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How to Find a Good Teacher? (A Lesson from Aikido…) September 25, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Music, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , ,

About a month ago, my Twitter friend @mwforhr and I were talking about piano teaching. Since I’m a piano teacher and she has a  daughter in music lessons, she asked me what questions she should ask a new piano teacher to find out if they were ideal.

I’m rather embarrassed to realize I never answered…mainly because any question I could think of didn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. And people lacking competency in a given field nonetheless often have an amazing ability to BS their way through such questions (as pretty well any university student knows! :D) Level of education, performing experience, “method”, number of years teaching…none of it seemed to pin down what makes a “good teacher”.

But yesterday ago I had an interesting experience along these lines. Not as a teacher, but as a student – of Aikido. I’m a total beginner, never having studied any martial art or even gymnastics. I’m not even naturally “good” at tasks involving kinesthetic awareness and coordination…which is precisely why I’m taking Aikido. (Well, that, and it’s a great workout – and very satisfying when I “get it”!)

Yesterday was my first class. The local aikido club works on more or less a drop-in basis, and that day I was the only beginner. The others were running through a rather complex series of techniques they needed for a test of some sort. I could see, as I watched the sensei, that each move consisted of a number of steps, and I was sure if I could rehearse each step in isolation I could learn the entire technique. But even at “slow motion” speed the demonstration blurred together too quickly for me to grasp any part of it securely. Should I step forward with my left foot first, or my right, grasp or deflect the attacker’s arm, push or pull them to the mat…it was all very confusing.* The sensei was very patient – but, obviously, he couldn’t be everywhere at once and he had other students to correct.

For one exercise I found myself paired off with another woman – I’ll call her Alex. Alex had been there for several months, and obviously had a rather intuitive grasp of aikido. As I tried both the attacking and defending roles, she delivered various corrections in an increasingly exasperated tone. Finally, she burst out with: “Stop thinking about it! Just let your body feel it and do what’s natural!”

I stopped and looked at Alex. “I’m an analytical person,” I told her, trying not to lose my own cool. This is how I learn. If I can break it down, I can get it. I’m trying to break it down.”

Alex seemed taken aback. “Oh,” she said and blinked. Her expression implied she had not even considered this as a means of learning, that what she was doing had come to her naturally – so intuitively she’d never had to analyze it, even to herself. Over the next few minutes, she tried for my sake…but obviously it was a foreign way of thinking to her.

For a later exercise, I was paired with a different student who we’ll call Terri – friendly, warm and above all, patient. As soon as she saw I was having trouble grasping the technique in question, she started reducing it to individual motions (I didn’t even need to ask). After a few minutes of drill I managed to run the basic version successfully – and it felt wonderful. 🙂

As I walked home I realized: this is what makes a good teacher. The ability to break something complex down into steps that anyone – even a rather klutzy beginner like me – can grasp.

Want to find a good music teacher? First of all, ask for a sample lesson (most teachers will do this at no charge – if they charge, it’s probably a bad sign already.) Don’t take them your most polished piece. Instead, bring in a piece that you have trouble with.

Better yet, make it a piece that reflects your weakest point. Have trouble grasping syncopated rhythms? Bring in a ragtime arrangement. Fast scales? Take a Mozart sonatina marked Presto. If this makes you feel embarrassed, remember, you’re not auditioning for them – you’re auditioning them as a teacher.

Then go to them and ask one very simple question:

“Tell me why this isn’t working.”

They’ll have you play the piece in question and, if they’re a good teacher, right away they’ll start getting you to play some simpler form of it. If it’s fast scales, they might make you play it at half the speed, focusing on your hand position. If rhythms, they’ll make you slowly analyze how a single measure works, then expand that to a line, then (maybe) a page…and when the lesson is over, the problem may not be “solved” in its entirety, but you’ll have made significant progress.

Now, if they’re a bad teacher, one of two things will happen:

(1) They’ll offer some vague, handwaving answer. (My own favourite was a teacher who told me, “You just have to move your hands faster!”) Whatever it is, it’ll make you frustrated and confused without helping you get any better. Bad sign – get out while you can!


(2) They’ll go, “Well, just play it like this…” and sit down and demonstrate. This means they teach mainly by demonstration, and either they don’t really understand what they’re doing, or they understand but can’t transmit that knowledge to you in any other way than by doing it. Which isn’t very helpful either.

The thing is, a good teacher will stand back and let you pick up things intuitively when that works for you. If, say, you find arpeggio technique easy, they won’t give you months of arpeggio etudes. But when the day comes that you run into a brick wall – and even the most “gifted” students WILL have these moments – they’ll be there to patiently help you through it. One brick at a time. 😀

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* It didn’t help that the sensei insisted that we continually switch sides when running each drill — apparently this is standard aikido practice. It’s meant to ensure that you learn how to do both mirror-image versions of the technique, but it had only the effect of scrambling my brain just when I’d _almost_ gotten it…



1. MWforhr - September 25, 2011

What an insightful response! Thank you so much! May I call you CP here? Funny thing is my daughter takes Kung Fu and I see her going through all these series of forms that make me dizzy to watch, but I’m amazed that she’s been able to retain all these moves, eating up the challenge of doing it the best she can.

When my daughter (I’ll call her J) was asking to take lessons again, I wasn’t sure what kind of teacher would keep her interested. She had 2 previous music teachers. One was very methodical, and well, frankly, strict. She even tapped her fingers with her little wand. J excelled, but quickly got bored. She was introduced to another teacher, who was more fluid and organic, let her pick the music she wanted to learn and taught her based on that interest. She enjoyed it, but she was interested in so much, she switched interest in instruments and dabbled instead of taking any one on seriously. I was concerned that she wasn’t applying herself. She just wasn’t that into it even though the pieces she did learn she learned very quickly. There were other fish to fry. I wondered if there was something out there that she would take on with more gusto. I didn’t want to force a skill upon her when her calling might be something else.

We have a baby grand in the house. My husband has always played. J left the piano alone for a while. She discovered Kung Fu and ate it up! The harder it was, the more she loved it. She’s only been at it less than a year now, but she’s made it part of her identity. I’ve learned that she needs that challenge to rise up to it.

Now she’s been sitting at the piano again, playing old pieces, and coming up with new ones. She’s actually asked if she could take lessons again. So I set up an appointment with a teacher. She interviewed her. It did feel like an audition, teacher auditioning student. J looked at the book, heard that she would be going through this book page by page, and that was it. She never looked back. She asked about her old teacher after that… the one that let her play what she wanted to.

Perhaps that route is the one to take, but that teacher is booked for now. So the search is still on. Part of me wonders if it’s just a matter of finding the right teacher that will find that combination of challenging her while keeping it fun, or if this is just a passe interest of hers, and let her focus on kung fu instead. I don’t see why she can’t do both, but I don’t want to take the interest away from her again by putting her in the wrong situation. Any advice is always welcome. If you have any thoughts on this, please share. Thanks so much, dear friend. ~M

contrapuntalplatypus - September 25, 2011

Wow! It sounds like your daughter has the opposite problem (not really a problem at all!) to most piano students: she needs challenge and a teacher who will let her work ahead quickly, while still giving her the musical/technical training she needs to cope with the repertoire she wants to try.

A few questions before I can make any specific recommendations…
(1) Is she in beginner books (you know, the ones with big notes and pretty pictures :D) or playing “real music” (Beethoven, Bach, Chopin…) (Here in Canada we have the graded Royal Conservatory system for intermediate to advanced music, but that’s not universal.)
(2) Is there anything that she finds genuinely challenging – an obstacle where her teachers have said, “You can’t work ahead until you master this?” Or is it just a matter of her teachers wanting her to move more slowly than she’s like to? When she has tried to move ahead to more interesting pieces, can she handle their challenges, or does she get frustrated and switch to something else?
(3) When you say the first teacher was strict and methodical, strict in what way exactly? Did she impose her own musical tastes on your daughter (“I want you to learn *this* Bach piece whether you like it or not! No, you can’t play jazz in *my* studio!”) or strict about things like playing the notes and rhythms properly (this is a reasonable sort of “strictness” in my view… ;))
(4) It sounds like your daughter is a pretty outgoing, energetic person. Was part of the problem with previous teachers the fact they tried to repress this energy (making her sit still, play quietly, not letting her ask questions or explore new areas of interest)? (This is just a guess so it could be entirely wrong.)
(5) Are there any pieces (“Fur Elise” was one for me) that she’s passionate about someday learning? This can be a HUGE motivator for kids. (Frankly it’s what kept me going through years of frustration.)

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