Learning a musical instrument is one of the most rewarding and challenging things you could do and getting the most out of your lessons takes a major commitment. Below are some tips and advice on choosing a music teacher and answers to some common questions regarding music lessons.
Choosing a music teacher
Choosing the right music teacher for yourself or your child is not always easy. Music lessons are a unique experience and it is important that the teacher and student are able to work well together to accomplish the desired goals. Music lessons are a personal interaction between music student and music teacher. The demands of music are immense – and often quite personal – so it is important that the student feels comfortable with the teacher. It is also important that the teacher is able to provide the student with the tools necessary to achieve their desired goals.
When going in for that first lesson feel free to ask lots of questions. This is not only for your benefit and to help you get to know the teacher a bit better, it also helps the teacher by allowing them to get a better idea of what you want and what you expect from the lessons. Music lessons are not a one way process but a collaboration, so this step is an important one.
Do I need an instrument?
Yes! An instrument of your own is essential. If you can’t acquire an instrument of your own, you will at least need regular access to one. Believe it or not, very little learning actually takes place during the music lesson. Where progress really occurs is in the practice between lessons, where ideas from previous lessons are allowed to be absorbed and consolidated. Without access to an instrument – and regular practice – the lessons themselves will be of little use.
If you can’t afford an instrument of your own, many music stores and teaching studios hire instruments out, so you may like to research your options, or get advice from your teacher.
New vs Second-hand instruments?
The question of new vs second hand instruments depends largely on the instrument you are wanting to buy. Certain instruments like violins and cellos can benefit greatly from age – provided they have been well looked after. Pianos beyond a certain age fair less well than other simpler acoustic instruments but again, if it is a good quality instrument and has been well looked after, may still be going strong at 50 years or older. Electronic instruments are much harder to judge. They may last five days (in which case you will hope it came with a warranty) or five decades. Again, the best thing to do is to get advice from your teacher.
Questions you may want to ask when considering a second hand instrument are; “Where has it come from?”, “How was it used?”, “Will it do what I need it to do?”, and “How much longer is it likely to last?” or “Is it a good quality instrument?”
When considering a new instrument, the questions you may like to ask are; “How long is it likely to last? i.e. Is it a good quality instrument?”, “Can I afford it?”, and “Will it do what I need it to do?”
How often should I get lessons?
Once a week is standard for most students and many teachers and teaching studios will insist upon weekly lessons. How often you get lessons however will depend on how serious you are about learning, how much you practice, and how much you can afford, both in terms of time and money.
Very serious students aiming to be concert performers may want lessons several times a week. Conscientious students who are less serious but nonetheless practice a lot may manage perfectly well on fortnightly or monthly lessons – though this is often at the expense of the teacher who, after all, relies on regular lessons to earn a living. Students who need a bit of extra motivation may find it difficult to make progress with anything less frequent than weekly lessons.
How much should I expect to pay for music lessons?
While there is no standard rate for music teachers in Australia, $60 per hour is about average. Some teachers may charge more or less depending on their experience, qualifications, and availability. The Music Teachers Association of NSW recommends $76 per hour for its members for private lessons and $105 per hour for group lessons – that rate will of course be divided up depending on how many people are in the group.
How long do music lessons generally last?
The length of an individual lesson is usually between 30 minutes and 1 hour. For younger students the lessons will generally be on the shorter end of the scale while older more serious students may want to extend their lessons beyond an hour.
For how long will I need music lessons before I can play my instrument well?
This depends entirely on how much, and how well, you practice and what you want to accomplish. Obviously it will take longer to reach the level of a professional than that of a competent amateur, and some styles of music do require a higher degree of training than others. Classical and Jazz pianists for example often train for 12-15 years before approaching a professional level, while a singer/song writer accompanying herself on the piano may get by in the pop music industry with only basic keyboard skills (of course a whole range of other skills and talents will be needed to make it in the pop music industry.) If your goal is to play christmas carols during the holidays, or accompany hymns in church, you may reach your goal relatively soon – provided you keep up your practice.
What do I want to accomplish?
This is a very important question and both you and your teacher should be clear on the answer as early on as possible. This is not to say you can’t change you mind, but how you and your teacher approach the lessons may be very different depending on the answer to this question. If you are determined to be a concert artist, many things will need to be mastered that would otherwise be unessential for the casual learner. If you want to perform in a rock band, you may need to develope skills that are less important for the concert artist – like improvisation. Likewise, a casual learner, someone who wants simply to learn for the joy of learning and playing a musical instrument, may enjoy a greater degree of freedom in the structure of their lessons than an aspiring professional performer.
Of course all teachers will have their own ideas of how to accomplish certain goals and this will differ from teacher to teacher. The important thing is that you communicate to your teacher what you want out of the lessons and what you hope to achieve.
What style of music should I learn?
Generally speaking, the style of music you should learn is the style of music you listen to and want to be able to play. Different styles of music will often require a different approach to teaching as they usually require different skills to perform. If you are unsure about what style of music to learn, then a broad approach is usually best and you will be able to get a taste of each style. At some point down the road you may then decide to concentrate on one or more particular styles or continue to pursue then all.
Does learning classical music teach you everything?
There is a common misconception that if you learn classical music only, then you will be able to play in any style. This is not true. It is true that the technical demands of classical music are, on the whole, much higher than in most other styles of music, however, classical musicians today are rarely expected to compose, arrange, or improvise – skills that would be considered essential in other styles of music. An Olympic swimmer, after all, trains in the pool, not in the velodrome.
How much will I need to practice?
The more the better! Practice is essential for any music student and music lessons are unlikely to result in anything worth while unless the student practices regularly. The minimum recommended time for students around 10 years of age and up is 30 minutes a day, 5-6 days a week. Younger students can manage on less due to their natural learning ability. For older students 1 hour a day is generally recommended.
How quickly should I expect to make progress?
This depends almost entirely on how much and how well you practice. It is important to remember that your teacher can’t do your learning for you, but they should be able to direct you to the most effective practice methods. Provided you take the teacher’s advice and keep practicing, most students can expect to progress through the grades at about the rate of one per year (of course you don’t need to actually sit the grade exams, but they can be a useful measure of your progress). What is important, however, is not to give up. If it seems progress is happening too slowly make sure you communicate this to your teacher. Occasionally, unexpected issues can also slow down a student’s progress so it is important your teacher remains informed. It is also often the case that the student is making reasonable progress but just not aware of it. Learning a musical instrument takes time and a healthy amount of patience never goes astray.
Do I have to learn to read music?
Reading music is by no means essential for many kinds of music making. No classical musician or student could get away without learning to read, but there are examples of great musicians who can’t or couldn’t read music. However, the ability to read music is an extremely useful tool and your ability to learn new music – particularly if it is very complicated music – will be greatly enhanced if you can read. Think of how the world of literature is opened up to by knowing how to read words. It’s the same with music.