How does someone become a (great) piano teacher?
Is it an apprenticeship scheme? An online course/certification? A degree you can do at university? Or can you just put a sign on the front lawn saying “Piano Lessons Given Here on Tuesdays”?!
And what do you need to be able to do, before you take on your first student? Do you need to register with an institute or professional board? Do you need to pass a basic competency test? Do you need a licence?
Let’s break it down.
#1: You need to know how to play the piano.
This one is kind of non-negotiable. Wait, no, that’s not right. This one is completely non-negotiable (unless you are a very different kind of piano teacher).
If you don’t know how to play the piano, and how to play the piano pretty well, why are you even thinking of becoming a piano teacher? Go practice, and come back when you know how to play.
#2: You need to like playing the piano.
This one is also actually non-negotiable, if you want to enjoy your work, and have your students enjoy their lessons. If you don’t like playing the piano, learn another instrument and teach that. Or, I don’t know, become a dentist, or a plumber, or an Instagram influencer, or something.
#3: You need to like people.
Here’s how this works – you will be teaching people. You need to want to empathise, to see things through their eyes, to imagine what it’s like to be them. You need to want to know how they’ve been doing each week, what’s been going on, what progress they’ve made. If you don’t like people, this is going to be about the slowest way you could spend your weekday afternoons.
#4: You need to enjoy challenges.
What makes giving piano lessons endlessly exciting, for those of us who find giving piano lessons endlessly exciting, is the challenge of supporting each student to connect with the piano in a way that allows them to be musical the whole way through their learning.
Now, this might sound obvious, and maybe even somewhat straight-forward, but it’s honestly not, and that’s what makes giving piano lessons endlessly exciting. Each student has their own set of abilities and interests that sets them apart from the next student; maybe they are driven by specific pieces of music (maybe a different piece each week), or maybe they are motivated by finding patterns, or by playing their own variations, or by exploring the different kinds of sounds the piano can make, or by mastering more and more impressive skills. Maybe they struggle with focus, or find reading challenging, or can’t ever quite remember which is their left hand. To enjoy being a piano teacher, you need to feel excited by the knowledge that each new student is their own proposition.
#5: You need to have a plan.
A plan might be something you have because you’ve trained in a particular approach to music education, or because you had a great set of educational experiences yourself to draw upon as a template for your own teaching. A plan might be the result of you choosing a curriculum designed by someone else, or it might be a set of resources you’ve prepared to use with students as the need arises. The more experienced you get, the clearer your plan will be in some ways, and the more flexible it will be in others.
A plan will include knowing where you will be teaching, at what times, and which student is scheduled to come next. A plan will include communicating clearly with the families of your students what you do in lessons, what they should expect, and what you expect of them. And a plan will include being ready with the right resources for the right student at the right time.
A plan means actually being ready to teach.
#6: You need to love to learn.
There is no chance you will ever know all the music, all the history, all the strategies, all the shortcuts. You will never know everything about everything. And the only way to enjoy being a teacher who doesn’t know it all, is to be a teacher who thrives when trying new things, who feels alive when learning more.
#7: You need to be honest with yourself and your students.
You simply cannot be the right teacher for every child and adult that ever wanted to learn to play the piano. You cannot know enough to be that teacher. No one can. Be honest with yourself about who you are, as a musician, as a pianist, and as a piano teacher. Acknowledge your strengths and admit to your weaknesses.
You simply cannot find enough hours in the day to teach every child and adult in your community that might want piano lessons, and still have the space to grow as a teacher, pianist and musician.
Being honest about your limits sets you free.
#8: You need to show up.
Having all the prerequisites is one thing. To be a piano teacher, you have to dive in as well. Take on students. Get organised for lessons. Prepare. Deliver. Reflect.
Prepare. Deliver. Reflect.
Prepare. Deliver. Grow.
Show up again next week, next term, next semester, next year.
#9: You need mentors.
You are not the first human being to give a piano lesson. You could have (literally) generations of experience at your beck and call, if you were to seek mentoring relationships amongst your more experienced colleagues (locally, nationally, internationally). Don’t squander the chance to learn from those who have travelled this path already.
Mentors can fast-track your path to expertise in ways that are close to miraculous. Insights they share can save you years of struggle. Lessons they allow you to observe can catapult your teaching skill-set a decade into the future.
The older and more experienced you get, the more you will realise you still have to learn. Piano teaching is a career where people regularly participate actively as teachers for over sixty years. If you’ve been teaching for thirty years now, you’re only halfway there.
Now, depending on your community, your culture, where you live, there will be more to this equation than these nine items. But here’s the bottom line: without this list of essentials checked off, you will find becoming a (great) piano teacher almost impossible.
You need to know how to play the piano – and play pretty well!
You need to like playing the piano.
You need to like people.
You need to enjoy challenges.
You need to have a plan.
You need to love to learn.
You need to be honest with yourself and your students.
You need to show up.
You need mentors.
Anything on that list missing? You know what you need to do*.
*and if you’re actually not sure, leave a comment, and stay tuned for new posts…
10 thoughts on “What does it take to become a (great) piano teacher?”
I always enjoy your articles, but I loved this one. I have a new pedagogy class ready to start in September, and I will send them to your site for this article. To me, you summed up all the qualities needed, and I think it is important to young professionals starting out that they particularly understand that they are not the right teacher for everyone. Many teachers I talk to feel they have a duty to take all students, out of fairness, without understanding that they can damage their ability to teach those they should be teaching by taking on either too many students, or continuing with a student who would be better off with a different teacher. Please keep on sending your articles. Thank you.
Thank you, Elissa.
Interesting how you wouldn’t think the first point would be worth stating, but I do know people who have decided to teach piano without actually knowing how to play it. Yep I gave them a real talking to…
Great article! I would add, know the piano literature inside out. I believe this is of utmost importance to surgically address a student’s needs in terms of technique or music preferences, given their level.
Thank you for a succinct article. It is, I think, very true.
I am in my late 60’s and have only been teaching (part time) for just over 1 & 1/2 years but I resonate with what you say and after a holiday break, I am ready to launch myself into teaching again.
One can never stop learning and do love what you are doing, is a bonus. To nurture young people to love music, to learn to express themselves via the piano and to give them unconditional positive regard is a big responsibility.
Most importantly you need to love teaching.
Fantastic article, I’m glad to say I ticked every box. I’d also like to add the old adage, if you’re doing something you love, you will never work a day in your life….and that’s me!!!
It can also apply on many careers!
Teaching piano is a dedication, you have to like teaching, each student is different, therefore it requires different approach. I enjoy teaching, especially if I discover a talented student, it’s like finding a treasure.
I just sat back and played Vendetta on my newly tuned grand. You continue to inspire me even without a new blog post. But if you get the chance… we’d love to hear more from you!