[Yamaha International purchased 11,000 reprints of this piece, saying it was "the finest statement of philosophy of music education we've ever seen." I like to think it wasn't just because I praised the Yamaha Music Schools.]
Finding a piano teacher is easy. Finding the right one is trickier. People get names by asking friends, looking at grocery store bulletin boards, calling up college music departmentsUCLA sends out a list on request. But most people don't so much choose a teacher as arrive at one by default.
The right teacher will be personally compatible with you or your child, affordable and capable of teaching you what you actually need to know. Bear in mind that the teacher will be an important person in youror your child'slife. As Hollywood teacher Jacqueline Sharlin points out, "The piano teacher is usually the one teacher with whom they have a one-to-one relation." Also, for the two or three years that most people study, you will probably lay out a couple of thousand dollars for lessons; so it's worth taking the time to find a good teacher.
Most of this article applies to all music training, whatever the instrument. The particulars deal with the piano because it is most people's choice for basic music training.
You should listen to any prospective teacher give a lesson or two, and you should hear a number of his or her students play; a student recital is ideal. Listen to the students' playing with the following ideas in mind: Do they play naturally? Could you dance to the playing? Does the playing convey feeling?
A given student may be good or bad, but you can judge the teacher by what the students seem to have in common. There is such a thing as talent, but anyone can play competently and musically, if taught properly and by the right person. It's like learning a language: There is a range of talent linguistically, but everyone learns his or her own tongue.
Most music students, however, do not understand the "language"they don't really know what they are doing or why. Ask your prospective teacher to give you an overview of the first few months of study. If he or she cannot do this in a way that you can understand, what are the chances that you will understand the lessons themselves?
What are lessons about? First, they are about the language of music, which is a language of sound. Music lessons without reference to the sense of hearing are like cooking lessons without reference to the sense of taste. This is not so obvious as one would hope. In preparing this article, I interviewed more than 70 teachers in Southern California. I asked them all a question that you should ask a prospective teacher: "What is your approach to music training and piano training?" Almost half of the teachers made absolutely no mention of the ear, or of listening or of anything relating to the sense of hearing. I would then ask, "What is your view of the role, if any, of the ear in music and piano training?" I expected the answer that the ear was so important that the teacher had just taken it for granted. But a number of teachers claimed that the ear doesn't have anything to do with music training! If you get this answer, keep looking.
In case the phrase "ear training" makes you think of someone learning how to wiggle them, I should explain what it means. Suppose that you and I are listening to someone talking. To show me that you have heard what is being said, you could repeat it to me or you could write it down. The same holds in music. You can show that your ear is functioning by singing a tune you hear, by writing it down or by playing it. These are just skills, and anyone can acquire them. Ear training traditionally involves all the possible couplings of hearing, singing, writing, playing and reading. Listening to a melody and writing it down is called "taking melodic dictation." Hearing a tune and playing it is "playing by ear." Singing a written-down tune is "sight-singing"; playing it is "sight-reading."
Traditional ear training is like learning to understand the words that someone is saying in ordinary language. But there is another kind of ear sensitivity that lets us hear the feelings behind the words. We take for granted our ability to read such subtleties into speech we hear, and to convey them in our own speaking. By developing a parallel sensitivity, the music student learns to register and project the emotions of music.
And then there's the most difficult kind of ear training: the ability to hear yourself objectively as you play. This is the meeting ground of music training and psychoanalysis.
Well-known teacher Robert Turner says, "The most important thing for anyone in music is to have a good ear." Mr. Turner starts every beginner playing by ear, to establish music as an aural experience. Another teacher, Sheldon Steinberg, calls a good ear "the absolute indispensable," going on to say that he has students do "a great deal of singing," and that he's "suspicious of anyone who doesn't want to sing. Sometimes there isn't time for it in the lesson, but I make them go home and do it, and I check up on them."
Concert artist and teacher Edward Auer sums it up well by saying, "All of this training and drilling and ‘do this' and ‘don't do that' is very fine, but the real teacher of a student is his ear, so a main function of the teacher, in my opinion, is to develop the student's ear so that it becomes gradually more exacting."
You can cut the cost of your musical education by getting the ear training, sight-singing, etc. in a class instead of private lessons. Christine Plumb, who teaches piano teachers in Ventura, says, "The problem is we don't have time to do all we should do [in private lessons]. There are many teachersand perhaps this is idealwho give an individual lesson and a class lesson every week." Jacqueline Sharlin goes further: "So many kids should not be taking instrumental lessons. They should be takingI don't want to say ‘music appreciation' lessons, because most music appreciation courses are so terriblebut something that would give them something they would carry away with them after the two or three years of lessons." Such classes do exist. Some private teachers offer them, and so do the following schools . . . . [1997: Details omitted as out of date; list included CalState Univ./Northridge Music for Youth Program, Immaculate Heart and Occidental College Preparatory Programs, UCLA Extension, USC Community Schools Program, and Yamaha Music Schools.]
You do want to be able to play the piano, not just sit there in front of it with your ear functioning like mad. Which brings us to a field plagued by misleading and downright incorrect ideas, the field of piano technique.
If this phrase conjures up anything for you, it is probably scales and exercises and yellow music books that say Hanon or Czerny on the front. And boredom. That's what is commonly known as "piano technique," and that's what I heard about from at least half of the teachers I interviewed. But Bruce Sutherland of Santa Monica is one teacher who makes a valuable distinction: "Technique isn't so much the what as the how."
Piano techniqueany instrument's techniqueis the means of getting the sounds you want from the instrument. (Of course you must know what you want before you can know if you've got it, which is why ear training and ear imagination are at the foundation of technique itself.)
We learn many things by example and metaphor. I learned to shoot a basketball jump shot by watching others do it and by listening to advice like, "Hang in the air just before you shoot." Now, you don't hang in the air for more than an instant without defying the law of gravity; but it feels as though you're hanging in the air, so this is a useful metaphor.
It's hard to learn piano playing by example, though, because it is an involved activity and your attention may be directed to the wrong place. You may be watching your teacher's hands when you should be observing his or her shoulders. And most teachers don't describe what they are doing in scientific terms. Instead, excessive reliance is placed on metaphor. One teacher may say, "Dig into the keyboard." Another may say, "Draw the sound out of the keys, don't point it into them" I myself have always liked saying, "Make it sound like molasses."
What do these things mean? Inherently, nothing at all; but for a particular student, they may work. And the wonderful thing about teaching by image and metaphor is that when it does work, it's fast.
When you sit in on a couple of lessons, be certain that your prospective teacher's metaphors and images make sense to you. Notice, too, what happens when the metaphors don't work. Does the teacher become exhortative and impatient? Does he or she mistake the metaphors for the actual physical reality? If so, find yourself another teacher. But if the imagery is congenial to you, and if the teacher has some awareness of physiological reality when needed, then you've found a possible teacher for you.
Pianist and teacher Jo Ann Smith says, "Too many parents feel that the best teacher is the one who lives the closest and charges the least." Now that you have some idea how to find a good teacher for yourself, we should talk about how much you will find yourself paying.
Fees charged by the teachers I interviewed ranged from $10 per one-hour lesson to $100. The average was $21. [1997: Figures in this section are those from 1977; I haven't conducted the survey again. However, it's all too clear that lessons have not kept pace with inflation. They never do. In 1961, I paid Gregory Tucker $25 for my lessons at the Longy School, and that was a much reduced rate then. Allowing for inflation turns that into something like $175 now; and the most I've heard of anyone's charging is about $110. Even more relevant to most people, the low end of the range has hardly moved.]
Many teachers give shorter lessons to young beginners; and most of these charge at a lower rate for these lessons. Teachers who accept beginners average $20 per hour, but those who offer half-hour lessons at all charge an average of $8.50 for them, not $10.
Teachers who do not accept beginners average $23 per hour, with quite a number charging $25 and several at $30, $35, $40 and $50 per hour. This is a lot of money, but we're talking about people with a lot of training.
The last question I asked of each teacher was, "What other teachers in Southern California do you consider outstanding?" Below is an unexpurgated list of the teachers whose names came up more than once. [1997: List of 25 teachers is omitted as out of date. See below, "What I Learned From Publishing This Article."]
Among people who teach, there is a tremendous variety of professional involvement with music. The teachers featured below have been chosen to illustrate that variety. [1997: Descriptions omitted as out of date; the list included the late Aube Tzerko, Richard Grayson, Edward Auer, Leonid Hambro, Robert Turner, Terry Trotter, Doris Koppelman, and Joanna Hodges.]