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Beverly: 603-941-4947

Shana: 603-539-1967

How To Find A Music Teacher And Take Lessons


Having taught thousands of music lessons and master classes to hundreds of students over the past 25 years, I'd like to offer some ideas both on finding the right music teacher and how to get the most out of taking lessons with that teacher. I hope to offer perspective not only as a teacher but also as a student. In my own continual, never ending learning process, I have taken occasional classes or one on one lessons from master players, and learned greatly from this, both as a player and as a teacher.

All too often, a person just calls up the nearest local music teacher, schedules a lesson in an empty slot, shows up with instrument and check in hand, hoping to be magically transformed into a great player. Sometimes one miraculously stumbles into the right situation, but all too often, students are mismatched with a teacher who doesn’t play the style that the student wishes to learn, or are simply paired with an instructor whose teaching methods don’t work with that students’ learning style. Find out what kinds of music the prospective teacher plays, if you want to play bluegrass, and they only play rock and roll, or vice versa, neither person is going to have much fun in this scenario. If you want to learn to play by ear, and they only teach from written notation, you’re not going to develop all the skills you desire. I think a good teacher can give you what you want while at the same time giving you the things that they know from experience that you might need.

There are as many teaching styles as teachers, but I believe you can narrow it down to a few basic approaches. One, the master player who has created their own inimitable style, and is able to demonstrate to you how to play what they play, using only their pieces and/or arrangements as examples; and two, the master teacher who is looking at who you are as a player and seeing what might be the necessary next step for you to realize your own musical vision. One of these teaching styles is not better than the other, either one can be a good experience depending on your particular needs at the time. If you are particularly interested in emulating the first type teachers' style, and there can be good reasons for wanting to do this, by all means go with them. If you are looking for where to go next in your own musical expression, try to find the second type of teacher.

In the same way that we know (and trust) that a good psychologist, doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic or any other professional can evaluate a client, patient or car in the first few minutes as to what the problem might be, and quickly come up with a treatment plan, often in one visit, a good teacher can similarly evaluate where the student is`with a few questions and seeing/hearing the student play a few examples. With that information, it is possible to quickly come up with an on the spot lesson plan to focus on that students' needs.

When I've taken lessons from other teachers, I've spent some time before hand thinking about what I was hoping to achieve and would prepare myself for a master class style lesson by thinking of a few questions or topics that I was interested in focusing on. I’ve always found this approach helps me get a better lesson. Of course, in the hands of a master teacher, I have had the wonderful experience of asking a question, and they didn't answer it, but instead masterfully answered some other question that I didn't even know that I should have asked.

I had a klezmer violin lesson last year that beautifully illustrated this point to me. I went wanting to learn what the right ornaments were and how to do them properly, so as to sound more authentic in my klezmer fiddling style. Instead, the teacher told us that one should be able to play a klezmer tune without a single ornament, and still be able to make it sound "Jewish". In interest of giving us what we wanted, he also taught us the ornaments. I went home and started working on playing the tunes in my repertoire with no ornamentation, instead focusing on my phrasing and bowing, and, sure enough, the teacher was correct. My playing made leaps and bounds, and I sounded better than ever within just a couple of weeks. Of course, subsequently I also spent considerable time working on those ornaments. Incidently, I have applied this same concept to other musical styles and instruments with great results.

Ultimately, the relationship we enter into with a teacher is a reciprocal one. The more a student can communicate to the teacher their goals and aspirations, the better the teacher can help the student attain them. One cannot expect to simply show up to a music lesson, write a check, and miraculously learn. Most music teachers aren’t mind readers, no matter how gifted a teacher they might be. Take a proactive approach, ask questions, practice, and take responsibility for the directions your teacher takes you. If you don’t feel well matched with the teacher you have found, let them know. Perhaps with more information they can better fill your needs. If they don’t feel they can meet your needs, perhaps they can recommend someone more suited to your musical aspirations and/or learning style. Ideally, the right student/teacher relationship can last for many years, and will be a wonderful and joyful experience for both participants as the teacher patiently and expertly guides the student towards their own unfolding musical vision.

My goal for all of my students is to provide them with the same skills and knowledge that forms the foundation of my musical expression. If I do my job well, and the student works hard to learn and practice the materials, each of my students could excel way beyond my own abilities and expectations. It gives me great joy as a teacher to watch the process of someone realizing their artistic vision, and I greatly anticipate hearing the wonderful music my students create for many years to come.

© 2002 Seth Austen