(Part 4 of “The Teacher-Student Relationship”)

What “qualifies” one to teach? Well, no one wrote a rule book on it, and in very real ways we are all teachers. So there’s no definitive way to answer the question. But if you’d like to be teaching and aren’t sure if you’re qualified, perhaps a few of these checklist items can help you decide:

  1. Do you know that you play reasonably well by regional and perhaps national standards?
  2. Can you teach all levels from beginning to advanced?
  3. If you’re self-taught, do you honestly feel that your homespun technique allows you to play as skillfully (or more so) than others who play the same instrument?
  4. Do you have a good reputation for performances you have done?
  5. Do you have any teaching experience in another field?
  6. Do you have a method or plan that you know is viable?
  7. Are you willing to be flexible with your method, modifying it for individual needs?
  8. Are you familiar with more than one technique?
  9. Are you confident that you can handle students’ insecurities, stubbornness, fear, over-confidence, parents, or whatever challenges they may present?
  10. Are you patient and cheerful?
  11. Can you advise students on effective practice habits?
  12. Are you good at motivating people to practice and to do their best?
  13. Are you willing to be cooperative with other teachers in your community?
  14. It helps to be over-qualified; to have extensive experience, education, and practice.

If you’ve been asked to teach and can answer the above items positively, you probably won’t fall prey to the “impostor syndrome” (the nagging sensation many professionals have that we’re not qualified to be doing what we’re doing).

After that, how do you know when you’re doing a good job? Think about your favorite teachers, the ones who have qualities we should all strive for as teachers. You probably like them for a reason. Chances are they:

  • Are good role models musically
  • Engage students  in discussion and activities
  • Respect what students say and ask, and answer questions thoroughly and politely
  • Have good command of musical terminology appropriate for your style of music
  • Have a sense of humor
  • Know basic music theory
  • Smile a lot, have a good sense of humor, welcome and encourage laughter
  • Don’t skip or gloss over basic material, make no assumptions about what students already know
  • Teach by sharing rather than showing

How you approach teaching will affect your reputation, and more importantly, can affect people’s lives. Music is such a deeply felt medium of expression that every musical experience a student has affects their self esteem. As teachers, our responsibility is to make lessons enjoyable, productive and inspiring.

Every teacher needs to be aware that no individual can teach every style and every skill on any given instrument. Be sure that your method is appropriate for the styles your students want to learn! A classical musician can’t presume to teach folk, traditional or ethnic music (and vice versa) unless you have specifically immersed yourself in those styles; a pop musician may not have a complete understanding of progressive jazz; a bluegrass musician is farther from an old time musician than one might realize; and so on. If you don’t have a good working knowledge and plenty of experience in a particular style, be prepared to refer some students on to other teachers.

Regardless of the instrument and the style of music being taught, teacher and student have a 50-50 responsibility to make lessons work. If a student cannot (that’s different from “will not”) learn using a particular method, it’s the responsibility of the teacher to change the method. No two students learn the same way. By “method” I mean, for instance, with or without music notation, with one or another hand position, with or without picks or fingernails, and also whether the emphasis is on aural, visual or tactile learning. (People are roughly divided into one of three learning strengths: aural, visual, or tactile; and will do best if taught accordingly, and often even better if taught all three.)

Additionally, you can find out, as you get to know each student, what goals mean the most to them. Those who want to become professionals, and have what it takes to do so, will show this by their behavior, attitude, and progress. Those who want to play for themselves in the privacy of their living rooms will thrive on a totally different approach. Some would like to be able to play in an ensemble but not solo, and some just want to hold their own in a jam session. You will encounter all kinds of reasons why people want to play music. All are valid.

If you have very young students, you’ll want to determine whether a child is taking lessons because he or she wants to, or because the parents have decreed it. In the latter case, the student may not be very interested, and you may suggest to the parents that they wait a little longer before requiring lessons, or encourage them to ask the child which instrument he or she really wants to play. However, a child who is eager to learn must not be held back just because he or she is very young. Very young children learn quickly! My youngest student was three years old. Teaching children is a specialty, though, as they require special nurturing and the teacher has to motivate the parents as well as the child.

On the other end of the scale, some adult students may come to you asking, “Am I too old?” I think the best answer is, “Of course not!” My oldest student was 93, and she did well. The ability to learn is usually only limited by attitude and belief. Although the neural pathways of an older adult form more slowly than those of a young person, one is never too old to learn (unless dementia is present).

Rarely, you may encounter “low musical I.Q.”, in which someone is perfectly functional in other areas but doesn’t respond to musical education, and they just can’t get beyond a very elementary level of musicality. Even though such students may not make the teacher feel useful, very often they really enjoy what they do learn, and for that reason, I think they deserve as much effort from the teacher as he or she might give to a more able student. After all, teaching music is about sharing the joy it brings, and who are we to decide that one person gets less joy out of it than another?


Next time… Part 5 on The Teacher Student Relationship