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August 15, 2018

The Priceless Quality I Look For in a Music Teacher

By Abraham Levitan

Since starting Piano Power in 2007 I’ve interviewed hundreds of would-be teachers. I’ve hired a small percentage of them. Over the course of a decade plus, one quality in a music teacher stands out. It isn’t musical expertise, numerous awards, or a degree from a prestigious program.

That quality that really matters is emotional intelligence, or the awareness of your own emotions and the emotions of others.

Why Emotional Intelligence is Crucial for Music Teachers

Because a private music teacher with students and their families, the ability to connect is incredibly important. This is true especially in long-term relationship building. My ideal music teacher can identify students’ emotions, apply them to thinking and problem solving, and regulate them for prime learning. These abilities are the hallmarks of a high EQ.

If a student is acting out, a great music teacher can identify the root cause. Is the student tired? Did they experience a traumatic event at school? Do they simply need some physical activity? As any M.D. will tell you, once the cause is correctly identified, the symptoms are infinitely more treatable.

A student who connects personally with their instructor is much more likely to produce great work and exceed their own expectations.

What I Look for In the Interview

Of course, a great resume certainly helps, and musical proficiency is required. I look for music teachers who can sight read, develop an original composition with a student, and arrange a pop song by ear.

But more importantly, I’m looking for empathy, good listening, and the ability to read a social situation. I want to learn who they are as a person. I want to witness their natural social and conversational habits, how they speak and listen, and whether they’re able to identify the tone of someone else’s speech.

Also, the power of a sense of humor cannot be denied. I appreciate humor especially when it reflects an aptitude for honest self-assessment. I never like to feel like someone’s “big timing” in an interview. Evidence of humility and an honest desire to improve craft can also go a really long way.

These qualities don’t always correlate with being a conservatory-trained musician, but they do correlate with being an effective music teacher.

What Makes a Bad Fit

This may not be true for all music studios or schools, but if a music teacher feels like they must do a ton of last-minute prep for a Piano Power interview, they’re probably trying too hard. You cannot cram for the interview and transform yourself from a wrong fit to a right fit.

A wrong fit is someone who’s not a good listener, avoids eye contact, or pushes an agenda without being sensitive to how the information is being received. Those characteristics come through pretty quickly in an interview.

The Right Experience

Strategies for motivation, discipline, and lesson management can certainly be learned in a classroom, but an emotionally intelligent person can learn those skills from having little cousins, being a camp counselor, baby-sitting, etc. Formal teaching experience and classroom learning may help, but it’s not always necessary.

The key is whether you internalize what you observe. There are people who take child-psychology classes who don’t internalize what they observe, and people who develop this skill simply from their own family experience. Consequently, I’m not overly wedded to credentials in the “teaching experience” department.

The Trial Lesson

If I think a music teacher has the chops after the first interview, I invite them back for a trial lesson with a volunteer student.

The student in a trial lesson becomes a big variable. I don’t give candidates any background information on the student, so candidates must show up, and work with whomever (and whatever) they find.

Sometimes the kid completely shuts down because they’re being confronted with a stranger. Honestly, I love it when this happens. It can make for a fascinating, telling scenario. Can the candidate nudge the student out of their shell a bit? Can they make them comfortable enough to smile or share something about their lives?

My expectations are adjusted if the student is an ice cube, of course. But if a student is exceptionally well-behaved and responsive I’m almost a little bummed out, because I don’t get to see the candidate push themselves as far. Most student will not be superstars, of course, so I want to see the teacher interact with a student who is representative of most.

In either situation, though, I love to see a good sense of humor. Are they able to make the kid smile, laugh, and communicate that this is a safe space where the student can be themselves? If the kid is comfortable sharing a funny experience that happened at school, that’s pretty huge for a first meeting.

And if a student is excited to share a concrete achievement with their parents after a trial lesson, that is a tremendously good sign.

My list of ideal teacher qualities may be a little unorthodox. But I always keep two objectives in mind. First, our teachers should feel at home in the Piano Power culture of feedback, friendship, and collaboration. And secondly, our teachers should have the skills to help students achieve our overarching goal: a lifelong love of music.

Want to read more about the teachers who made the cut? Check out our roster of great instructors.

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