The Top Ten Things to Consider When Choosing a Music School
Teachers and school owners will probably know this all too well.
When the phone rings and it's a potential new student calling in,
the #1 question seems to be, "How much do you charge?" followed
closely by "Where are you located?" This is how the majority of
people shop for what could be one of the most important
investments they will ever make... education for themselves or
their loved ones. It is truly shocking that this great decision
is being based almost solely on price and location.
If you are a parent or student old enough to make your own
decision, you need to know the information contained in this
If you are a teacher and/or a school owner, your students need to
know this BEFORE they enroll with you. Feel free to forward this
to anyone interested in taking music lessons.
Hello. My name is Russ Hamel and I've been a full-time private
music teacher since 1972. During the majority of this time I
have worked for myself in partnership with my wife, but I have
spent nearly a decade at one point or another working for large
school systems specializing in group lessons. Therefore, I feel
that I can give you a fair and qualified opinion.
I'm going to give you the straight goods; no sugar-coating. Some
of what you read might not be what you want to see. But knowing
this information and using it wisely could end up saving you
years of time and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in
After carefully reading and understanding the contents of this
report, you should be better equipped to shop around for the
right teacher and school to suit your particular needs. And to
the teachers and school owners, you may use this information to
screen and qualify the types of students you are willing to
I'm going to write this assuming that you are a parent and/or
student old enough to make your own decision about taking music
IMPORTANT: BEFORE you start your search You MUST Know What You
Want to Accomplish through your study of music!
If you are looking strictly at cost and location, you could
easily cheat yourself out of a great value and instead, waste
years and hundreds of dollars fixing bad habits that could have
been avoided had you invested more wisely in a proper teacher
right from the start.
More often than not, a professional teacher charging $50-an-hour
(just an example; not our actual fees) could end up SAVING you
precious time and money over the $5-an-hour kid-next-door. When
it comes to your education, cost and convenience should be way
down on your priority list.
Having said that, let's take a look at the Top Ten items you
should consider when choosing a music school.
#10 - "How Much Does it Cost?"
We're starting with #10 because out of all the phone calls we
get, "How much?" is by far the #1 question people ask. Yes,
today's economy demands that we be ever watchful of our expenses
but the reality is, "How much?" should be one of the last
questions you ask when it comes to choosing a music school.
Shopping for a proper music teacher is NOT like buying a can of
beans at the grocery store. There is just no way you can compare
a full-time certified professional teacher having decades of
experience to the 16-year-old kid next door. Yeah, that kid
might be able to play well enough to pass his examinations but
that doesn't necessarily mean he can TEACH.
Furthermore, an experienced teacher is also a coach, career
counselor, mentor, psychologist, and advisor among many other
roles. You certainly don't want to leave yourself in the hands
of someone who has barely figured out his or her own life... no
matter how cheap the price!
#9 - "Where Are You Located?"
"Where are you located" is the second most-asked question.
Presumably, people are looking for convenience. Unfortunately,
they are putting this ahead of other things which must be
considered as priorities.
Let's say your next-door neighbor agrees to teach your child for
$1 per lesson (not likely, but just as an example). You
certainly can't get much cheaper and more convenient than that!
However, after one year you sadly realize that your child can't
play anything, is totally frustrated and wants to quit.
Shockingly, most people BLAME THE CHILD concluding things like,
"Oh, she must not be very musical" or "I guess she just wasn't
What a different story it could have been, and should have been,
had you entrusted your child's welfare to the careful watch of a
proper teacher! Instead, the child is turned off of music for
life, and you are left with a bitter experience and empty pockets
to show for your investment.
OK, so we've got the two BIGGIES out of the way. Now the
question is, "What SHOULD you be looking for?"
Well, that's an excellent question. I'm glad you asked!
Assuming you have taken the time to figure out exactly what you
want to accomplish through your study of music, the MOST
important question you can ask is:
#1 - "How Can This Teacher Help Me Achieve My Goals?"
Let's say you come to my school with a goal of starting from
scratch as a brand new beginner and you want to pass your grade
eight requirements within one year; you only have a $150 keyboard
you bought from WalMart; and you don't want to practice more than
3 or 4 days a week, and no more than 20-30 minutes a day...
Don't Laugh -
We Get These Kinds of People Calling In All the Time!
And I have to tell them, "Sorry, I'm not the teacher for you!"
Yes, it IS possible to scrape by with the bare minimum
requirements and get that worthless piece of paper in a
relatively short period of time. But what do you prove to
yourself and everyone else if a week or two later after passing
your exam, you cannot play a single note or even begin to figure
out a song for yourself?
When people ask my students, "Who is your teacher?", I want that
question coming from a positive frame of mind as if to say, "Wow,
you are so good! You must have a terrific teacher."
In the above example, if someone asked that quick-pass student to
play something and he couldn't, even though he 'passed' his exam,
how does that make the teacher look?
Personally, I will not be part of the quick-pass scheme. My best
advice to you and all the rest of my students is, "DON'T DO
What is the BIG HURRY? Learning is a lifelong skill and unless
you know you are going to die soon, you've got time! It would be
better to develop the good habit of doing things to the best of
your ability. That way, you will be more successful in life
rather than always looking for the quick and easy way out.
However, if you still insist on rushing, I can refer you to
people who will gladly take your money while promising you
something for nothing. BUYER BEWARE! There are lots of people
who will take your money if you just hand it to them. When it
comes to your education, 'Cheap, Convenient and Fast' are not
always the best things. Re-examine your priorities and get them
in order. And ask better questions!
#2 - "What Will Be Required of Me?"
This is the next MOST important question you should be asking.
Teachers can have as many different standards and expectations as
there are students. These range from a "Whatever - Anything
Goes" kind of attitude to those with clear, well thought out
policies developed over years of experience and designed to help
the student-teacher-parent relationship flow more smoothly.
The better schools and teachers will expect you to make some kind
of commitment. Most busy teachers don't have time to take on new
students who just want to "Try it out" for a month or two. The
accomplished teacher is certainly not going to "TRY" to teach
you; he or she is committed to DOING IT, so you should come with
the attitude that you are going to DO IT, too! Otherwise, invest
your hard-earned time and money into something else.
As mentioned previously, we get a fair amount of people inquiring
about piano lessons who don't own a piano and have no intention
of getting one in the near future. What's up with that?
You want to take piano lessons? Get a proper instrument!
A good teacher will expect a firm time commitment from you and
will probably not tolerate too many changes in schedule as you
drift from one activity to another. Make up your mind about what
you want to do; then DO IT! Your teacher can and should expect
you to practice regularly at home and come to class prepared at
your appointed time each week.
Are you over-committed with too many activities? Don't clutter
up your teacher's life by wreaking havoc with your schedule.
Settle for just a few things and do them well, rather than trying
to be a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none!
Following instruction and respecting your teacher's advice is
another area of expectation. A good teacher will know from years
of dedicated effort and often frustrating experience what will
work and what won't. Having a parent tell the teacher, "Well my
friend's daughter's teacher doesn't make her do that," is an act
of total disrespect. You are paying your teacher to do a job, so
let him or her DO THEIR JOB!
Be sure you are very clear on your teacher's policies and
expectations and be ready to honour them if you wish to develop
and maintain a strong working relationship. Otherwise, find
someone else with whom you will feel more comfortable.
#3 - "Can I Understand My Teacher?"
Here in Toronto, as in many other big cities around the world,
there is a wonderful diversity of culture. Among the population
are some absolutely brilliant teachers and performers who trained
in the 'Old-World' style and have excellent values to share with
their students such as patience, persistence and self-discipline.
Unfortunately, English is not their first language, so when it
comes to communication there is a tremendous strain on
Listen, learning any new skill is hard enough without having to
overcome a language barrier, too. Choose a teacher whom you can
understand and who understands you. Just because your teacher
has all kinds of impressive degrees and qualifications, they mean
nothing if you can't understand what your teacher is saying!
And speaking of understanding, language is not the only block to
communication. Sometimes there are differences in lifestyle,
such as generation-gaps, musical tastes and preferences, etc. It
is important to have someone you can relate to.
As an example, both Mozart and Beethoven were unquestionably two
of the greatest musical minds that ever lived. Who wouldn't want
to study with geniuses like that, right? However, when it came
to people skills, both men were thought to be quite at the other
end of the spectrum. They just could not tolerate working with
other people and considered most of their fellow man to be below
themselves. This certainly didn't make for a workable student-
#4 - "Do I Feel Like I Belong Here?"
You're at your private teacher's home for your weekly lesson. The
dog is barking and your teacher also has some kind of day-care
deal going on the side. Down the hall, her teenage son is
crankin' out the tunes on his blaster. Suddenly, the phone rings
and your teacher disappears around the corner only to return ten
Soon after, you are shuffling down the sidewalk, trying to piece
together what just happened to you over the past 30 minutes.
While the distractions of the home are perfectly clear in your
mind, the details of your lesson, whatever there was of it, are
OR how about this one...
You're at one of the big MEGA schools. They've got over 2,000
students going there so they must be good, right? You stand in a
crammed waiting area with 50 other students, waiting for the
'change of the guard'. Nobody acknowledges you, and nobody
really cares to know your name... unless you owe money of course!
Only then do you get to meet the 'boss' who informs you that you
may rejoin the class once your 'obligations' have been met.
Kinda gives you the 'warm-and-fuzzies', doesn't it?
Not comfortable with either one of those scenarios?
HHHMMMM... you mean there's more to this music school shopping
than just price and location? WHO KNEW?
You might be better served finding a place that is professionally
set up; typically a small office building, away from all the
usual distractions and clutter that can take place at home,
including your own!
Yes, having the teacher come to your house may be the ultimate in
convenience, but unless you have your home set up like a
professional music studio, you are probably not going to get the
greatest benefit from your music lessons. For most students,
children and adults alike, it just doesn't FEEL like a music
class. Things are too familiar and comfortable and it's hard for
a student to properly focus in that kind of environment, especially
with his TV and toys, brothers, sisters and pets, just around the
#5 - "Will I Have Sufficient Access to My Teacher?"
When you enroll at some of the bigger schools, you do so through
a music counselor (fancy name for salesperson). You don't even
get to meet your teacher until your lesson time.
Once in the classroom, you are escorted to the back of the class
behind several other piano stations. Your teacher makes one or
two rounds during your lesson but for the most part, you could be
doing your math homework for all he knows... or cares!
To him, you are just another nameless face sitting in the back of
the class. If you learned something tonight, you were one of the
lucky ones. If you didn't learn anything, well... pay better
attention next week!
When class is over, the next group of students - who shall remain
forever nameless and faceless as far as your teacher is concerned
- takes over and you slide outside to oblivion.
OK, so it's not really THAT bad. But having taught in that
environment for several years, I know first-hand that it just
isn't possible to get to know each and every person; their likes
and dislikes; their strengths and weaknesses. I do remember
vividly though, as the teacher, the primary concern is to Survive
Another Hectic Night!
And when quitting time comes, that's exactly what the group
teacher does. Let the receptionist handle the details. He's
This is not going to happen in a teacher-owned, small,
professional music studio. To keep overhead to a minimum, the
teacher/owner most often plays ALL the roles, including
receptionist, bill-collector, etc. You are in direct contact
with your teacher at all times.
#6 - "What Is the Primary Focus of My Teacher?"
Good question! Here is why you should be asking it.
Some teachers are performers FIRST. They love to play and take
liberal opportunities to 'demonstrate' for their students.
Lessons quickly escalate into mini-concerts with student and
parent alike admiring how well the teacher can play. This feeds
the teacher's ego. Unfortunately, it really doesn't do much to
improve your own skill level.
As well, whenever an outside opportunity to perform comes up,
students are quickly rescheduled or passed on to the 'supply'
while the regular teacher is away.
Do you go to class to listen to your teacher play? Do you like
getting the 'supply' teacher every other week? Most people
don't. And for the kind of money they are paying for lessons, who
can blame them. Rather, you want to look for a teacher whose
main passion is TEACHING!
#7 - "What Is the Primary Focus of My School?"
Some schools are located within music stores. They provide music
lessons as a convenience for their customers, but their main
focus is to sell instruments, books and sheet music, along with
other assorted musical items. Unless you are extremely
disciplined, you will always be tempted to buy something, whether
it's a book or the latest music gadget.
Teachers working in these situations make only a small percentage
of the lesson fees. They are constantly being told by the boss
to encourage store purchases among their students. This is not
an ideal environment and teachers can often become bitter and
disenchanted and not highly motivated to give you the best
education for your money. (Gee, isn't that comforting to know?)
I'm quite familiar with this because I worked in such a place for
several years and I got to the point where I wanted to get out of
music teaching entirely!
Again, consider the small, professional teacher-owned music
studio. That person more than likely has their life invested in
their business and so they care very deeply about each and every
aspect... including you! They may keep a few books and small
items in stock as a convenience to you, but their main focus is
to see you grow and develop as a person through music lessons.
#8 - "What Kind of Motivation & Incentives Will My Teacher Use?"
The study of music can be a lot of fun. In fact, it should be
fun most of the time; otherwise there is really no good reason to
stick with it.
Of course, there are always going to be those days when it just
isn't fun. Mastering any skill takes some degree of dedication
and commitment; that's called "hard work" if you want to put it
into plain English. So what you want to know when you are
shopping for a music school is, "How is my teacher going to
motivate me up on the days when I just don't feel like
Are you prepared to work with a 'Dictator'? With some teachers,
it's THEIR WAY or the highway. You might not like this approach.
Then again, you might very well need that sort of discipline.
However, I've had students who absolutely crumble at the blink of
an eye. The slightest tonal inflection of my voice could set off
a fountain of tears.
Get to know and understand your teacher's personality style and
see if it matches yours and especially your child's temperament.
This can make all the difference in the world.
Let's summarize now, putting our 'Top Ten' list in order: These
are the types of questions you SHOULD be asking when you are
ready to shop around for a music teacher and school!
1. How can this teacher help me achieve my goals?
2. What will be required of me?
3. Can I understand my teacher?
4. Do I feel like I belong here?
5. Will I have sufficient access to my teacher?
6. What is the primary focus of my teacher?
7. What is the primary focus of my school?
8. What kind of motivation & incentives will my teacher use?
Only after you get satisfactory answers to these and other
similar questions should you ask:
9. Where are you located?
10. How much does it cost?
Good luck with your music school shopping. If your search brings
you to our door, I promise you will be most welcomed!
We would love to hear your feedback on this report. Please send
any questions, comments or concerns to
firstname.lastname@example.org and we will give you a prompt and
Also, feel free to pass this report along to your family and
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Hamel School of Music
4544 Sheppard Ave E Suite 225
Scarborough, ON M1S 1V2