What makes a great music teacher? Someone with years of expert training and dedication? Someone who knows all the answers to music students’ questions? Someone with a track record of incredible students?
It would be easy to say yes. Music teachers like that are very impressive. And certainly training and dedication are essential. But over the years I’ve realized that there are other qualities even more important than these.
I had a friend who majored in Music and French at University who ended up teaching German, her second foreign language, in a high school. One day, in the midst of a German lesson, she taught her students a German word that she later discovered did not exist. Mortified, she was hoping that her students would forget it along with all the other vocabulary they frequently forgot, but no such luck. The students remembered and continue to use this invented German word, and she did not have the heart or the courage to tell them the truth.
This story made a great impression on me when I heard it, and I determined at that moment that I would never pretend to know all the answers. As a child, I had thought my teachers had all the answers. Now as an adult, I know they did not. And so if a student asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I tell them truthfully that I will find out for them and let them know. They don’t seem to have a problem with that.
What about having impressive students? Isn’t that an important yardstick by which to measure a teacher? My take on this is that it’s more important to have students who love what they do, and to have a good relationship with them. Worrying about whether they are excelling can get in the way of these other more important aspects.
On that note, are you aware of what your beliefs are about your students and about your teaching? If your students don’t excel, are you taking it personally, blaming your own teaching, or, conversely, blaming your students for being lazy or unmotivated? If you are driven by the need for recognition, it is easy to fall into this trap. Notice what drives you, and whether it is working for you. I decided a long time ago, when I was teaching some students with some personal challenges, that it was more important to give them love and attention, than for them to succeed at the piano. I’ve noticed that this works much better for me as a general rule. If they are talented, it certainly can be more stimulating to teach them, and I love to hear the results, but I have developed some really close relationships with more typical students that were far more satisfying.
Another important issue is boundaries. Be clear about what you are able to offer. What has worked best for me is to be friendly and warm, but not to try to be a best friend. To be clear about starting and ending times, fees, cancellations, and about the structure of the lesson. To be focused and not overly chatty. To give the students space to make discoveries, and to be objective as far as possible.
The bottom line here is about awareness. When you are teaching, are you aware of your breathing? Is your body relaxed? What thoughts do you have in your mind? How are you feeling? Are you present with the student? Do you feel in balance? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you still learning and growing as a musician and a person every day? Are you open to having fun? Are you genuinely enthusiastic? Are you even willing to look silly if it will help the student understand a certain principle or connect to a certain piece of music?
One of my advanced students, a teenage boy of 17, was learning a contemporary piano piece written for dancers. He was finding it difficult to connect to the piece, and I suddenly had the idea that maybe it would help him if I moved around the room and danced to it myself. I remember blushing as I had the idea. Although I often danced to music, I was in no way a professional, and I was afraid of embarrassing myself. But here we were in a large empty studio, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. I suggested it to my student, and he was very receptive. So I got up and started moving and dancing to the music. And an amazing thing happened. As he accompanied my movements, and I expressed physically and emotionally what I was hearing, the piece transformed. And neither he nor I have ever forgotten the experience.