How to find the right piano teacher

Sharon Westbrook on finding the right piano teacher


November 04, 2009
Sharon Westbrook
Sharon Westbrook has taught private piano lessons for 35 years. She feels a teacher must not only be able to teach discipline, but also encourage freedom in the student to explore and make different musical sounds and come to love music.
Photo: Jill Helm

Choosing a piano teacher can be a bit like finding the right lawyer, plumber or hairdresser -- professional experience is important, as well as a good fit.

Sharon Westbrook, a recipient of North Dakota's Piano Teacher of the Year award, shares her thoughts on finding that best fit.

Westbrook has been teaching private piano lessons for 35 years. A nationally certified teacher, her credentials include two Bachelor's Degrees in education and a Master's in Piano Pedagogy.

Her students have won numerous competitions at the district and state level in North Dakota.

But it's most likely not just the success of her students, but her philosophy "to have students like music even after they've stopped playing, which garnered her North Dakota Piano Teacher of the Year in 1994.

Sharon and a successful student
Sharon Westbrook's student Janelle Mueller won the 90 point cup for playing solos and concertos at the National Federation of Music Clubs.
Photo courtesy: Sharon Westbrook

Westbrook now lives in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and is semi-retired, though she still has more than 20 students and teaches in the local schools as well.

I spoke with Sharon after receiving an interesting study from a national piano teacher database that gave tips on how to select the right piano teacher for one's child.

Her answers to my questions are thoughtful, revealing, and sometimes quite funny.

Westbrook pointed out that a private music teacher must not only be able to teach discipline with the lessons, but encourage freedom in the student to explore and make different musical sounds.

Here is a list of what Westbrook feels a parent should consider when searching for the right piano teacher:

1. Does the child want to take lessons?

2. The teacher you choose should be personable and must like people and children. This may seem an understatement, but can prove disastrous if the teacher is not personable!

3. Don't think "anyone can teach beginners." The first teacher most often determines the child's success as a musician in the future. They are the ones who set the foundation of how to practice, teach the fundamentals of reading and technique, and instill a love of music in their students.

4. The teacher should have the same goals as the parents and student. Are they teaching just how to play the piano, or are they teaching musicianship? Is the goal to become a concert pianist or to have a knowledge and love of music? Discuss what performance opportunities are available to the student and which ones are required by the instructor.

5. The teacher must want what is best for the student and not push for contests, gold cups or unrealistic goals, while at the same time still encouraging and motivating the student.

6. The teacher must have open communication with the parents of young children. The parents should supervise practice, or at least be in the room reading a book, sewing, etc.

7. The teacher may have a parent come to lessons or at least be open for them to come for some lessons.

8. The teacher must teach to the individual student -- this is why they are taking private lessons. Teachers have a vast resource of piano methods and they need to use them or be willing to change if the material does not fit the student.

9. Ask the teacher the ages of her students and what she likes to teach. It's important that the student and teacher have a good rapport and working relationship. Request an interview with prospective teachers to get a feel for their personality, teaching methods, goals and studio setup.

10. Ask for the teacher's credentials not just concerning music, e.g. are they active in the community?

11. Ask for the teacher's goals for students. Some good goals are for the student to enjoy music in general, learn the notes and be able to sight-read. Practicing is usually difficult until a routine is established. The teacher and parents need to provide positive reinforcements plus a lot of guidance in the first year.

12. Attend a student recital of the teacher you are contemplating.