When choosing a new teacher, we all ask lots of questions like “how much do you charge?” and “what hours do you teach?”, but there’s more to finding a good teacher than just cost and time. Here are five really important questions to ask a prospective teacher to help you find out not just if you can afford the lessons, but whether you’re getting good value for money.
1. What qualifications do you have?
Qualifications, as we all know, are not the be all and end all of ability. They are, however, an important baseline to help you weed out unsuitable teachers. I would recommend choosing a teacher who has at least grade 8 performance in the instrument you want to study. Ideally, you should look for someone who also has either a higher level of performing qualification and significant experience or a teaching qualification in the instrument you wish to study, or a closely related one (e.g. a viola teacher may have grade 8 viola and a teaching diploma for violin). By selecting a teacher who has qualifications, you are choosing someone who has been assessed independently for their ability to teach and has met a baseline standard. Teaching qualifications and music degrees also require a good knowledge of theory, which is important too.
If you don’t ask this question, you could end up with a teacher who has no idea what they are doing with the instrument. Not only will you probably be undermining quality teachers who probably charge more, but you will be putting yourself at serious risk of both a bad musical education and physical damage from bad technique.
2. What level/kind of experience do you have in teaching and performing?
What kind of experience level you would be happy with is a matter of personal taste, but I would recommend you find a teacher who has a good level of performing experience, and who continues to do some performing (even if not at a professional level). Teaching experience is also important. A music degree or performing qualification does not necessarily include any teaching skills, so ask about how long they’ve been teaching, and what kind of training they’ve had.
There is nothing inherently bad about choosing a brand new teacher – after all, we have to start somewhere, but you should be sure that you are satisfied with the level of supervision and support a brand new teacher has (do they have a mentor or teacher themselves?), and you should definitely ask them question 4.
3. Are you a member of any unions or professional bodies?
While this is not essential, the advantage of choosing a teacher who is a member of a body such as the Musician’s Union, Instituted Society of Musicians or the European Piano Teachers Association is that you know your teacher has suitable public liability insurance and legal support. Some of them also provide assurance the teacher has been through a criminal record check. A teacher who is a member of a union or professional body will also have to uphold certain standards, and I think it shows a good attitude to be a member of a professional body. It’s a good idea to check out the organisation after you’ve asked too.
4. What do you do to improve your teaching skills?
This is known as “continuing professional development” and is vital for any teacher. If they don’t have a teaching qualification, do they plan to get one? Do they attend courses or conferences? Are they continuing to take lessons in their instruments themselves? A teacher who invests time in learning is going to be constantly getting better as a teacher. Plus, a good CPD programme means teachers will be keeping up to date with changes to exam systems and requirements and new pedagogical ideas. No matter how experienced a teacher is, if they’re still teaching in exactly the same way they did 20 years ago, you’re not going to get the best teaching out there.
5. Do you have a set of terms and conditions or a tuition agreement?
It is really important that everyone knows where they stand. A contract, set of terms and conditions or tuition agreement should set out how much you should pay and when, what happens about missed lessons and how to stop taking lessons. It might seem easy at the start to be informal, but if anything goes wrong it can get really messy. For example, your agreement should set out how much lessons cost so if your teacher bills you for more than you’re expecting, you have the agreement to prove that they’ve made a mistake. Make sure you look carefully through the document – the teacher should take you through it – and keep a copy in a safe place for when you need to stop taking lessons.
If you ask these five questions, you should be well on your way to finding a good quality music teacher.
Do you have any suggestions for other questions to ask?