Is Your Music Teacher Cheating You Out of Your Money? Here's 4 Questions to Ask.

One of the things I hate the most about moving is finding a good mechanic. I personally know nothing about cars; I've never even successfully performed an oil change. So I'm forced to put a ton of trust in my mechanic to honestly and expertly service my vehicle. Because, when it comes down to it, I don't have enough knowledge about cars to tell a good mechanic from a bad one until it's too late.

That's how a lot of parents are with their music teachers. They don't know enough about the subject to tell a good teacher from a bad one, so they stick with what they've got until their car (aka: student) quits. And that's sad to see. Lots of people have disqualified themselves as "not having what it takes to play music," when in reality it wasn't them but their teachers who failed. I've seen this too much in music education, so I've posed 4 questions for you to determine if your music teacher is worth your money.

1) Is your teacher a musical expert?

Ever heard the terrible saying, "Those who can, do. And those who can't, teach"? Well, that saying is terrible. It's everything that's wrong with education in this day and age. Plus it's terrible. Did I mention that? A teacher cannot teach something - at a high quality, effective level - that they themselves have not mastered.

"Ok. Then what about school band directors who have to teach like fifty different instruments? There's no way they can be pros at every one of them!"

Glad you brought that up. You're right! Some of the greatest band directors in the world have musicians in their band that can out-play them on certain instruments. BUT, the best band directors can run laps around their students when it comes to overall musical expertise. Case in point: When I was getting my Masters in Jazz Studies, the director of the jazz orchestra was a bassist who couldn't play a single lick on a wind instrument. Yet, he evoked an incredible level of musicality out of the horn players. Why? Because he was an incredible musician! So, overall musical expertise is extremely crucial in a music teacher. 

2) Does your teacher truly know how to teach?

On the flip side of that coin, there are a whole heck of a lot of great musicians that are absolutely horrific teachers. I call this scenario the "Whiplash effect." Ever seen that movie? If not, it's worth the watch even if only to see how good of a drummer Miles Teller became solely for his part in the movie. But I digress. In the movie, the music teacher, Terence Fletcher, is a musical mastermind, but he's just about the worst human being ever. Being a music teacher, I watched the movie the whole time cringing at how ineffectively and inappropriately Terence taught music. So...

Great musicians don't always make great teachers.

Here's some helpful tips in finding out if a teacher is actually good at teaching:

  • Sit in on a trial lesson for your student. See how well they know their stuff, if they're articulate, if they can demonstrate what they are teaching, and if your student actually makes progress in the lesson.
  • Attend one of their student recitals. If there are no recitals, that's a bad sign. More on that later. But, watching a recital will give you a good glimpse of the accomplishments of the students.
  • Consider their educational background. How long have they taught? What instruments have they taught? What age groups have they taught? Etc.

3) What kind of educational training have they received?

I can't even tell you how many times I have evoked the knowledge and experience I gained from my degree in music education when teaching music. Becoming a better teacher is a never ending process, and having professors who were a lot further in to that process than myself was the best thing I could have done to prepare myself for becoming a music teacher.

However, this point takes an intentional backseat to Point #2...

...because there are plenty of fantastic music teachers who have not received any kind of formal pedagogical training at all. In fact, as I think about it, the three most influential music teachers in my life never got degrees in music education. But, all three of them are constantly seeking after new educational experiences that develop their ability to teach music. And that is a huge point. Whether they are furthering their teaching approach by attending conferences on music education, or directing bands in competitions with clinician critique, or receiving teaching reviews at the institution they work at, teachers always need to be growing and advancing in their skill as educators. So make sure you know how your music teacher has been trained to teach your student.

4) What's their approach to teaching music?

There has to be a method to the madness, and you have to agree with your teacher's methods (in general). Many parents simply go along blindly with their music teacher's curriculum and teaching approach by simply reassuring themselves that "teacher knows best." Don't get me wrong, a good teacher does know best, but here are a few things that you should always find in a good teaching approach:

  • Students engaging in what they play. Every piece of music may not always be their favorite ever, but they should at least be taught the value in playing it and appreciate it for what it is.
  • Not just rote instruction. This is kind of the "hip" thing to do these days. Way too many music teachers' entire approach is simply teaching students how to play some rock n' roll licks on the guitar and then calling them musicians. And what do you find? Kids are starving for more substantial music instruction, so they fizzle out and quit over time.
  • A successful teaching pace. Teachers should have a deep understanding of the developmental abilities of their students, and so pace their instruction and curriculum accordingly.
  • Students setting and achieving goals. Frequent performances are great checkpoints for students to see the progress they've made and to be gratified in the work they've done.

Now that you know what to look for in a good music teacher, you will hopefully have more success in finding one than I've had searching for a good mechanic. The teachers at Vibe Music Academy are truly expert musicians and educators, so if you live in the greater-Indianapolis area, check out their bios and consider signing up for a free music lesson with one of them!

- John Gotsis, Owner and Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy, Fishers, Indiana.