Monday Mailbag – Do You Have to Have a Degree to Be a Good Piano Teacher?

I am a piano teacher but haven’t gotten any degree in pedagogy. I took one pedagogy class in college and loved teaching. Since then I’ve been running my own studio the best I know how. I really care about my students and want them to succeed, but I feel like because I don’t have a degree people take me less seriously. I also struggle knowing how much to charge for lessons because of the lack of a degree in music. Is it necessary to have a degree in order to be a good piano teacher? Does that affect how much you should be making?

Here’s my short answer:

1. You do not have to have a music degree to be an excellent piano teacher.

2. You do have to be well-educated to be an excellent piano teacher.

Now, for the long answer:

Degree programs may be helpful for those who want a systematic approach designed by someone else to prepare you for a given field according to the criteria of those designing the program. However, there are many, many other ways to become well-educated. In fact, the more you are willing to take responsibility for your own education, the more lasting value you will gain from your efforts and studies. And asking the question above is a great first step! Here are my top 5 suggestions pulled from a previous post on preparing to be a piano teacher:

1. Continue studying with a private teacher who is also willing to mentor you as a teacher. This has been and continues to be an invaluable part of my education! There’s just nothing that beats continued improvement in your skill as a pianist and working through your own difficulties to equip you to help your students do the same. And my teacher (and author of the book, Thinking As You Play) has done worlds for me in working with me through intermediate-level repertoire and learning to think conceptually.

2. Start reading and do lots of it! There are numerous piano pedagogy books, blogs, websites, articles, magazines – way more than you’ll ever have time to get through! – that are a great way to build your understanding of issues related to teaching. In addition, I highly recommend reading business-related books that will get you thinking about your  studio not just as it relates to teaching, but also as it relates to being a successful business. The book, The Savvy Musician, would be a perfect starting place for a book that combines the two worlds. To paraphrase a thought I read recently in another book, having a right knowledge about teaching doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher, but it’s a whole lot easier to go from right knowledge to good teaching than from no knowledge to good teaching!

3. Walk with the wise. As soon as you possibly can, find and join a local music teachers association and become actively involved in their events, workshops, and meetings. Get to know the other teachers – many of whom have years of experience. Ask them all your questions and take as much advice as you can get. Visit their studios and take notes while observing their lessons. Every time I observe another teacher, I take away valuable tips and ideas that I can immediately apply in my own teaching. And the camaraderie shared among fellow teachers is priceless. I know that I have over a dozen teachers that I could call in a heartbeat with a teaching issue and they would gladly offer whatever help and advice they could. For those who don’t have the luxury of living in an area with a teachers association, if there are other teachers in the area, consider starting an association or at least getting together informally. And if even that doesn’t work, connect with other teachers on-line through a forum or through blogging.

4. Start teaching. Take on a few students so that you can start implementing the ideas and things you’re learning. If possible, I recommend taking on a couple of transfer students rather than beginners. Teaching while you are studying and learning makes everything so much more relevant! Plus, if you opt to chart more of a customized course for your studies, you can use your teaching as a springboard for what to study. For example, if you have a student who is ready to branch out from just using method books, you might want to explore the earliest original classical repertoire and the various composers of it. You can learn more about the historical eras and share what you learn right away with your student, thus cementing the knowledge in your own mind. Or perhaps you will have a student struggling to play even eighth notes, so you will be compelled to explore new technical and rhythm development ideas. And so on.

5. Work toward and get your MTNA certification. This was one of the most helpful things I did to organize my own teaching philosophies and methods. Plus, it gave me the extra push to streamline my procedures and documentation so that I would have a smooth and professionally-run studio. As I comment in the article I linked to, I have no doubt in my mind that I am a better teacher today because of the things I did to earn my certification. Not to mention that it was highly practical so that the things I was working on were immediately applicable to my teaching and studio operations. It was well worth every minute and dollar I spent on it!

Now, as to the question of how much you should make…there are lots of factors involved. Your own education/investment in your field is one of them, but you also have to consider what your studio is going to offer, what your actual operating expenses are, what kind of clientele you want to attract, what the going rates are for other teachers in your area, what your other fee-related policies are, etc. All of those issues are beyond the scope of this post, but hopefully that will give you some good food for thought!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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