Choosing a Great Piano Teacher from the Start

Today’s post is important for those who are going to start learning piano or want a beginning piano teacher for their children. I am going to share my philosophy on importance of choosing a great piano teacher from the start.

If one wants to build a beautiful house, will he go for a cheap and inexperienced contractor to build the foundation and then get a skilled contractor later? His whole building will be unstable and will tend to fall one day. Same is the case in building the piano skills of a child. Weak basics skills cannot support technique challenges that come later.

The first step of learning piano is extremely important! I have instructed a lot of students (about a thousand during my years in the US). 70 % of them needed serious help.

The problem is that most of the students start with wrong instructors. When such students come to me, I feel sad for them. They are innocent souls who know nothing in the piano world. They were victims of incompetent piano teachers.

Usually parents are responsible for it because they are usually not much knowledgeable about piano and get tricked into giving their child into wrong hands.

Most parents  have the bad idea of getting a “cheaper” piano teacher in the beginning to “teach their child the basics.”  After that, if the child has an interest in continuing to learn how to play the piano, parents often would consider finding a “more expensive and experienced” piano teacher.

This is the wrong approach.

It will costs you a lot later to fix the problems your child faces due to his/her bad approach on basic skills. It will take years for a good piano teacher to improve the basics of such children.

Besides going for a cheap piano teacher, some times the parents get into misconception that a great piano player will be a great piano teacher as well. Which is not always the case. Though exceptions occurs.

Unfortunately, most teachers do not know how to teach beginner,  and they have some great misconceptions.  During 2000-2004, I attended the  Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) National Conferences in Salt Lake City. There was a lecture by one of renowned American pianist teacher-educator, a  piano professor with a PhD.

It was astonishing experience to learn about American traditional approach to teach piano for beginners.  One of shocking statement was, “For the first three years you should not worry about hand position. Teach students notes, rhythm, and have fun!” The educational lecture and the message was given to the audience of about two hundred piano teachers who flew to Salt Lake City from all over United States.

I like the idea of making lessons fun. However, the statement about ignoring the physical approach of shaping hands is totally wrong.  In three year, student will develop bad habits that will bring the learning process to dead end.

Based on teaching methodology, we can roughly divide the “Bad Piano Teachers” into three types:

Bad Piano Teacher Type One

Piano teachers with some level of education and knowledge. They just like the easy philosophy of ignoring the challenging aspects of the “hand position.”

In this situation, a student will fall off from a track in a few years. The student becomes frustrated, disappointed, and will lose interest to learn further.  What is going on at that period?  The student became incapable to achieve the goals that more advance pieces require. The hands do not have skills to handle the piano techniques needed. In this post, I am focusing on the simple physical hand position without emphasizing on the mental process of learning which will be covered in future posts.

In 2-3 years, parents will also notice student from another teacher play differently than their child. They start asking questions:  “What went wrong?”  “Where did all the money go?”

Some parents forgot that they wanted a cheap teacher … just for the beginning … just to see whether they liked learning to play the piano. This went on for a few years. Now after some amount of money was spent and time is wasted, parents are frustrated with disappointing results.

Bad Piano Teacher Type Two

A few years ago, I was in a group of piano teachers and witnessed this conversation:  A piano teacher asked: What I should say in the interview if parents ask me about my credentials and education? That I have none?  Second teacher: Ignore the question, and talk about your beautiful and professional made up policy.

There are many piano teachers with no credentials, pedagogical education, and experience. They just simply do not have skills to teach beginners.

To those teachers, please don’t spoil the young  If you do not have skills and are honest, you better teach students who already play subjects like dynamics, character, music form, and expressions.  It will be less harm.

Bad Piano Teacher Type Three

There is another type of “bad teachers for beginners”:  the great performers, who are not always the great piano teacher. Those wonderful musicians have their magic. Everything is so naturally easy coming for them.  But they do not know how to explain those “ simple” (in their mind) things to students. Of course, there are always “great performer, great teacher” exception, as I described in my blog post about Dr. Vera Nosina, who was my teacher.

A Great Piano Teacher

Now something how to cure the victims of bad piano teachers. Different teachers use their own methods. Most Russian teachers do not teach students with old bad habits because they do not believe that it is changeable.  Harm is done and not worth the hassle…

Elza Ritter - a great piano teacher with her student
A great piano teacher working with her student. 🙂

I think like a doctor. I must HELP a student (patient) if he (she) needs HELP. I diagnose problems and fix them.

With the student’s commitment and parents support, the problems are usually resolved in six month to three years. This would depend on the student’s condition.

My belief, experience, and attitude will result in transforming bad habits into good habits. One condition is required: the commitment from parents and student.

It is thrilling to see when a student, after long battle, wins over old bad habits. With new learned skills, he/she will become a wonderful “new ” pianist.  They will have the ability to express feelings based on correct technique instead of someone who knew how to press the right key at the right time and nothing else.  This is worth all efforts made by student, parents, and, of course, me :).

Parents and teachers who need help: whatever you learn from my blog, please feel free to ask questions, I will be happy to assist you.

12 thoughts on “Choosing a Great Piano Teacher from the Start”

    1. Hello and sorry for late reply. I was very busy with teaching, and performing venues. Thank you TSR and everyone on reading and leaving comments! I really appreciate you value my opinion on Piano and Music Education. Musically yours, Elza Ritter

  1. Ms. Elza, I’m interested to know why you think it is that classical music education focusses so much on performance (technique, sight-reading, etc.) and so little on composition.

    When I think about language learning, it is my experience that being able to understand written and spoken language requires certain skills, but being able to speak and write in that language forces learners to understand the language at a greater depth. Similarly, painters learn by copying the techniques and styles of masters, but then also create their own works almost from the very beginning of their education.

    Is it not true then, that encouraging and teaching even the simplest composition as early as possible will also encourage students to develop greater understanding of music, and also encourage more enjoyment through self-expression?

    1. Hello Edmund!
      Thanks for bringing “composition” subject out. It looks like a good material for my next blog to talk and give my opinion on this topic.
      I appreciate you are reading my blogs.
      Ms. Elza

    1. Hello Lauren! Sorry for so late reply. Thank you for comment.Hopefully by this time you found a great teacher for your child. If you ran into my blog, you probably did some research. The best way I would suggest to ask local friends/parents, whose kids are in a good hands of good piano teachers.
      Good luck on piano study !!! 🙂 Musically yours, Elza Ritter:)

  2. Thank you for posting this. I think I’ve ran into one of those you listed as bad teachers. Doesn’t like scales, doesn’t like exercise, doesn’t like method books, always hesitating on selecting me a piece, slow to no reply, put me on pieces above my level and said that no foundation is needed, and told me he just figured things out cause he’s a nerd! And then no response on refunding for remaining lessons…

    It’s encouraging to see that there are better out there.

    1. Hello Piccione,

      Sorry for late reply. Thank you for comment. I truly feel your frustration and hopefully by this time you found a great teacher for your child.
      Good luck on piano study !! 🙂 Elza Ritter.

  3. My son started with a pretty good piano teacher that was giving a solid foundation but then we moved. His new teacher quickly moved to a challenging recital piece and we went downhill from there to another challenging piece. I started noticing that corrections for simple mistakes were not being given. We are on the search for another teacher and I think we may have found one. My son is not happy about starting over. I hope this will not take long. The problem is that he played the songs well enough that audiences loved them, but I know that the basics were deficient. It was all memorization. Thank you for your blog!

  4. Your article hit on certain points that I have observed, regarding piano pedagogy in the USA vs. Europe. Because of my education and training, including attaining a very high level of skill on the (French) Horn, as well as music composition, both of which I am much better at than the piano, my piano teaching tends to be stronger than many other piano teachers, esp. regarding exposing my students to a wide variety of music, sight reading, etc. I can guess which bad habits you are referring to. Regardless of how persistent many of the best teachers can be, some piano students will refuse to overcome bad habits. I have had at least one of these students already, if not a few more in certain respects. Sometimes it is just not going to work, for some students to go beyond a certain point, at least when they are young. They either lack the discipline, drive, or are quite sensitive to correction, etc. But I agree that everything should be done that can be done to help children who are taking piano lessons, etc., in regard to helping them play to their potential, etc.

  5. Hello Ben, Thank you for your comment. I was told by many Russians piano teachers that it is waste of time to even try to change bad habits. Over teaching 16 years in US, I have created a special exercises, which those students must do. Another aspect: they must cooperate if they want change. I talk about this type of commitment on the beginning before accepting student. Severity and body type also play role.
    Just today I had a great day! It was that final break true with my student K.R. who is now 14 y.o. Long way! She is with me for 5 years! Finally, her hands in a shape. It felt like I melted a rock…I am so moved and happy! Considering that student is my friend’s daughter, she is sweet but not hard working kid and I could not send her away because of friendship with her mom … If she would practice 2 times more and be more serious, she might have this awesome result 3 or 4 years ago…Looking back I just remember: her fingers and a hand was so stiff, it felt like a rock. Because I said I melted a rock!!!:)

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