Mike Lawson • October 2003 • October 1, 2003

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How do you choose a plumber – the Yellow Pages? Ask a friend? How do you choose a doctor? Can you call 1-800-FIND-A-PRIVATE-TEACHER? My father, a professional musician and educator, has said, “Everyone who graduates from medical school is called ‘doctor,’ but there are good ones and not so good ones.” A person can’t choose just any doctor nor just any teacher.

Although we desire and encourage our students to take private lessons, sometimes it is difficult for us to recommend our colleagues, friends and prior students. Many counties and districts have a list that is easy for private instructors to get on. However, for many of us, it may be unprofessional and politically incorrect to make our own select list even if it is extracted from the collaborative list. One solution is to identify assessment tools to increase knowledge for both students and parents as to how to find a good private teacher.

Why Private Lessons?


Parents are quick to answer, “Why should I have my child take private lessons? That’s why they are taking band/orchestra.” Exactly! What most students have on their roster is band, orchestra or choir. It doesn’t read clarinet, percussion, voice or violin. We as directors are concentrating on other musical elements, ensemble skills and concert or festival repertoire for a public performance.

If students show a strong desire and initiative to progress further, parents should consider private lessons. Students may be competitive and want to have a higher seating placement or the guarantee and confidence to make the school’s top ensemble as an important contributing member. Students may have a vision to audition for and place in an all-county or all-state ensemble. Instruments such as flute, clarinet, violin, saxophone and trumpet can be quite competitive and yet some students are content to learn and practice only what is taught in the classroom.

Incidentally, students do have homework every night in a music performance class. Regardless of whether or not they are taking private lessons, students must practice – not just play their instrument, but also to have daily, purposeful practice. Students may be motivated to do this by their classroom teacher and must know exactly what to accomplish, but a private teacher is a great tool to motivate students to practice more efficiently and progress more quickly, thus making the playing easier and more enjoyable. (Also, let’s not forget the educational benefit from the process of learning the instrument and participating in band, which is another topic.)

Possible Alternatives

Because many parents are unable to afford private instructors, some counties have “pull out” programs at the secondary level and provide short private lessons to all students. Other schools have part-time or retired music teachers; a minimal allocation is provided to bring in an expert to teach sectionals or private lessons a few days a week.

Also, directors can invite experts into their programs for master classes. In fact, some professionals with the local orchestra and colleges would be happy to provide a clinic to a group of students. However, if the professional is not sponsored by a local instrument manufacturer, a symphony’s educational program, their university’s recruitment account, or if the professional is not attempting to recruit for his or her own private studio, there would be a cost to the music program and students. However, pooling resources by inviting neighboring school districts to participate could decrease this expense. It would take organizational time and effort from the hosting director, but the opportunity for students to participate in an advanced “group lesson” from a major performer would benefit students’ personal growth and improve sections as well as the entire ensemble.

What Private Teachers Must Provide

Private teachers need to provide students with material that is not found in any method book. First and foremost should be a good model of sound and tone. Private teachers should play for their students on their specific instrument. If a private teacher is a successful woodwind doubler, he or she should play the instrument that the student is playing – not the instrument left in the car from the gig the night before.

Private teachers should initially and often check the basics, such as students’ embouchure, posture, bowing technique, chin placement, percussion grip, etc. Many students do not practice in front of a mirror. Private teachers are a great asset to confirm that students are playing the instrument correctly and producing the proper tone and full sound.

Moreover, teachers who are experts on their instrument should be able to talk about equipment. Students need to know about reeds, about when they need a new bow or mouthpiece, and about the care and maintenance of their instruments. Teachers don’t need to push professional model instruments onto parents or students, but there are immediate equipment changes – with a minimal financial investment – that can change the students’ sound and desire to practice and play more frequently.

In addition, students should require and eventually obtain from their private instructor a sequential procedure for warming up and warming down. Some percussion, voice and string teachers require their students to warm up physically with stretching. Teachers need to explain why these are important. If the teacher emphasizes stretches or longtones for his or her instrument, does the teacher take the time to listen and observe that the student is executing the exercise properly? What message will he or she give a student? Students will realize that longtones, warm-ups and stretching procedures are important for progress if the teacher does them, observes and corrects their form.

A good private teacher must not only check for correct pitch and rhythm but also talk about other musical elements, such as dynamics, phrasing, breathing and articulation. Even elementary school students can learn to use phrases and dynamics playing only whole notes that will add some musical elements and style not found on the page. One of my own private teachers said that what is on the page is a mere skeleton of what needs to be heard. Taking private lessons should provide students with choices to make music beyond what is found on paper.

Private Teachers and Practicing

Another topic that private teachers should talk about is practicing: How to practice and what to practice. They should provide practice techniques so that students can practice more efficiently. Also, sight-reading is a skill that students need to practice. Private teachers should address and have students sight-read either through duets, an easier method book, or a compilation of collected difficult measures, for instance. Obviously, all private teachers will have their own preferences. However, they should have a chronological, sequential curriculum for various age levels and abilities.

Private instructors should vary the repertoire among method books, solo literature, technical and tonal studies. Good private teachers will know what the purpose and musical objective is for each exercise assigned. Teachers may have the students practice the etudes differently than written to address different techniques. For example, the first three etudes in the “40 Rose Studies” for clarinet should be played slowly with demonstrated finger technique and specific dynamic phrasings. Finally, teachers should provide students with names of recordings to listen to.

Obviously, teachers will not be able to cover the above criteria in one lesson or at every lesson. However, private teachers should not take students through one line or one page of a book week by week because then the students are just reading through the book without any comprehension. There are other factors that students should think about to receive the optimum value of private instruction. It is a cumulative process that the teacher, student and parents should be aware of. Students should receive encouragement, confidence and motivation to play from their private instructor at every lesson. If not, I would question whether private lessons are appropriate for the student or if the student should seek lessons elsewhere.

Selecting a Private Teacher

There are many factors for parents to consider when acquiring a private teacher for their children. Some non-musical factors are location – whether to drive to the teacher or have the teacher come to the home – and cost. These factors will depend on the individual family’s preferences and the musical ability and commitment of the child. Families will have to determine how much time, energy and money they want to invest in this process and assess how valuable private instruction is to the child. I am sure I would have different perspectives for choosing a plumber to fix a leaky faucet, to stop a flood or to remodel a bathroom. The following are only a few ideas of what families can do in selecting a private teacher for their children.

Observe the teacher in action. I have suggested that students who might major in music at college request to observe a lesson from their prospective teacher. The first few lessons for any student are different from the normal routine of instruction. If both the parent and the child can sit in as a teacher instructs another student, they will witness the true dynamic and routine of the lesson. They will observe the comfort and ability of the person playing. They may witness either praise or criticism of a certain degree, depending on how the lesson is prepared. This observation will give a good idea of the teacher’s routine assignments and focus for the lesson.

Often the teacher is willing to talk afterward about the session to justify the lesson and describe the maturity of the student taking the lesson. However, many educators and guidance counselors suggest taking a few lessons with someone before evaluating him or her. I disagree. During a lesson, a student may lose the true dynamic of the teacher because it is difficult to absorb the qualities of a private lesson while concentrating on what the teacher is saying and attempting to demonstrate and play well during the initial lessons. A private teacher’s duties are difficult ones. He or she needs to inform students what they are doing wrong and find solutions to make them better players. It is easier to observe the rapport and interaction of a private teacher as a third party.

Consider the options. Some parents may select college students to provide lessons. Usually college students are less expensive, travel to the home (because they don’t have their own studio), and have an easier rapport with the student because they are close in age. College students are taking lessons from college professors and expert professionals in the area. They are also playing with college-level performers and have a good model of how music should sound. However, college-level students may not have the pedagogical experience or knowledge of how to teach. Parents need to monitor their students’ progress and make requests and suggestions based on what private teachers need to provide. If the parents have the time to observe and monitor the lessons occasionally, then this may be commensurate for both the parents’ financial pocket and the college-level students’ experience.

Recognize a teacher’s product. Find a student who made all-county, all-state or any honor groups in the area. Who made the top chairs at school? With whom are they studying? I often advise students at my school to find another student whose sound they like. Ask the name of his or her teacher. If a teacher has a consistent studio of students who are making the honor-level groups, most likely he or she is doing something right.

Moreover, parents and students should not be afraid to change private teachers, even though it may take a few lessons to conclude whether a teacher is making a positive difference. If the student is not practicing or progressing after a month of weekly lessons, I would attempt to find another teacher.

Teachers should also realize when to give their students to someone else. If a student is progressing to an advanced level, teachers should provide the option of continuing with the student or taking supplemental lessons with someone more advanced. The goal of good private teachers should be to get the students to play just as well as, if not better, than they. This accomplishment comes only through practice. If a student is not practicing, then the private teacher is not doing his or her job, and it is time to call 1-800-FIND-ANOTHER-PRIVATE-TEACHER.

Christopher Kosmaceski is in his third year as associate music director at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. In addition to directing and choreographing the musicals at Walt Whitman High, he teaches ninth grade concert band, ninth grade string orchestra, symphonic band, symphonic orchestra and concert choir.


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