Those 2 words create a feeling of fear and are generally repellent, but why?
Is music theory useful and is it important? Can it actually be fun to learn?
Let answer those question in this article.
Why studying music theory?
Music theory could be considered as the grammar of music. Music is a type of language so we can compare music theory with learning the grammar in German to be able to improve our practice of the language.
Only that if music is a type of language, it is not a language like French, English, German,…
In the language we use every day, we have very strict rules that we need to know and apply.
If you send an application for a job full of grammar mistakes, they’re very small chances that your potential employer takes you seriously.
In music, it is a bit different… It would have been too easy otherwise.
Rules are there, to be used, but also to be broken.
In music, if a composer only respects rules learned in a composition school for composition, then it might end up good, but with no personalities.
The first thing to develop is instinct, Then you can learn the rules and see how your instinct is reacting with your playing/composition.
The good news is that instinct is something g that we can develop, but that will be another article subject.
I love Abrsm for many many things, but I have to say that the way they provide music theory separating practical grades and theory grades, doesn’t help students to link music theory with their playing.
Music theory should not be separated from playing your instrument; in fact, you should be learning it with the piece you play from a very early stage.
The best way to do this is to analyze the current piece you play and straight away look at the way the composer plays with the rules of Harmony.
Now, music theory includes other aspects than Harmony, like the rhythm, how to read/write sheet music, the intention, dynamics,…
But all the other aspects are covered while you are learning a piece of music from your very first piece.
Harmony is the most bigger and deep part of music theory.
Even if you are a professional musician, playing intensively since the age of 3, like Mozart or Jacob Collier, you still need at least 3 lives to be sure that you have learned and integrate the entire spectrum of harmony, which mean that we learn constantly, we discover constantly which is amazing don’t you think?
Ok, but what is Harmony?
In a few words, harmony could be explained by the combination of notes or pitches.
If you play one note on its own, it will have an atmosphere, mostly created by your brain or your mood of the moment. If you combine that note with others, it will create another atmosphere, depending on the note you choose.
The options are endless!
“Mary had a little lamb” that can sound, sad, mysterious, jolly, bright, suspended, scary,… just by playing the exact same melody but adding different notes to it.
Everything is a question of context, what sounds good in a certain context can sound totally off in another situation.
How to learn harmony? How to make it fun?
Well, first of all, we need to understand the fact that harmony or music theory has to be learned from an early stage analyzing the piece you play. As a teacher, I help you by explaining why the composer chooses those combinations of notes instead of others. Exploration is very important as well. What if we change those combinations?
A very good way is by improvisation.
Improvisation, with my help, is also very important and helps you to open your ears to this wonderful language that music is.
Improvisation is not scary, and should be taken step by step with my assistance!
When a student comes for a lesson with a very small melody that they created between 2 lessons, I’m very impressed and always very happy!
I remember one of my student, a child who is still having lessons with me today in Derby, when I was explaining the blues 7th chords to her and how it sounds like, while I was playing a simple G7 chord, she said “That’s so beautiful!” and she was playing that G7 chords for weeks after that on each lesson!
For me, this is the most beautiful gift and proof that what I believe about Harmony is correct! Never dissociate it from playing!
Music is art, creation, something that express the very best and beautiful part of our personality, and as a piano teacher, I feel like it is my duty to try and find your inner voice, your own very personal way of expressing yourself through that language.
This is what music theory is. Not a repellent and scary subject!
And finally, would like to share a Bernstein video talking about the evolution of Harmony in the last century in 6 minutes. Enjoy this from a master!
In this article we will talk about 3 important points about choosing your piano teacher:
What is a good teacher? Is qualification a guarantee of a good teacher?
Is the price a guarantee of a good teacher?
How do I know I found the right teacher for me or my children?
Let’s have a myth breaker before we start…
First of all, being a musician is a real job!
It is not because somebody is passionate about his/her career that they don’t work hard for it!
When a hotel, a student, a restaurant, a venue,… pay for a musician, it is good money in one go, so it looks impressive!
But, being a musician requires a lot of preparation, when I said a lot; I’m talking about years of preparation!
To quote a very good pianist called ARTHUR RUBINSTEIN:
who, after a concert was told by a very rich diplomat’s wife: “I would give my life to play the piano like you!”
Rubinstein replied: “That’s exactly what I did!”
Preparation for a professional music career can be achieved in a big international school or as an autodidact! (I will come back to the term autodidact in a minute)
Let’s now have a look at our 3 points:
1. What is a good teacher? Are qualifications a guarantee of a good teacher/musician?
A good teacher is also a good musician!
I know there is a legend out there saying that a good musician is not necessarily a good teacher and vice-versa.
Well, it is true for half of it. A good musician is not necessarily a good teacher, but a good teacher can’t be a bad musician!
What is a good musician then? It is not the speed or their level of virtuosity; it is their level of musicality.
How they understand the language of music. If they have a good understanding of the language then they can teach it better!
Let’s use an example: A French teacher who have a small English accent when they talk but a really good knowledge of the language are better to communicate that knowledge than a native speaker who doesn’t know any rules or grammar and makes a lot mistakes when they speak (yes there is native speaker in all the languages in the world that make a lot of mistakes when they talk!!!!).
Now, a French teacher with a small English accent who is passionate about French and the literature, the culture, all the subtility of the language have a lot more chance to be a good teacher!
So, are qualifications a guarantee of a good teacher/musician?
Well……………….. absolutely not!
Now, all my colleague that has been studying in a very high-level music school, being in debt for half of their life, probably start to hate me right now!
Well, sorry for us guys but it is not a guarantee of being a good musician!
The history of music is full, full, full, full of incredible musicians that never passed by any big schools and a lot of them by any schools at all!
A lot of them have been refused in most big schools because they weren’t “good enough”!
Debussy is a very good example…
So we can say that they were autodidact then?
Yes in a way, but thinking about an autodidact as somebody who stays in his/her lounge practicing on his/her own for years before going out and meets other musicians is absolutely wrong!
Being in contact with a more experienced musician, such as a band, a private teacher,… is the way to learn as an “autodidact”.
Now, let’s be clear here… I’m not saying that all students finishing a very good and high standard school of music are really bad musicians, but it is not THE way to be a good musician and some of them are actually not that good!
I know myself really good musicians that never been into a music school and not very interesting musicians that finished a very good school with a distinction.
The important thing when you have to choose your teacher is human contact first. Is he/she a person that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable? You always have a bit of discomfort in the first few lessons, that’s normal, but you can feel if the person in front of you is a good human person or not and passionate about music.
Secondly, what his/her level of passion when they speak about music. The energy they put into their teaching because energy is key!
Then we arrive at the personal request. What do you want from your teacher?
A very serious guy who goes straight to the point (some people like that)?
Or somebody that will take his/her time to develop things without being too harsh with a bit of humor?
A person that speaks loud or really quiet?
Would you need somebody that maxi boost your confidence?
All those criteria are known by you instinctively, just follow your instinct.
2. Is the price a guarantee of a good teacher?
For example, you have teachers charging £20/60 minutes, then £32, then £42…
You can find all range of prices for piano lessons in Derby.
So, let’s have a look at a few of them. But first, let’s talk about the minimum you should expect from music lessons.
Concerts! A music school or music lessons without students’ concerts is nothing else than a factory of teaching and money. The only way to know where you are with your apprenticeship is to perform, passing exams,… Whatever the packaging, it is more important to have concerts and events for the students than a nice room and a shiny piano for the lessons but where nothing is happening. You can be sure that the teacher that doesn’t want to organize events for his/her students is a teacher who doesn’t care and want to make his/her money on your back! One student concert a year should be the strict minimum! A music school without student life or student concerts is a dead school! The same as a city without a music scene is just a dead city!
Somebody who actually cares about your piano practice and the way you are progressing. Giving you feedback and talking to you.
Personally, I always look for a teacher that is not glued to his/her watch and in the middle of something just say “30 minutes, that’s it see you next week!”. As a teacher, I plan to teach something to my student. I want them to leave the lesson with the goal reach. So if I have to take 2 or 3 extra minutes I will do it. That’s for me a teacher that cares about his/her students.
Let’s have a look at the person charging £20/ 60 minutes or 10/ 30 minutes of lessons.
When you decide to be a private teacher, so a self-employed teacher, there is a cost of living to assume and fees for your activity.
A lot of fees.
More than you can imagine!
£10/30 minutes means that the teacher needs to reach at least 50 students a week to be able to live a minimum!
50 students a week!!!
How? When? the teacher will have time to develop his own skills, being a musician?
Unless those teachers still live with their parents, unless they have the money easiness (heritage, win the lottery,…), there is no way that a teacher can have such a high level of students and be able to afford to be a musician as well!
If you are lucky you can find a very good teacher at that price range, but it is a reality like anything else, if you go for cheap you will have cheap service most of the time!
Let’s compare this with a driving instructor. A really cheap one.
That instructor hasn’t sat on the driver seat for years! But he will teach you how to drive correctly and how to feel the car you are driving!
A good instructor has to be a driver him/her-self, otherwise, it will not work! If he/she knows how to drive a car but doesn’t drive, he/she would probably be a poor driving instructor…
Now with that type of teacher, you have also the ones that teach piano for fun after their jobs on Sunday.
Well, if it is true that there are very good amateur musicians, being an experienced teacher and musician is a life skill and I will even say a career path!
Would you trust and being happy to pay the driver instructor if he/she has basic knowledge on how to change gears and press the pedal and nothing else?
So why choosing a music teacher with poor knowledge?
Thinking that you should go for a cheap teacher that can teach beginner until you reach a certain level and switch to a more professional one is a very bad calculation!
The experienced teacher will prepare you from the start to play the correct way because the experienced teacher knows what you need to play advanced pieces because that teacher plays advanced pieces really well himself/herself!
Because starting to play an instrument with bad habits is really hard to correct after a while. Let say that you have a nice but not really skilled teacher for 2 years, it will take you at least a year after that to correct your playing with a better teacher!
When I started to teach music privately, I looked at a few things:
What is the price range? What type of students do I want to reach with my pricing?
A good music teacher needs to find a balance between teaching and still being a musician!!!!! A teacher with too many students, not having time to play for him/her-self, without passion or teaching for being able to finish his/her financial month after a full-time job in another area, most of the time, can’t be a passionate teacher!
The second point is really, really, important!
At the moment of the redaction of this article, the normal price range is about £32/60 minutes of lessons. You can check that on the self-employed government website.
Every year they update the minimum that a private tutor should charge, and from there, it is the choice of the teacher to fit with that fee or ask for less or more!
Personally, I’m able to teach very advanced students and beginners.
I prepare some of my students to be professional and go for auditions in conservatoire and music Uni.
I know my area of expertise and I want to charge the right price for what I’m doing. Because I’m working, hard, and love what I’m doing!
I can also carry on being a musician and play pieces!
I repeat that a very good point to be a good teacher is to be a good musician!
Now if you choose the teacher charging £42/60 minutes, well it is your choice.
Generally, a teacher asking for those types of prices wants to have students with a very good level. A beginner doesn’t usually go for those types of teachers because of the high price.
Be careful that the teacher charging that much is as good as he pretends to be!
It doesn’t mean that those teachers are really better than others, but they choose to concentrate on one type of teaching which they probably very good at!
Also, in a way or another, it means that they can afford to have very fewer students. Again, it can be for various reasons that are not linked with music, but it can also be for reasons that are linked to music.
You need to know that the more a student is advanced and the more the teacher has to works to prepare the lessons, sometimes it can be a lot more work.
Also, to be able to teach a 20 pages sonata, the teacher needs to have years of years of dedication and skills!
A person that plays piano on Sunday after his/her work in an office 5 days a week can’t develop that type of skill.
Normally, what a lot of teacher does is adapting their fees to the level of students, so advance students preparing a concert diploma will be charged more than a beginner preparing grade 1. Not every teacher does that but some do and I understand that perfectly well, even if I don’t do it myself.
So the teacher charging £42/60 minutes knows that this price will attract very dedicated and advance students and decide to have fewer students!
3. How do I know I found the right teacher for me or my children?
Well, the best way of finding a good teacher is to shop around and try.
Generally, you don’t have to try for weeks before finding the good one.
Use your instinct and how you feel with that teacher. What are you looking for?
Prepare a list in advance before contacting the teacher.
Talk with the teacher, ask questions, as many as you want. If a teacher seems to be reluctant to answers your questions then run away!
Now I want to insist on one or two things:
If your teacher asks for regularity and regular payment, just remember that if you want a professional then you have to pay for that! Learning piano (music) requires regularity, commitment otherwise you will learn nothing! Satisfaction is the progress you achieve by investing in what you do!
Always respect your piano or instrument teacher! Don’t ask for a discount, you will never do that with your plumber or the chef that cooked your meal in a restaurant! You know the price, you agree to it or not, but don’t ask for a discount please, this is so disrespectful! Also, don’t say things like “You know when you have a real job you are tired at the end of the week!”!!! Music is a real job, it is a lot of sacrifices, a looooot of devotion, and being able to cope with being marginalized and judged by a lot of people who don’t know anything about your area of work!
And finally, one last point, don’t even consider the packages that you can see on the internet saying that after 6 months or a year you will be able to play like a professional!
You can’t play like a “professional” after a year or play a Chopin study really well after a year. Music is a skill, there is no shortcut. This is called fake advertising! A bit like those adverts:
If you don’t fall for that type of advert then don’t sign up for the piano package that promises you to be a Mozart.2 after 6 months!
Also, investing in a very expansive app that should help you to learn the piano perfectly is a myth!
Some apps are really good on the side of piano lessons, but learning the piano requires patience and time, there is no other secret! But that’s all the beauty of it and all the satisfaction!
I hope you will have a lot of fun with your piano playing and please if you think that this article is helpful, then SHARE IT and SHARE IT AGAIN!
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