The Music Teacher, A Guru For Your Child

​Years ago in The New York Times, I read about a study which had been conducted by a group of social scientists who examined 100 top people in their fields, from sports giants to musicians, scientists to writers. The research team tried to find if there was a common thread which tied these people together. Were there experiences with teachers or training, background or personality traits which led them to greatness? In the final analysis, the study was able to discover only one common factor: the first teacher had given each of these stars an abiding love of his or her field. Most parents, when they decide to give their child music lessons, do not expect that he will become the next Wynton Marsalis or the next YoYo Ma.

​They usually hope that the child will find enough enjoyment to persevere to the point where he or she will enjoy playing into adulthood. For many parents, it is the, "I wish that my parents had forced me to practice so that I could play now," or "I wish that I had had the opportunity to take lessons when I was a child," lament, which propels their children into the music teacher's studio. Some even add in honesty, "I hope that they like it more than I did." So the question becomes: how can I succeed where my parents failed?

The answer is simple: find the right teacher! How? Now, that is the difficult part! My conductor husband, Stephen Simon, helped to choose the instruments for six sons. Ranging from clarinet to percussion, piano to trumpet, in almost every case the choice of instrument was dictated by the existence of an excellent teacher whom the maestro thought would interact well with each child. A child who needed his teeth pushed in, not out, changed from the clarinet to a brass instrument; but, a great symphonic tuba player determined that the instrument would be tuba, not trumpet or French horn. A child who needed a bit of work on small motor coordination was sent off to play percussion with a teacher who had his own children. The teacher of a son who was rather timid socially was a professional clarinetist who also had a M.A. in psychology. And the son who tormented a humorless Suzuki teacher was sent to an extremely strict trumpet teacher who had a terrific sense of humor. The discovery of a wonderful teacher whom a given child would enjoy working with often dictates when lessons begin and what the instrument would be. There are no professional musicians yet in this generation of our family, but all still play and continue to attend concerts, and all remember their early teachers with great fondness. 

LESSON NUMBER ONE: THE TEACHER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE INSTRUMENT.

A private music lesson for a child can cost anywhere from $20 to $50 and up for an hour. You pay $95 for 45 minutes of occupational therapy, about $125 for a child psychologist, $200+ for a psychiatrist, $100 for a look in the throat at the pediatrician's, $75 to $150 an hour for your decorator, and $250+ an hour for your attorney. Private school costs about $140 a day, day in and day out. My point is, if you are going to bother, then cost cannot be a primary factor in your decision. A great music teacher will be worth the investment.

A great teacher does not just teach music; he or she teaches self control, discipline, aesthetic sensibility, perfection, how to interact with others, and what to say to the kid who knocked you down in the playground. For years, I spent an hour every week with one of America's finest teachers. In the overflowing studio of Dr. Dennis Edelbrock, trumpet teacher extraordinaire and founder of the International Trumpet Competition, my nine-year old and I went for "our" trumpet lesson. (I was the "coach" who practices with him, counting, correcting, prodding, applauding and encouraging him to try it again.) When a minor scale in four flats, played in thirds in sequences (which often left my head spinning) was performed without a flaw, my son leaned over to me and gives the "high five" and says, "Yesss!" The trumpet is right, the experience is right, the teacher is right. Years later, he claimed that the trumpet taught him how to work.

The student tells his teacher about something mean that was said in school and gets solid, old-fashioned advice. He asks why his teacher is demanding so much of him. He is challenged into having a better lesson next week, or congratulated on doing so well this week. The exercise and study books are like journals, recounting the trials and tribulations of a great journey. A master teacher is a special adult with whom your child has a special relationship. In a world so largely devoid of rites of passage for young people, each week we must earn the right to come back. We all dream of placing a Mr. Chips in our children's lives. I would suggest that with a lot of looking and some luck you may be able to find it in a music teacher. We pay for the services of great attorneys, great architects, great chefs, great doctors. If one is comparing great teachers with greats in these fields, no teaching is expensive. Great teachers, however, are more expensive than lesser ones. 

LESSON NUMBER TWO: IF YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE THE INVESTMENT, UNDERSTAND THAT YOU USUALLY GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.

Every parent wishes for the teacher who comes to the house. Remember when doctors made house calls? I do, but that was a long time ago. Some teachers still do, but it is rare. The teachers who are active professionals at night have a very limited amount of time to give lessons to school-age children. If the performance of the opera begins at 7p.m. and school lets out at 3p.m., a teacher may have time for three lessons in a day if they take place in the studio. Occasionally a teacher will travel, but you may have to pay for their driving time. After all, he or she could be teaching another child during the drive time. Apart from financial and temporal considerations, I think that the trip to the teacher's studio is important. The studio itself is an interesting place for a child. Here, he sees what the life of a professional musician is like. 

"The studio itself is an interesting place for a child. Here, he sees what the life of a professional musician is like." 

From the collection of instruments, which the teacher usually owns, to photographs of the teacher in newspapers, to the Groves Encyclopedia of Music (20 volumes just on music!) to the Mac computer, all of these are interesting aspects of a musical life which a child can become a part of. The visits also frame a week of practicing, and are a preparation for performing in the future, for the very lesson in the studio is a performance. 

LESSON NUMBER THREE: A TEACHER WHO COMES TO YOUR HOME SHOULD NOT BE THE CRITERION FOR CHOOSING A MUSIC TEACHER.

So, if cost and convenience are not the overriding factors, what are? I asked the two exceptional teachers who taught my own children every week. One said, "Patience and a sense of humor." The other said, "You have to love kids more than you love the music." I would add, "You have to find a teacher who really, I mean REALLLLLLLLY, plays."

Meet two great teachers:
 

  • Dr. Dennis Edelbrock told me that he played in his family band while still in Junior High School. What I did not immediately realize was the he was a member of the musicians' union in the seventh grade, that the band played professionally, and that his mother played piano for popular groups when they were touring the area....groups such as The Supremes! He is co-principal trumpet for the Army Band Woodwind Quintet, principal trumpet for the Washington Chamber Symphony, plays the herald trumpet at the White House and Arlington Cemetery, and is a member of the Classical Brass, a quintet which rivals Canadian Brass. At every recital of his students, Dr. Edelbrock himself plays. The message is clear: you practice, I practice, it all shows. In music, the maxim can never be, those who can't do, teach. Not all great players make great teachers, but all great teachers must play well. 

  • Burnett Thompson, the classically trained pianist who's now a professional jazz pianist is another musician who can play everything. I asked Burnett if he would give our nine-year old trumpet player a mini piano lesson, because I thought it might be a good match. He turned to Basil and questioned, "What do you want to play?" A very startled Basil faltered. "Hail to the Redskins." Without a second's hesitation, Burnett slid onto the piano bench, thumped out a rousing, full-scale rendition of "Hail to the Redskins", then turned to Basil and said, "Begin here, with your right hand." Within five minutes he had Basil playing the melody and a simple left hand accompaniment. No sheet music. No fuss. Just music, and music that he could play for his family, his friends, himself. Burnett had taught him the first and, perhaps, most important lesson in music: playing can be fun.

If you play well, playing an instrument is fun. This does not mean that it is not a tremendous amount of work. But the right teacher tempers the hard work with fun and success. If playing is not easy for the teacher, and if the teacher is tied to the book, then music is not fun. Every good teacher requires a music notebook in which he can write his own exercises and tunes for a child. A good teacher realizes that it is important for a child to learn how to read a figured bass on the piano so that he or she can play popular tunes for friends, or play "When the Saints Come Marching In" on the trumpet or saxophone. These are simply very skilled and facile practitioners of their respective arts. 

LESSON NUMBER FOUR: FIND A TEACHER WHO REALLY PLAYS PROFESSIONALLY.

Finally, most good teachers do have a philosophy about music study. When we went to Burnett Thompson looking for a teacher for our then five-year old, he not only wanted to talk with us as parents before lessons commenced, but he also sent us two typewritten pages on his philosophy of teaching: Parental presence is required at all lessons. You are expected to practice with your child on a daily basis. Age five is the perfect time to begin, but you should not expect that your child will learn to read music this year. During this first year he/she will explore the keyboard, learn to play about a dozen songs which he/she already can sing, and enjoy playing the piano. Some might question whether we needed one of Washington's finest jazz pianists to teach my five-year old, but there was no doubt in my mind that Burnett's relationship with the piano was one that I wanted passed on to my child.

This is how it began. At the first lesson, Burnett helped Sebastian find C's all over the keyboard, and they played "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." They sang "Old MacDonald had a Farm", and the pigs said, "Moo." Sebastian was learning that life with Burnett was serious, but also had a pretty silly side. Finally, Burnett said, "Next week do you think that it will be time for you to climb inside the piano?" I blanched, thinking Burnett could not be serious. The following week, to Sebastian's delight and my horror, Burnett removed the music rack and lifted Sebastian into the Steinway grand. Poised on the pins, the two of them began to explore the inside of the piano with a credit card and a soft-headed mallet from a nearby Indian drum. With the pedal down and the dampers up they strummed tunes, shouted, "Batman," listened to sympathetic vibrations, and tried to play scales. In short, they began to make this enormous instrument their own. The piano had become a magnificent mechanical toy, which was going to be Sebastian's own. 

LESSON NUMBER FIVE: FIND A TEACHER WHO IS INVENTIVE AND CREATIVE.

Great teachers of kids must love kids more than they love music. They must be comfortable with children and understand that a child's attention span is limited. They must have patience and an endless sense of humor. A great teacher understands that the lesson is not just about teaching music, but that he or she is also the child's guru. The great teacher is a model adult, and one of the very few with whom the child has a one-on-one relationship on a weekly basis. 

LESSON NUMBER SIX: BE CERTAIN THAT YOUR TEACHER LIKES YOUR CHILD AND VICE VERSA.

Shopping for a music teacher is like finding a psychiatrist or occupational therapist or a school for your child. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

  • Request resumes, ask with whom they have studied.

  • Ask where you can hear them perform and if you may come to a recital of their students. Trust your own judgment.

  • Do their students look happy and satisfied?

  • Are you satisfied with the quality of their performance?

  • Ask if you may talk with parents of some of their students.

  • Do a large number of their students continue playing through high school or college?

  • Ask if they would agree to a month's trial period during which you, your child and the teacher can evaluate whether this is going to be a successful relationship.


Resist basing your decision on convenience and cost. Finally, find someone who inspires YOU....after all, you will be the one who also sits through the lessons, monitors the practicing, drives to the lesson, and encourages perseverance at those times when you are both tired. Try to find the teacher who would have you still playing today!

Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,

President of Maestro Classics

Maestro Classics, classical music for kids

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