me she expected her beginner son to do Preliminary and First Grade in the first year because she had achieved both of those in quick succession as a child and didn’t want him to be ‘behind’. I gently explained that I don’t teach that way, and that sometimes my students enter exams if it seems they would be easily prepared and if THE STUDENT actually wants to etc. etc… the end result was that she said ‘Thank you very much for your information but I’ll keep looking’. Whilst it was somewhat abrupt, it was essentially the best possible outcome; much better to get it all sorted BEFORE commencing lessons!

9. Have you put aside a budget for buying books?

Typical responses to this are “Oh, do we have to?” or “Our other teacher just gave us photocopies”.

As succinctly as possible, I explain whilst some ‘copies’ are perfectly legitimate (for example a public domain work downloaded from a reputable site like imslp.org) I encourage all of my students to buy repertoire books. To me, a music book is something you have for life, a nostalgic possession that can be passed on to the next generation of musicians.

It’s all about managing expectations. Parents are quite happy when they hear they might need to spend “as little as $100” over the year on music, they just don’t react well when suddenly told to buy a $30 book. Telling the parent early on that this is something they will need to budget for is an absolute must.

10. How do you feel about sitting in on the lessons?

This question is often met with surprise. Most parents I speak to on the phone for the first time have never considered that it is an option to sit in on their child’s piano lesson. I personally LOVE it when the parent sits in: they can be the scribe if necessary, which saves a lot of time, and having observed how I teach during the lesson they can easily follow up on what I’ve said during the week. This generally results in more progress. If having the parent there impacts negatively on the child’s behaviour, or on my rapport with them, I might ask the parent to sit out for a few lessons to see the difference… and then re-assess as necessary.

Some parents baulk at this question, saying they are too busy running around with all their other children and couldn’t possibly stay. Piano lessons can still work with this dynamic but in my experience a reaction like that is usually indicative of the fact that there will most likely be little support for practice at home.

In conclusion: asking the ten questions above as part of the initial conversation with a parent will give you a comprehensive idea of how the prospective student is placed, as well as assuring the parent that you have only the best musical intentions for their child’s education. Sometimes I don’t even do this over the phone, I do it as part of a ‘trial’ lesson, which works extremely well. Once you have established whether or not you want to take the student on, and whether the parent wants to come to you, you can then go on to explain your studio policies: information about fees, cancellations etc. I feel that by addressing the ‘artistic’ side first, you will gain the parent’s trust and respect, and even if they don’t end up coming to you as a student, you will have been extremely professional in your conduct and will have made an excellent impression.

And now for the flip side…

10 Things Parents Should Ask

1. Can you tell me a bit about your experience as a teacher?

This is a much better question than ‘how long have you been teaching?’ or ‘how many students do you have’, as it is open-ended. Ideally you want to hear that the teacher has at least 10 years’ experience and has taught a variety of ages and levels, and that teaching is their primary career, rather than just a little bit of income on the side.

2. What ages/levels do you teach?

An experienced teacher that has taught every level from preschool through to adulthood is very valuable. If a teacher specialises in a certain age group that can also be good, as long as it suits the age of your child. If your child is a 6-year-old beginner and the teacher says they mostly teach teenagers, this might not be the best match.

3. Can you tell me about your own piano study?

This is much better than asking what ‘grade’ exam the teacher has passed. Hopefully the teacher will have achieved an advanced performing level, and will have definitely continued playing and performing beyond high school. Studying piano at a tertiary level involves a high level of commitment, and for most pianists means that they have also achieved at least to a Diploma level in an examination system.

If they did not study piano at a tertiary level, but still have a lot of teaching experience, this can still be good. Otherwise, it may mean that piano teaching is more of a ‘hobby’ on the side, a way of supplementing their ‘real’ income from another career.

4. How often do we need to practice?

No matter what the answer, you can rest assured that a teacher will just LOVE it that you’ve asked this question! Teachers all have different expectations from their students. I myself have a strict “no practice = no lessons” policy. This question will hopefully lead to a conversation about how much time you can devote to practice during the week.

5. What opportunities will my child have to perform?

You want to know that your child’s skills will be showcased at some point. Teachers who run end of year concerts are usually very dedicated and of course want their students to shine. Having said that, many of the opportunities to perform will occur in your own home, such as playing for visitors. An exam can be seen as a performance opportunity, but since it is for an audience of only 1, in a high-stress situation, it should not be the only performing opportunity. The more the better.

6. Do you encourage your students to sit exams?

The motivation to sit exams so often comes from the parent, not the student. If you have any expectations that your child will sit exams, it’s best to ask the teacher about their viewpoint.

7. Have your students had success in exams and/or eisteddfods?

Whilst this should not necessarily be the main focus of your enquiries, this can be an excellent way to deduce whether the teacher prepares students thoroughly for assessments, especially for a teacher with a large studio. External recognition of students’ musical ability is certainly a valuable indicator of the standard of teaching. However, some teachers don’t put their students in for exams or eisteddfods and are still excellent teachers; others may only put forward 1 or 2 students and if they happen to do badly for some reason this may still not be an accurate indication of the level of teaching.

8. How much do you charge?

This is so often the very first question I am asked over the phone. Naturally you want to find out how much you’ll be paying, but it is so important to establish the teacher’s experience first! There are standard teaching rates publicised by Music Teacher Associations in each state. Accredited, experienced teachers often charge at least that rate plus a little more, whereas a teacher who appears to be charging a very low rate is likely to be less experienced and may not provide the very best quality lessons for your child. It’s important to remember that, just like anything else, you get what you pay for.

9. Do you bill by the term or by the lesson?

It’s important to find out how the payment system will work and also at this point to enquire about cancellation fees and other policies to do with make-up lessons.

10. Do we need to buy books?

You will most definitely need to budget for repertoire books. If the teacher says ‘no, I will give you photocopies of my music’ please be aware this is illegal and you could be up for a major fine. Most teachers are well aware of this and insist their students buy books. Some teachers have lending libraries, which is an excellent and economical way of using music books.

In conclusion: A piano teacher is likely to be a significant role model your child’s life. You want your child to look up to this person, to be in awe of their playing, to be guided skilfully through the art of creating beautiful sounds. Piano teachers often end up being so much more than just a teacher – they become a confidante, an emotional support, a friend. It is most definitely worth the effort to find just the right person.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

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