By Heidi Smith

The majority of musicians have multiple teachers throughout their careers and can probably easily recall the ones who really stand out as most effective. What is it that sets them apart? What characteristics do those teachers share? I recently watched an interview on The Piano Mag Blog with pianist Emanuel Ax, and greatly appreciated his insightful comments about the important role and characteristics of great teachers. His thoughts on what it means to excel in that area encouraged me to further expand upon these ideas, and how I can apply these qualities in my own teaching.

1. Patient

An outstanding teacher demonstrates incredible patience. It’s a pretty self-explanatory statement! Students all learn at different paces, respond better to one style of teaching over another, or—let’s be honest—just don’t want to learn at all. An effective teacher demonstrates patience through these good and bad days, and is ready to adapt for each student and present information in the way that each student learns best.

2. Skilled

Excellent teachers possess advanced technical ability. You’ve heard the old saying, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” That is absolutely not true. If you cannot do it yourself, you won’t be able to describe or demonstrate the concept to a student. If you don’t have a thorough understanding of a concept, how will you be able to help a student understand it? If you don’t possess the technical ability to demonstrate a particular fingering or scale, etc., you will not be able to guide a student to mastery of that technique.

3. Fun

An inspiring teacher makes learning fun! It’s rare for a student to be intrinsically motivated and ready to learn for just the sake of learning itself. Teachers have to provide students with educational fun. Learning doesn’t have to be boring! Use colored pencils, games . . . engage with your students and make music lessons an experience they look forward to every week. Students love a good joke about the title of a piece or the lyrics or an unexpected articulation.

4. Serious

However fun music may be (and it is!), there are times when you have to just buckle down and focus. Great teachers also provide a serious element to the music lesson. Music is a language and learning any new language is plain hard work.  It’s our job as teachers to help nurture that focus in students and provide an atmosphere where they can learn.

5. Joyful

A truly motivating teacher exudes genuine joy for a student. There’s nothing more exciting, as a student, than when your teacher is as excited as you are! Whether it’s enthusiasm over a new piece, an eagerness to hear about their week, or being proud of their progress, our joy in lessons is powerful and contagious. It shows students that we care about them and that we are as invested in their lessons as they are.

The work of music teachers is vitally important. We have the opportunity to touch so many lives and have a lasting influence. In reference to teaching, Emanuel Ax said, “That’s the hardest thing that requires the most talent and the most dedication.” To all you teachers out there who are patient, skilled, fun, serious, and joyful—keep doing what you’re doing! You are outstanding and having an immeasurable impact on the lives of all of your students.


Heidi Smith earned her Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance and Piano Pedagogy from The Master’s University in Southern California. She has been teaching privately for over 6 years, and is the Product Marketing Manager for Piano at Alfred Music. Heidi loves coffee and has a collection of exciting mugs!