Do You Have What It Takes
To Teach Piano?
So what made you think of teaching piano? Maybe you’re a music teacher in a school and would like the opportunity to do some out-of-hours teaching and earn a bit of extra cash.
Maybe you’re housebound – possibly due to mobility problems or because you have young children or an elderly relative to care for – and you feel your piano-playing skills could give you an income whilst, at the same time, enabling you to fulfill family commitments.
Maybe you’ve recently lost your job and think you could use piano-teaching as something to ‘tide you over’ until you find more work in your usual line of business. Maybe you’re a musically talented university student who wants to earn money to help pay off tuition fees.
Maybe you’ve retired from your usual profession but would like a ‘hobby’ that could boost your pension. Or maybe becoming a piano-teacher is a life-long ambition of yours and something you intend to make a career of.
Piano teachers come from all walks of life and don’t necessarily have to be fully trained or professional pianists. There are no ‘rules’ for piano-teaching, no particular qualifications needed to teach piano and no set path for prospective piano teachers to follow.
Do You Need Qualifications?
If you are at the very early stage of considering this career, you may be wondering if you’re qualified enough. The simple answer is ‘yes’.
The fact is, you don’t need any formal qualifications to give piano lessons. More or less anyone can call him/herself a ‘piano teacher’ (although, of course, there are laws restricting working hours for under 16s etc.) but you’re unlikely to be a successful one without a reasonable standard of proficiency.
So what is a ‘reasonable standard’? When I started out, I set myself the (some would consider ‘low’) goal of passing my grade 5 ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) piano exam before setting up my business (although I continued to progress and eventually passed grades 6, 7 and 8 – long before any of my pupils were at this level). Obviously, if you’re already a grade 8 pianist or above, you have a distinct advantage but – as long as you restrict yourself to beginners – grade 5 seems sufficiently advanced to teach piano-playing with confidence.
Even if you haven’t reached the higher grades, there’s no harm in teaching your friends, acquaintances or family members: especially if you keep your fee low, in which case they’ll no doubt be happier to learn from you than from a professional musician who might charge a fortune but would have little more to offer at the beginner’s stage. Of course, it’s a good idea to continue developing your own ability whilst teaching – otherwise you may find your pupils catching up with you too soon.
One problem which you will face – if you intend to sit ABRSM piano exams beyond grade 5 – is that you will need to have passed your grade 5 theory exam. In my case, I was fortunate to have done this in school as a teenager, although theory exams have changed a lot since then, so I’ve had to brush up on my theory skills in order to teach the subject.
To avoid theory exams for both yourself and your pupils, you could consider using a different exam board (Trinity College London and The London College of Music are the best-known alternatives) or you could try learning and teaching jazz piano (pupils can take all 8 ABRSM jazz piano grades without sitting a theory exam).
Some might feel offended by the idea that pianists with few – or even no – qualifications can set themselves up as piano teachers. However, I think it’s as well to remember that – like it or not – most piano students will be neither gifted nor talented and will be unlikely to ever reach the higher grades.
The majority of children – and adults – who start learning piano are just ‘ordinary’ people who struggle to pick up skills which talented musicians find relatively easy. Some of them will have unrealistically high expectations and be totally unprepared for the commitment needed to succeed; others will have minimal interest in succeeding and will be taking lessons merely to please their parents. Some have complicated lives or confidence issues and need a friendly face or a sympathetic ear as much – if not more – than they need a teacher with great musical prowess.
In an ideal world, all pupils would be potential Mozarts; in reality, this is not the case – and surely it’s better to end up playing the piano ‘a little’ than not at all – and, most importantly, to enjoy the process of learning.
My Childhood Experience
Sadly my own childhood experience of piano lessons was far from enjoyable and my teacher had neither musical prowess nor a sympathetic ear. ‘Mrs Bam-Bam’ was a church organist with flat, squashed sausage-like fingers who seemed unable to touch one key at a time – so every piece she played was, at best, a rough approximation of the real thing. However, even more off-putting than this was her unsmiling, unwelcoming manner.
I remember knocking nervously on her front door, anticipating the habitual response – an abrupt: ‘Come in’ as she opened it (coupled with an odd twitching movement from her mouth which caused a vein in her neck to protrude and then retract!) There was never a friendly ‘hello, how are you?’ nor the use of my name to address me. Obviously ‘a friendly hello’ wouldn’t have had any direct positive impact on my piano-playing ability but it would certainly have made me a little more keen to attend lessons regularly and would no doubt have reduced the number of weekly phantom ‘tummy aches’ from which I seemed to suffer.
Her main fault, though, was complete lack of patience. In the early days, when I found the two-line pieces easy to play, this was no problem: I played the piece, she bellowed: ‘Well done you!’ and we moved on to the next one. However, as I progressed to more challenging music, I began to struggle: there were complicated rhythms, big chords to read or fingering details which I had failed to notice.
Mrs Bam-Bam rarely bothered to point out exactly what my mistakes were, nor, more importantly, how to correct them – instead she would just shout: “No, no, that’s all wrong – do it again!” Sometimes she might add: “You aren’t practising enough!” which became a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more she said it, the less I wanted to practise and although her shouts filled me with fear, I could see little point in practising something which didn’t seem to be improving. So, eventually I just gave up all together – firstly on practising and later on the lessons.
Be Bored but not Boring
So, consider your personality. Do you have the patience to listen to the same mistakes over and over again? (…hopefully not too often by the same pupil – assuming you successfully pass on the techniques for self-correction which I will write about later). Would you feel frustrated to the point of anger hearing a beautiful piece of music played with incorrect notes or rhythm … perhaps at an inappropriately loud volume? How would you cope with a nervous, tearful child … or an over-confident, obnoxious one? What if someone fails to turn up for his lesson? How would you react, having just sorted out your own complex personal/family arrangements in order to be ready to teach him?
Sometimes ‘putting on an act’ has to be one of the job requirements – as it is for a school teacher ‘performing’ in front of a whole class. The difference is school teachers have had years to prepare for their chosen vocation; they’ve studied their subject at college or university and had the chance to try out what they’ve learned in a supervised environment. Piano teachers, on the other hand, are not necessarily trained teachers – many, like myself, are merely pianists – of varying ability – who have decided to ‘have a go’ at passing on their knowledge.
If you want to give piano lessons to children (or adults), you must prepare to be bored but not boring. And, to be honest, you don’t necessarily have to be bored: although listening to a series of uneven, wrong-fingered scales can become pretty tedious, the thing which keeps me interested is the person who’s playing them. Each learner is an individual with his or her own set of strengths, insecurities and habits. If you get to know a little about your pupils – their lifestyles, their families and friends, their interests and what makes them tick – and, in return, let them into your ‘world’ a little, you’ll find teaching a more satisfying and rewarding experience all round.
In addition to piano skill and personality, the other thing which will help you succeed is some degree of business sense. Obviously, this is more important if piano-teaching is your sole source of income … and far less if it’s more of an ‘interest’.
Having business sense includes such things as being able to decide whether or not it’s worth increasing the lesson fee (at the risk of losing pupils or failing to attract new ones) and whether or not you can justify the expense of advertising to increase your pupil numbers.
My own choice was to keep the lesson fee reasonably low (which, I feel, has given me an advantage over others in attracting new business) and to avoid advertising which, so far (with one exception during my first few weeks) I haven’t found necessary.