How to Find a Good Piano Teacher: Getting Started

Establish Your Goals and Create a List of Candidates

How to find a good piano teacher
Photo by Frank Schramm.
The question I receive most often from readers of GRAND PIANO PASSION™ is whether I might be able to recommend a good piano teacher. Whether you are a fledgling beginner or a seasoned amateur (or a parent helping your teen), finding the right teacher is crucial. So I’ve developed a complete guide on how to find a good piano teacher, spiced with my experiences from my recent search. In this first of three articles, I advise on how to get started by creating a short list of potential teachers.

Articulate your goals.

It’s that old goal-setting exercise again, which can be particularly repetitive around the New Year, yet taking even 15 minutes to articulate what you would like to accomplish with your new teacher is important. What do you want to achieve in this next phase of your piano study? What kind of music do you want to learn? Is practicing the piano a relaxing endeavor or a heartfelt mission? How much do you want to perform, if at all?

Jot down answers to these questions. In my case, I wanted to seriously pursue the next level of my pianism, continue to center my study on classical piano music, increase both technique and repertoire, and continue to perform in amateur concerts. Allegra Jordan, an international expert in innovation who takes adult piano lessons, had very different goals. For Allegra, the piano is a way of relaxing with family and friends, and she sought to transpose her favorite songs into manageable keys, for singing or playing at a party. Goals are personal, suited to the student’s temperament, time, and place.

Establish your teacher’s desired characteristics.

Once you have outlined your goals, it’s a simple hop, step, and jump to articulate the characteristics of your dream teacher. Each of your goals implies a certain kind of teacher. In my case, my previous teacher was brilliant but also young, just graduated from conservatory when I began my study with him. I felt that the type of teacher who could help me take my pianism to the next level would be the opposite, a pedagogue with years of experience.

Because I wanted to center my study on classical piano music, I wanted a teacher trained at a top conservatory. My goal of increasing technique and repertoire implied a teacher with clear expectations for practice. I also wanted a locally based teacher, because I knew that the time spent commuting into New York City for my lesson could be better used to practice the piano. Finally, my interest in performing suggested I would benefit from a teacher who still actively performed and who could help me access performance opportunities.

In Allegra Jordan’s case, in contrast, she viewed the piano as a good way to knit herself together given the demands of her career as an innovation expert, the responsibility of raising two boys as a single mother, and her interest in creative writing (she came out with a historical novel in 2012). She selected a teacher who came to the house, and he also taught her sons, the piano lessons becoming a way of creating family closeness.

Take into account your special status.

The majority of piano studios consist of elementary and middle school students, with a few teenagers preparing for the conservatory. But you, as a GRAND PIANO PASSION™ reader, are either an adult student or a committed teenager who plays for the love of the instrument. Given your qualities, I recommend setting your sights on a teacher who has at least a couple of other adults or older teens. This focus provides the added benefit of a social network and is useful during recital time, so that you are not the only adult in a lineup of kids, a somewhat humbling experience I contended with for years.

This type of teacher could come in several different varieties. Some teachers, such as Gail Fischler in Arizona, Joy Morin of Ohio, Laura Lowe of Georgia, and Anna Shelest of New York City, teach children and at the same time welcome and celebrate the adult student at any level. Others, such as Cosmo Buono and Seymour Bernstein, teach a combination of professionals and advanced amateurs. Still others, especially in large metropolises, run studios focused on adult students, running the gamut from beginners to advanced; two wonderful examples are Denise Kahn in New York City and Matthew Harre in Washington DC:

Get out and tell the world.

Finding a new piano teacher is a lot like finding a new job—you need to inform as many people as possible about your search. Now that you’ve got a model of your dream teacher, describe that desired teacher to others and ask for recommendations. This kind of good, old-fashioned networking is particularly useful if you are a member of a group, such as the Amateur Classical Musicians Association in New York City. Another option is PianoWorld, which hosts a number of online discussion groups that are collegial and helpful. You may want to check out in particular Pianist Corner.

I would also recommend two centralized resources. First, the Music Teachers National Association maintains a searchable database of teachers by state who have earned the association’s National Certified Teachers of Music credential (NCTM). Try calling a few of the teachers in your area and asking whether they teach adults or whether they could recommend a teacher who focuses on adults. Also, TakeLessons.com has a national stable of certified piano teachers. These resources can be useful to supplement your networking efforts.

Copyright © 2014 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Nancy,

    I really appreciate you writing this. I enjoy playing the piano, but am always someone looking to improve my craft. We can always get better, right?

    I’m wondering–what do you think of YouTube as a piano teacher? It probably sounds extremely odd, but do you know anyone who has learned how to play the piano well from taking “piano lessons” from YouTube videos? With the expense of piano tutors, do you think that’s a viable alternative, or do you think that a student (regardless of age) will miss key instructions or nuances that can only be gathered by having an in-person lesson?

    Thanks so much,
    -Ronnie

  2. Hi Ronnie: This is a great question. Let me say first off that I am on YouTube all the time in my capacity as a piano student. Whenever I study a new piece, I like to hear how others play it, both professionals and other students alike. So I see YouTube as a great way to augment your piano study. I don’t know anyone who has learned to play well without studying with a teacher, although it’s possible that they are out there. And I’m also sensitive to the expense of piano lessons–especially weekly, they really add up! But I still feel it’s better to study with a teacher, the main reason being that instructional videos can show you the right way to play but there’s no feedback loop–you can’t get feedback on your attempts to learn the music. And the piano is so complicated that even after years of lessons, I often cannot tell what I am doing incorrectly. I hope this helps, and please check back and let us know how you’re doing with the piano. Regards, Nancy

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