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The Sage Page - How To Choose a Private Teacher

Greg Sage is an excellent and experienced brass player residing in the Boulder Vicinity. He studied at the Berkeley School of Music, and performed professionally with many leading bands across the country. Greg has also taught here in Colorado. Much of the information in this article is applicable to any musical instrument.

Do you want to hear more of what Greg Sage has to say? See Setting up your own program of daily practice.

 


Choosing a Private Teacher

Your choice of an instrumental teacher could affect the rest of your life as a musician. It could mean the beginning of intense self examination, satisfaction and personal musical success, or it may become a frustrating waste of time and money. The search for a quality instructor must be done carefully. There are musicians with some musical ability that attempt to teach, and many that will teach instruments they don't play. These types of instructors profit from the minimally devoted students who seek an appreciation of the instrument but don't possess the desire and drive to become fine instrumentalists. If you truly hope to study seriously, you must choose your teacher wisely. There is no truth to the belief that a novice can be taught by anyone, while the ~advanced player is going to require an advanced. teacher. From the beginning of a student's instruction the assigned exercises must be carefully chosen, but the teacher's job only starts there. A student must be shown why their instrument is enjoyable and worth the effort necessary to improve. A poor player/teacher that instructs beginners may not effectively encourage those students who may be unsure of their decision to play. The first part of your search can begin with the local yellow pages, collecting a list of teachers names from music stores or studios that provide lessons. Also pursue any references from friends or local performers who may provide informed, unbiased opinions. Once this list is complete, there are many ways to evaluate whether a teacher will be worth your time, effort and money.

The first step is to talk to the teachers. Don't base your opinions on conversations with the music store owners or others that may gain from your business. Initially, find out these things:

1. Does the teacher play the instrument you want to learn? Many beginners start off their music careers with a local band director that attempts to teach all the instruments. Even in private studios, many trumpet teachers may also carry trombone, baritone and tuba students, and sax players may also teach clarinet and flute. There's nothing wrong with that for the student in a school lesson program with no other options, but if you're going to pay to study privately, seek out someone that plays your instrument. Some students, such as those studying the double reeds, baritone, tuba or clarinets other than Bb may not be able to locate a teacher that plays that instrument primarily. In these cases it's best to find someone that has been referred by'an experienced player from a nearby college or community band/orchestra.

2. Is the teacher currently playing? Think carefully about someone that is teaching simply to stay involved with music, but has given up on playing the instrument themselves. Learning to play can be difficult; many demands are placed on your time and possible desires to do other things. The ability to work out problems and spend long hours striving toward your potential has to be developed gradually over time. Why study with someone that hasn't solved some of these basic issues for themselves? You need a teacher that can relate through similar experience how to find the patience and organization necessary to reach your goals. Why study from someone that has given up on their own musical excellence just to make a few dollars teaching?

3. Ask the teacher if he routinely plays during the lessons. When learning to play any instrument, there are many things that must be demonstrated. A teacher's willingness to illustrate something by doing is a big advantage-not only because minor problems can be solved through imitation, but regularly listening to a good teacher's playing demonstrates the result of practicing correctly. There are things today I still work on that I wonder whether I'll ever be able to do as well as one of my previous instructors in L.A. The importance of hard work was so impressed on me by his consistent, confident technique
that the memories of his sound still encourages me to improve on my own tone and control.

4. Is he still working hard each day to achieve higher goals? Does he perform locally? Is he critical of his own playing and still practicing regularly? I've learned from attending various colleges and music programs that all the titles, degrees, accolades, and boasts mean little if the person can't play. And an impressive collection of academic achievements doesn't necessarily indicate that someone is a fine player. Often I have found that those who don't currently play never played well, and those that were ever good players still are to the extent that their age allows. Stick to what makes sense and think in the long term. For the first six months, the instruction may seem adequate, but when a year or more passes, could the overall improvement in your ability have been better with a more experienced player? It should be mentioned that not all good players are good teachers. Far from it. But those who were taught well often work to put what they've learned back into new students that study with them. Occasionally well known performers will teach simply because they know that students will come, and then they charge what they think their time is worth. Better teachers can be expensive, but the best teachers are in it to produce good students. They charge rates affordable for the young struggling musician spending a fair portion of his day practicing. You may choose to pay a lot to spend an hour with someone you admire-some performers will charge $100 an hour, but it won't compare to four $25 lessons from a competent, experienced player/instructor that is there for you when you need him. Playing an instrument is hard work and commitment, sensible advice and guidance. There's nothing mystical or magical about playing that can be discovered in a few high priced lessons.

5. Visit the teacher to see the studio or teaching area. Is it messy, with piles of music and paper around? Or is it fairly organized, with two chairs facing a music stand and possibly a stereo nearby for listening to recordings? Are the student and teacher separated by a distance with no sign of the teacher's instrument in sight? Is it noisy, or otherwise inappropriate for learning? Is there enough room to move around? (I've seen "studios" in some music stores smaller than closets!) Learning to play an instrument requires an organized approach as part of a structured program and many private teachers get away with much less. If you are serious about learning an instrument, make an effort to find the best teacher, working in a proper environment. Any teacher knows that works; everything you see in the teaching area is a direct reflection of the quality of instruction you'll receive.
Playing can quickly become one of the most personal and fulfilling activities you will ever do, and much of your success may come from your experiences as a student. The correct instructor for you may take effort to locate and could possibly mean an hour's drive as opposed to a ten minute walk up the street. I knew a student that hitchhiked over 100 miles twice a month to Los Angeles just to study with a first choice teacher. If transportation is difficult, lessons can be every other week provided that the responsibility to practice everyday is met.

After your choice of teacher is made, don't miss any lessons. Previous engagements can be scheduled around, and feeling a bit under the weather happens to all of us. If you are seriously ill, then make up the lesson as soon after as possible. Demonstrating your desire to learn will get you the best instruction; teachers are pleased to accommodate the students that want all they can offer. Most colleges have a music faculty with students that are often eager to take on a private student with a genuine desire to play. The quality will be wide, and don't assume that a senior faculty or even the department chairman will necessarily be a good private lesson instructor. Hold everyone you evaluate to the same standards. "Inborn talent" has nothing to do with any of this. If you want to play, you're entitled to the best instruction you can find. Just as you should demand nothing but the finest you can produce from your instrument, demand only the finest instruction you can locate.
Whoever you choose, however, can only do so much. No teacher can make anyone a player, or force anyone to practice and be a success on their instrument. A teacher can only assist your desire and ambition to improve. After hearing your teacher perform and provide positive feedback on your progress, you should leave lesson looking forward to working on next week's material. The teacher should understand that the lesson is your hour, your "time in the spotlight". He should inspire and motivate you, and lesson should be something that you look forward to.

I realize this may sound revolutionary. Many teachers conduct their lessons in ways that have made lessons the least enjoyable part of playing an instrument. But by changing a few things, lesson can become a thoroughly positive experience for both the teacher and the student, with far more getting accomplished. First, an experienced teacher and diagnostician shouldn't need to require a student to play through the previous week's lesson to gauge progress. A student's improvement and current problems can be determined wholly from sightreading the upcoming week's assignment. Solo literature, of course, must be worked with and closely analyzed over many sessions, and the student can spend however long he likes discussing a difficult passage that hasn't been mastered.

There is simply no need to spend 50-75% of a lesson searching for criticism of the student's performance of the previous week's material. Many major problems are solved when the emphasis is moved from last week's mistakes to next week's assignment. From the start of instruction the student learns that the material is practiced only for his benefit,
and he observes that improvement is not simply the week to week challenge of satisfying the teacher. Any teacher should be able to tell immediately if a student hasn't practiced. Endurance, tone and technique problems are obvious, and most students will honestly admit that they haven't come prepared when they've earned respect for work done in the past, and not routinely criticized for their weaknesses. Lessons become positive when it isn't demanded that the student possibly stumble through the material before anything else is done. Assignments continue to be given that address ongoing problems, and when necessary, a student's rate of progress may need to be discussed. The teacher is hired for his guidance, and must require the student to assume responsibility for applying that guidance. The student must work on his own through daily practice to improve, asking questions at lesson whenever necessary and being shown where improvement still needs to happen when sight reading portions of the upcoming week's material.

A competent teacher must also spell out for the student exactly what is required to solve a problem or accomplish an ability. Never accept a teacher that simply points out your weaknesses, then simply sends you home to work them out. Anyone can do that. Some teachers feel that students need to figure out difficult solutions for themselves, because they had no one to give them "the answers" when they were learning. They actually treat some solutions as "secrets" that must be discovered. This is a sign of a bitter player taking money from students that are receiving nothing in return. A good teacher will explain precisely what's wrong and what needs to be done to fix it. He'll carefully go over the exercises that need to be done with you, and remove as much guesswork as possible. This is what you are paying for, not idle criticism, however well informed. An instructor that doesn't take responsibility for assigning solutions to your problems simply isn't fulfilling his function as a private teacher. The process of learning an instrument is not as simple as following a set of directions and witnessing your growth. Much effort, discipline and desire are required; all of the best information possible will not by itself create a great player. The teacher that withholds information from you is deliberately training your progress; getting the most complete information available is just the beginning of what you should expect from any teacher.

When studying with your chosen instructor, determine to become one of that teacher's best students. You may not rival older students in overall ability, but you can demonstrate a commitment to practice that will cause you to discover important characteristics of the
instrument on your own. Teachers look for the few students that challenge them, or that rare student that possesses the drive and discipline to see the lesson assignments as starting points in their playing, not the goal. It often happens that an instructor will carry
20 or 30 students, yet only have 8 or 9 that display the proper dedication and hard work. As a student, you want to be one of those 8 or 9.

A teacher should move a student to new challenges based on the student's mastery and understanding of the current material's purpose. Before moving on, an agreement must be made that the time spent was adequate to fulfill the function of the current assignment. The teacher then assigns material that continues the direction he feels is best suited to the student's strengths, weaknesses and expressed desires as an instrumentalist. The student should feel that he is in control of his progress based on his rate of physical growth and
understanding of his physical development that results from long hours of daily practice. He is in an equal, working relationship with his instructor.

There is no reason for the night before lesson to be spent sleepless from dreading the next day's performance of the lesson, then having to face the feeling of failure that is often created. The three or four days before lesson are not spent fighting with the material and the instrument, and the day after, or even two, are not spent neglecting music as some sort of reward for having survived another lesson. All of that is truly unnecessary.
Occasionally students arrive without having practiced regularly the previous week, and unless it happens often, the student is reminded that:

I. He's not practicing for anyone but himself. He must establish a firm program of practice quickly if he expects to continue taking lessons. The teacher cares that the student practices and reaches his potential on the instrument. Some students respond to a more personal approach, but I have found that friendship alone is rarely enough to encourage the self discipline required for a student to practice daily.

2. He is receiving quality, professional instruction, and will be treated professionally. If he doesn't practice, he should not expect to be carried along. No speeches, no raising of voices, and no need to pass personal judgments. The student is then given the opportunity to start at that moment with a clean slate, provided that he understands that his arriving to lesson unprepared is a waste of valuable time and opportunity. Most students respond to this approach because they're respected for their effort and given responsibility for something that belongs entirely to them. An understanding instructor should allow any student an infrequent lapse of interest or discipline; even the best student at one time or another will test to find out what will happen when they don't do what is expected. I've used this approach with students as young as 5th grade, and it works. However, patience and understanding are necessary until the students learn exactly what is expected of them, and until they establish a solid place in their lives for their practicing. Students are usually pleased and surprised at this approach; just the threat of going back to a teacher of the old style is enough to get them practicing! But there will always be those that will never practice, no matter what you do, and they shouldn't play. Soon after beginning lessons in this method, the student will find out that more daily practice is required than they may have done for previous instructors.

A student that is genuinely practicing only for himself and not to briefly satisfy his teacher will generally put in more time that is focused and effective. A parent will often bring a student into lessons based on some poorly formed notion of "becoming well rounded", and force their child to take up an instrument they have little interest in. Studying an instrument isn't similar to a collection of other activities some parents schedule for their children such as horseback riding, little league, etc. Nor is playing an instrument done to straighten teeth or cure asthma! Ironically, it is often this parent that won't insist their child practice everyday, and may even find it excessive when you
explain that a daily effort is the absolute minimum requirement. If you play, you must practice.

When a student refuses to practice there is nothing to be gained from taking private lessons. Once lessons have begun with a teacher you will both need time to adjust to one another. Every teacher will have his own personal style, and there is nothing wrong with changing teachers when necessary to find a better fit. Remember that your instrumental ability is yours alone to develop, and never a direct reflection of the teacher you happen to be studying with. It's nice to believe that your playing is the result of a particularly good instructor, but he won't always be there for you, nor will his presence in your life ever be responsible for any success you experience as a musician. But your instrument will always be there for you, and you'll always need to play at your best.

So seek the most informed, effective guidance possible. However, if you happen to choose a teacher you are not comfortable with, be honest with yourself before switching instructors. Is he (or she) immediately demanding that you practice? What exactly did you expect? Every teacher should clearly explain what he requires and why. At first, you
may need to put aside your assumptions and follow what he is trying to offer.

But I will address a common first complaint. Many new students (and even some parents!) complain that the teacher does not assign enough songs. Simply, a student cannot improve rapidly or correctly by practicing a collection of songs. Playing anything will produce some strength development, but to gain control of the fundamentals the student must practice carefully written exercises that focus on each specific area of the instrument. Songs alone, with a possible warm-up and scales will not establish process of measured and mature technique development. Playing songs is fun, and the concepts of
phrasing and interpretation must be addressed eventually with some type of literature. But any instructor assigning only literature (songs) and neglecting a complete program of calisthenics that develop all areas of your ability should be avoided. It's easy and profitable to give only familiar tunes to your students; the students don't quit as often, nor are they inclined to complain about lack of progress. Few parents complain or get involved when they hear what they consider to be "real music" coming from a child that seems to enjoy his lessons. The fact that far more could be learned, or that the student's potential is not being reached isn't considered. Even when it appears that the material being assigned is at a student's limits, there are vast regions of musical and physical ability being neglected through a daily practice program of only etudes, songs or "top 40"
type music".

In any large city there will be good teachers available that are accepting new students. Get on a waiting list if a particular teacher has passed your evaluation, but may not have an opening. The best teachers are worth waiting for. Any time and effort spent to locate a quality teacher will payoff in ways that will continue to please you for as long as you play the instrument.

Do you want to hear more of what Greg Sage has to say? See Setting up your own program of daily practice.

 

 





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