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Pay the Piper
Where to get lessons
Many secondary schools and even some primary schools provide
instrumental tuition. Although some find and employ the teachers
themselves, most do so through a Music Service which may be an
independent charitable trust but is more likely to be organised by the
Local Education Authority. LEA Music Services have had a rough time in
recent years, with some closing down completely, but the government
have now made arrangements through the Standards Fund to safeguard
You may have to pay for this tuition. The law allows schools to
charge for instrumental tuition during normal school time provided
there are no more than four children in each teaching group. Usually
the charge is heavily subsidised either by the school itself or by the
LEA. The school is not allowed to make a profit.
If you are able to take lessons in school you will probably find that
the lessons are quite short. While private instrumental
teachers usually give half-hour lessons, schools may provide lessons
that are only 15 or 20 minutes long. The government's own guidelines
for such tuition suggest that 20 minutes is the minimum time for an
effective lesson. A gifted and well-organized teacher with
well-motivated, intelligent pupils may be able to make a 15 minute
lesson work, but it takes five minutes for all the instruments to be
taken out of their cases and tuned up! In any case, many otherwise
excellent teachers are not that well-organised. Nor are their pupils!
On the whole if lessons are less than 20 minutes long you should
the lessons will be in groups. This is not such a drawback as
some might think - in fact, recent government research suggests that
group tuition can actually be superior to individual tuition,
certainly for younger pupils. The children encourage and help each
other, they can learn from each other's mistakes, they compete with
each other, and generally the whole thing is much more fun. In string
teaching especially, there is a long history of successful group
there may be a scheme enabling you to borrow or hire an
instrument through the school. If there is, it'll probably be an
elderly instrument in a shabby case but it will be either cheap or
free! Some schools or music services also sell instruments to their
pupils at reduced rates - educational institutions don't pay VAT so
that's a big saving that can be passed on to parents.
the lessons will be during normal school time which means you
will have to miss some normal classes. In practice this is not likely
to be a problem - the kind of pupil who takes instrumental lessons is
likely to be the kind of pupil who will take pains to catch up any
work missed, and you should not forget the considerable intellectual
development that many experts believe comes from instrumental lessons.
You do, however, sometimes have to face the French teacher or the
Maths teacher who does not understand why pupils should have to get up
and leave their lesson just to learn the violin. The answer to him or
her is to point out that the school has decided to provide this
tuition and that you and your parents have decided that you wish to
take it, so it is not up to any individual subject teacher to
interfere. You'll say it much more nicely than this, of course!
one great advantage is that if the teacher leaves, it'll be
the school or the music service that has the task of finding another
one - not always easy. If you have private lessons, it'll be up to
Your main problem may be persuading the school to include you in
their instrumental teaching programme which may be quite full.
Persistence is the key - ask, and keep asking. Teaching is a horrible
job these days, and most teachers are incredibly busy. If you make it
plain that you aren't going to go away they will often give in to you
because that's the easy way out. If your school does not provide this
kind of tuition, ask why. Get together with other pupils and their
parents and demand that the school changes its mind. Parents these
days have the right to choose which school their children go to, and
if a school thinks it's going to miss out on keen, articulate pupils
with keen, articulate parents by not having instrumental lessons,
maybe it'll do something about it.
Your Local Education Authority should be able to tell you which
schools provide this tuition and which don't, and will also tell you
whether it has a music service supplying this tuition to schools. To
contact a music service, look in The British Music Education Yearbook
(published by Rhinegold - try the local library).
Be very wary of "buy-and-learn" schemes operating in some
schools. There are music shops that persuade schools to let them sell
instruments to pupils and throw in some tuition as well. The tuition
can sometimes be of very poor quality (one such shop advertises for
teachers who have Grade 8, which is ridiculous when you consider that
there are plenty of gifted 12 and 13 year olds who can pass Grade 8
these days. Besides, being able to stand in front of an examiner and
play three pieces and a few scales doesn't make you a teacher) and the
instruments are not particularly cheap. Don't forget, shops are in it
for the money. Local Education Authority music services have no profit
motive and are funded for the benefit of their pupils.
Word-of-mouth is the way most people find local private teachers, as
few of them can afford (or need) to advertise. However, there is an
organisation called the Incorporated Society of Musicians to which
many private teachers belong (try the British Music Education Yearbook
again). Also, local music shops often maintain lists of available
teachers. But usually the best way is to ask around - do you have a
friend at school who learns? Can their teacher take you? Or does their
teacher know another one? In most towns all the musicians tend to know
each other, so you only have to make contact with one, who will pass
you on to another, and so on - sooner or later you'll find someone
If you can't make contact with the local "music mafia", try
more extreme measures - look in the paper for an advertisement for the
local amateur orchestra or operatic company, go to the concert and
grab a member of the orchestra during the interval. Don't be shy -
musicians love talking about music!
Naturally enough private teachers are easier to find in large towns.
Two institutions attract private teachers - universities (lots of
potential pupils, and probably an active musical life) and resident
professional orchestras such as those in Newcastle, Manchester,
Birmingham and Liverpool. Not only do many professional players do
some teaching, but when you think about it they are quite likely to be
married to other musicians who may also be looking for pupils.
Private music teachers usually work from home, so you'll have to go
to their house once a week. They work in ten-week terms and lessons
will usually be half an hour long. A typical charge is about £18
an hour, or £90 a term.
Lessons Online is a database, small but growing steadily,
where you can search for an instrumental techer in your area.
How do you know the teacher is any good?
This is a difficult question. If you have lessons in school you know
that the teacher has been selected and vetted either by the school or
by the LEA, but private teachers are completely unsupervised. Once
again, word-of-mouth is usually the answer. A teacher with a good
reputation has probably gained that reputation by successfully
teaching many other pupils.
Any teacher who works in a maintained (i.e. state) school has to be
checked to see if they have a police record for offences against
children. Private teachers don't. Of course 99% of private teachers
are lovely people who maintain a professional approach to their pupils
at all times, but it is something to bear in mind. Perhaps mum or dad
should sit in the corner of the room for a few weeks - just to see
what's involved in playing the violin, that is! If the teacher doesn't
welcome this, perhaps one should ask why not?
Music shops do sell "tutors" or books that claim to teach
you to play.
Don't be tempted. While they may work for a few clever people, in
most cases you'll find it impossible. The subtlety and complexity of
the techniques involved in playing most instruments cannot be taught
satisfactorily without the intervention of a real live teacher. The
only common exceptions to this are in playing the electric or folk
guitar, or drums. It certainly is possible to teach yourself on these
instruments because lots of people have done it - including some very
famous ones. The single most effective method is copying others. Don't
think that you're going to be able to pick up a guitar and play
wonderfully original music straight away - get recordings of your
favourite guitarists and try and copy what they do first.
However we know from some of the enquiries we get that quite a few of you are determined to try and teach yourself, or perhaps you
live in places where finding a teacher is impossible. If you absolutely must try and do this, our advice is ...
investigate the "Tune a Day" series of tutor books. There are links to them at the bottom of many of our instrument pages. They are not the most up-to-date tutor books, but they are better suited than most to the job of learning alone.
remember that lessons don't have to be every week or even every month. If you can't afford a teacher regularly, many teachers would see you just occasionally, and this might be enough to set you off on the right track and then keep you on it as you work by yourself. Explain to the teacher what you are planning to do and why - some will pooh-pooh your idea, but some won't.
if a proper teacher is unobtainable, you may be able to find someone else who plays your instrument and could give you some pointers. Schools, colleges, local libraries and above all local music clubs and amateur orchestras are the place to start looking. In our view, even a little help or tuition is better than none.