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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
so very encouraging. Sometimes we wonder if we are hitting the mark. Glad to find I am doing fairly well!!!!!!!Thank you
Learning isn’t always fun. Never has been and shouldn’t be in the list. If the future of piano players is dependent on teachers who make learning “fun” then we might as well stop teaching piano. What’s the point in teaching a child (or adult) who really has no interest in learning? If a student can’t (or won’t) do what a teacher tells them to do at lessons – whether it is fun or not – then everyone is wasting their time. Those type of students probably just aren’t capable of learning to play the piano and should be encouraged to do something else in music (like maybe being a DJ or mixer)? (I’ve been teaching for over 20 years).
Notice that serious is also on the list. Teaching notes and rhythms is much better for students if we do it in a fun way, all the while doing it fir a very serious outcome. Making learning the basics fun does not mean taking the teacher is taking it lightly…. it’s just the opposite. I have 70 private students and they are all unique in how they learn and what makes it “stick ” for them. I totally agree with the article that a good teacher will go the extra mile to find what works for each child. Every child is not taking lessons to be a concert pianist. Many are taking for personal enjoyment, service to their church, artistic experience, or just because reading notes and playing an instrument is great for your brain. This was a great article!
I TOTALLY agree with you, Lara!!!
Thanks! That is very encouraging!
I so appreciate this testament of gratitude. I have been teaching for over thirty years and still love what I do!
I apologize for the typos. I sent from my phone and should have proofread.
So true! Might I add that a great piano teacher is also a fine musician/pianist themselves.
I agree, Elaine!
I love getting to know my students, and this helps me choose special supplemental music that they will thoroughly enjoy. The joy on their faces when they learn a new song is do rewarding!
Hey there, I just want to say thanks for the blog post. I am not one to comment that frequently but continue the great work and cheers for the quality posts.