Your child is passionate about music, has a great sense of rhythm, and begs to learn an instrument. How do you find a music teacher who will bring out the best in your child?

Parents of musically-inquisitive children rarely know where to start. Many have little direction, and typically seek music instruction locally, through word-of-mouth referral, and where it is affordable and convenient. Some teachers may be accomplished musicians, some may be retired music educators, some may have been teaching privately for years, and some may be just getting started.

However, what works for one child may not work another. Just as some classroom teachers follow a structured curriculum and have difficulty accommodating each child’s unique needs, some music teachers adhere to rigid views of what is acceptable pedagogy. They insist on a strict format of study and don’t know when to hold back or when a talented child needs more encouragement.

Recent articles have highlighted the emotional and cognitive benefits of music instruction and the long-term effects of musical training on the brain, but finding the right teacher for your child can be a challenge. Specific qualities seen among excellent music teachers are outlined here, but what’s also critical is the teacher’s understanding of your child’s developmental, emotional, and motivational needs.

Here is one example of what can go wrong:   

Jake’s parents responded to their five-year-old’s sense of rhythm and interest in piano by seeking lessons at a large, well-known music school. The school had fairly rigid expectations – for example, requesting payment up front for an entire nine months of lessons. Before agreeing to this, Jake’s mom requested a trial lesson first. Jake was assigned to a young teacher, who initially told his mom to wait in the hallway along with a group of other parents. She insisted on attending the lesson, though, so she could assess the teacher’s approach and see how Jake responded.

The teacher asked Jake to play something, since he had some rudimentary understanding of musical notation that he’d acquired from his parents (both had studied music in the past). When he could not follow additional written instructions on the page, the teacher appeared frustrated and asked him the meaning of a particular word. Jake became quiet and said nothing. His mom had to remind the teacher that Jake was only five, and could not read words like that yet.

When asked how future lessons might proceed, Jake’s mom was informed that she would not be permitted to stay in the room despite Jake’s wish to have her present. After they left, Jake told his mom that he did not like the teacher. The entire experience was a disappointment, and they did not return. Jake’s mom kept searching, and eventually found a lovely, experienced private teacher, who was highly attuned to the developmental needs of young children.

Situations like those that occurred with Jake’s family happen frequently. While Jake’s first teacher may have been an accomplished musician, she seemed unfamiliar with how to engage with Jake and what was appropriate for a five-year-old. Many parents without a musical background may be afraid to assert their concerns, and tolerate a stale, uninspired, and often developmentally-inappropriate approach to learning.

What should you consider when searching for a music teacher for your child?

1 | Recognize your child’s temperament and developmental needs

Each child is unique. A six-year-old clearly requires a different approach than a teen, and a good teacher will appreciate this. Wise teachers know how to capture your child’s interest, instill motivation to practice, and help her set reasonable goals. Anything too demanding will result in resistance. Anything too simplistic and rudimentary will be viewed by your child with skepticism. Even a young child can sense when a teacher’s expectations are out of sync with her abilities.

2 | Stay attuned to what is happening during lessons

Music lessons are different from classroom instruction. Don’t let a teacher keep you out of the room. While you must respect the teacher’s authority and should not interfere during the lesson, you also need to know what’s working, what your child is expected to learn, and how he responds. Find out how you can (or should not) help in between lessons to encourage him with motivation and practice. Older children and teens may be more comfortable without you present; however, some contact with your child’s teacher will keep you informed about you child’s progress and aware of areas that need improvement.

3 | Notice signs of resistance in your child

Your child will convey signs of resistance, such as boredom, frustration, and disinterest in her music instruction, just as she might with schoolwork. This can be expressed through lethargy, avoidance, anxiety, and even melt-downs when practice becomes too overwhelming. Be alert to any signs that your child worries excessively about disappointing her teacher, or feels ashamed of a poor performance. Some resistance may be due to normal avoidance of hard work, but it also may signal that she is not getting what she needs from her lessons.

4 | Keep expectations in check

Watching a child’s musical development can fill any parent with pride. How you respond to this, though, can impact your child’s motivation, drive, self-confidence and even his potential to rebel. Excessive boasting about his successes, overt or even subtle pressure to achieve, or dejection if he performs poorly at an audition can have an impact. It may be confusing for him to distinguish his passion and drive from the needs of his family.

It’s just as essential to find a teacher who understands the emotional impact of his or her words, and who refrains from any coercion, pressure, excessive criticism, or shaming. Instruction and critique must be offered in a respectful, upbeat, and encouraging manner, reinforcing that mistakes are a necessary part of learning.

Children who feel excessive pressure to excel or are shamed for their mistakes, even if these messages are not overt, may develop perfectionistic standards or low self-esteem. They may push themselves relentlessly and become increasingly anxious, or may slow their progress, refusing to take on challenging new assignments where they might struggle or fail. Some may give up completely. Older children and teens who are confident in their abilities may be more receptive to a challenging and rigorous approach; however, your child’s temperament is a better predictor of whether this would be beneficial than her age or talent.

Supporting, encouraging, and nurturing a musically talented child can be a challenge. There are few resources and no clear roadmaps for parents. Finding the right teacher takes time and effort. Don’t necessarily settle for the first teacher your meet, or the one your neighbor recommends. Keep searching until you find the right fit.

Trust your instincts – after all, you know your child best! Keep in mind that your child’s needs may change over time as he matures both developmentally and as a musician. Sometimes a new teacher may provide just the right motivational boost to reignite that spark. Most of all, enjoy this wonderful journey with your child!