Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Guest Blogger: Emily Sorensen - Is your teacher ripping you off?


Guest Blogger: Emily Sorensen*, formerly of Play Music Educational Studios

Are you getting your money’s worth?
Taking music lessons is a big time and money commitment and you should know that you are getting the most for your money. Regardless what you are paying for lessons, at some point during your lesson experience (if it hasn’t happened already) you are going to ask yourself if what you’re paying for lessons is worth what you’re getting out of it. Sometimes $15 can be too much to pay and $25 can be a real bargain for a 30 minute lessons. 
Here are a few questions to think about when deciding if you’re getting your money’s worth from your lessons.
  • How much education does your teacher have on the instrument they’re teaching you? 
Most everybody has taken some kind of lesson or was in a band class in school, but didn’t bother to take any further education after high school.  No, not everybody who is talented at playing an instrument has taken lessons or majored or minored in the subject in college.  But as we become adults and start looking for ways to increase our income we often fall back on any skill we think might help. So make sure that you’re comfortable with your teacher’s education. The more they’ve studied their instrument, especially if it’s private lessons, the more likely it is that they will be able to help you become better at playing your instrument.
  • What playing experience does your teacher have?
This is a twofold question; experience teaching and playing are important to consider. 
How long has your teacher been teaching lessons? Experience in teaching is important because teachers who have been teaching longer generally have had many students and have learned many ways to help students figure out how to play.  And the longer your teacher has been teaching the more they will have ideas and a “tool box” full of ideas to help you learn the concepts.  Is it okay to take from a beginning teacher? Sure, all teachers were beginners once too, but make sure you are comfortable with their playing and teaching experience. New teachers will gain that experience over time, so don’t let this sway you completely one way or the other on your value of your teacher’s ability to help you.  A good teacher will have a realistic view of their own abilities and will never try to convince you they are more or better than they really are.
Does your teacher still play? Experience in playing is important because teachers who don’t play will be rusty in their skills. Many skills will “come back” as they begin teaching and playing and many of the basic skills will improve as they are teaching or have taught over the years, but it is important that teachers are playing and keeping up on their skills. Continuing to practice on their own is an important key to if they are still playing, but most musicians are driven to continue to play. Even if it’s in community or church groups your teacher is more likely to be able to help you improve your own skills if they are still staying active and relevant on the “gig” scene. 
  • Does your teacher come with high recommendation?
How did you find your teacher? Did a band/orchestra/choir teacher recommend your teacher to you? A great way to find a teacher is to talk to your music teacher at school and to check with your friends. A personal reference from someone you know and trust is usually a reliable way to find a teacher. However, let that be a first step in choosing your teacher. Everyone has different learning styles and teachers are not one-size-fits-all. 
If you have found a teacher through an advertisement service make sure to check any website or blogs listed and when you call or email feel free to ask for references or comments from their current or past students. Just remember if you made a “cold” contact with this teacher the information they send back with their references will always be their “best side.” But that doesn’t invalidate the information, just a reminder to take all recommendations from someone you don’t know with a grain of salt. Ask about some of their methods of teaching; do they lecture and pass off music, does the teacher play along during the lesson, are lessons a kinetic (hands on) experience encouraging you to challenge, stretch and try new things? 
Many teachers offer a free first lesson. This is a great opportunity to “try out” your teacher. When you go to the store to purchase a piece of clothing it is unwise to just grab the item, pay for it and leave unless you are absolutely sure it’s the right fit for you. If you don’t like it in the store you won’t wear it once you get it home. So it is with lessons and teachers. If you don’t feel comfortable with their teaching style during that first lesson, it most likely isn’t going to get much easier the longer you take; that’s not always the case but most of the time you have a really good feel for the fit after that first lesson.
  • Does your teacher focus on technique and mastering the basics or jump right to “showboating” and moving you through the method book as fast as possible?
Your teacher should be talented. But the time you are paying for is to help you learn and improve. When you are struggling to grasp a technique or skill does your teacher break it down and help you to run through it over and over and over until you can do it, or is your teacher quick to jump in and “show you how to do it?” Seeing an example can help, but sometimes struggling through the process with your teacher as a guide and mentor is a more effective method for mastering the technique.
Does your teacher make sure you have mastered one technique before moving to the next technique? One of the hardest parts of being a private music teacher is to make sure your students have mastered a skill before moving on to the next one. Sometimes it seems you are doing the same thing over and over in a lesson and all you want to do is move on, but music is a skill that is comprehensive. If you haven’t mastered a skill before moving on to the next one, it will be much more difficult to learn the next skill. A good music teacher will make sure you are actually learning the skill before teaching you more and harder skills. This sometimes involves slowing down and focusing on skills that are weaker and many times it means reviewing each week even after you have moved to the next skill. You might even have “pop review” session in a lesson sometime to make sure you’ve got it down. But rest assured this is all to make sure you are learning and mastering the skills necessary to make long term progress.
  • Are you making progress?
Are you any better than when you started taking lessons? Are you constantly learning new things and being challenged? If you are not getting any better then don’t continue to take lessons. But taking lessons isn’t a magic, I’m amazing at music, get better quick pill. You have to do what your teacher asks you to do and YOU have to practice. If you are practicing at least 5 days a week for a minimum of 20 minutes per practice session, doing what your teacher asks you to do and THEN you’re not getting any better, find a new teacher. If you’re doing your part and you can’t make any progress (which sometimes can seem imperceptible) then you’re definitely not getting your money’s worth and you need to find a new teacher or take a break.
  • Are lessons enjoyable?
At the end of the day if you are not motivated to improve and you don’t enjoy going to lessons maybe you’re really not getting your money’s worth. If you would rather do almost anything other than go to your lesson and you look for ways to miss or cancel your lesson - you should probably find another teacher. Good rapport between student and teacher and parent and teacher is important. While sometimes you may not like a lesson or are having a difficult time learning a concept and lessons can be hard, you should always enjoy yourself. Learning is supposed to be fun, why should learning a musical instrument be any different? Progress and having a good time go hand in hand. If we can’t enjoy what we’re doing/learning, then we aren’t motivated to be better and we avoid the things that will help us to improve. Bottom line, if you can’t enjoy learning the instrument and the lessons, nothing else really matters in deciding if you’re getting your money’s worth.
Music lessons are a great investment and should be viewed as an investment. But make sure your investment is working for you and you are getting the most benefit for your money. Getting your money’s worth from music lessons is a win-win situation for everyone involved. Good luck, and may you find the teacher worth the investment of your time and money! 

*Yep, Emily is my wife and best friend. She's also an experienced musician and was the administrator at our music teaching studio where she worked with about 20 teachers and over 100 students. She dealt with all of the day-to-day operations, including interfacing with parents and students. In short, she knows her stuff.

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