Let’s set the stage: You’re a busy, well-intentioned mom or dad to somewhere between one and six offspring. Somewhere between the attempt at karate that didn’t go so well, the post spelling bee tears, and the pizza party finale of soccer season, at least one of these offspring started expressing interest in music lessons. You, being well-intentioned but also busy, are hoping to get them started with piano, which seems practical and readily available in your area. Plus, you have Aunt Marge’s old spinet in the living room that no one plays. This could be a great investment–much better then the ill-fated foray into modern dance!
You remember that you’ve driven past Family Arts and Piano School (Note: This is not a real place) lots of times en route home from school pick up. There is often a “Walk-Ins Welcome!” sign outside, so you figure, why not drop in and see if they can set something up for your burgeoning musician? It’s at this stage in the Piano Teacher Shopping process wherein reading the guidelines and suggestions below could be Hugely Useful to you, dear potential piano parent. Knowledge is power, so read on.
Questions to Ask Before Enrolling
Regarding Facilities and Appearance:
- Is the lobby or waiting area (if there is one) clean and well-tended? Any place that kids have been is bound not to be pristine, but clutter, chaos, visible grime, or suspicious odors indicate a lack of care and follow-through on the part of the business owners.
- Ditto with the bathroom? Is there soap? Poopie diapers lying in the trash? You are at what’s supposed to be an educational institute, not a dodgy late night Chop-Suey House #1 or similar. A reasonably clean bathroom should be a baseline expectation.
- More importantly than the common areas–how are the “classrooms?” Are they clean and sufficiently lit? What about the instruments? Even if you’re not a pianist, you can plunk a few notes out and tell if a piano sounds like it’s a survivor from the Titanic. If your kid is learning piano, they need at least an okay instrument to work on. Digital instruments are fine, too, but, for the love of God, ask if it has weighted keys. If it doesn’t, leave. For real. Under no circumstances should you pay 30-40 dollars a pop on lessons that will be conducted on a Casio 63-Key blue light special from 1996.
Regarding the Teachers:
A lot of places have anywhere between 10 and 30 teachers of various instruments and specialties on staff. Before you send your kid back for a lesson (even a free trial one) with anyone, please ask these things.
- Have they had a background check? I know, you don’t want to insult anyone. But the lunch ladies, your kid’s bus driver, the janitors and crossing guards at their school–all had to pass a background check before being permitted to work with kids. Your child will be alone in a room with this person. Many for-profit music schools do not have any sort of checking procedure in place simply because, as a non-public institute, they don’t have to. It’s up to you if you’re okay with this, but understand that the business owners may know as little about their workers as you do. There is often no required vetting in this business model.
- Do they actually play the instrument? “Well of course they do!” You say, “how else would they be teaching here?” Maybe! But not necessarily. Again, in some schools there is no vetting done. If you’re at a higher end institute, especially one associated with a college or university, any of the teachers are probably at least reasonably accomplished musicians. If you’re just at a random studio because you drive by it all the time, that’s not necessarily the case. Ask the teacher how many years he or she studied, and what their favorite type of music to play is. That will reveal a lot. Often times, teachers at multi-disciplinary studios are pressured by management to also teach instruments they don’t really play. If this is the case and the teacher isn’t a strong liar, they’ll probably tell you if they only dabbled in piano as a child and are really more of a clarinetist or something. Even if they’re super nice, if you want your child to learn piano, the teacher should have some basic degree of proficiency at the instrument.
- Are you able to communicate with them directly regarding your child’s lessons and progress? Some studios are very staunch about limiting parent/teacher communication beyond pick-ups and drop-offs, even going so far as to conceal full names. The fear is that teachers and students will work out arrangements that eliminate the middle-man, so interaction is kept to a bare minimum. While that set up might be better for the business, it’s not great for students and families. A child’s education is a team effort and requires parents and teachers to be allies. If you’re not serious at all about getting your kid to actually play the piano, and just want expensive, musical babysitting once a week, then you could deal with this set-up. If you’re looking to invest some genuine effort in the process, take your business elsewhere.
- Can you actually deal with what’s in the contract you’ll inevitably be required to sign? Read it thoroughly. If they say “Pay upfront for 12 weeks, no make-ups, concert attendance required,” don’t be surprised when things sort of fall apart if, six weeks in Wednesdays just don’t work for your schedule anymore. Pick a different teacher, cancel the other Wednesday thing, or be out the remaining 150 bucks. Your pick.
- Does the contract strike you as onerous (e.g. “You must commit to a minimum of two years of study here”), strange (“We will host once monthly fundraising events for The School that begin at 9 pm every third Sunday”), or unprofessional (rife with emojis) in any way? These questions are just another reframing of “Are you sure you want to sign that?” Don’t do it until you are sure.
Oh, dear potential piano parent–try to enjoy the journey. I’m glad you’re taking it, and your child will surely benefit from your careful work and follow-through. If you’re an overachiever and want even more helpful info, check out my other post on this matter.
Much love and luck to you and your piano kid!