Top 10 Things to Consider When Choosing a Music School

Learn to Ask the Right Questions

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 report.

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 unnecessary expense.

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 accept.

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 lessons.

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.

“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!

“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 interested.”

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:

“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… well…

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 THIS!”

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!

“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 honor them if you wish to develop and maintain a strong working relationship. Otherwise, find someone else with whom you will feel more comfortable.

“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 comprehension.

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- teacher relationship.

“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 minutes later.

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 rather foggy.

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 corner.

“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 outa there!

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.

“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!

“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.

“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 practicing?”

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:

Where are you located?

How much does it cost?

Remember, it’s all about asking good questions. Good luck with your music school shopping.

The world can seem like a crazy place sometimes…

OK, a LOT of the time!

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