Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

But how will you get lessons - and do you need to? We tell you all about instrumental teachers and how to find one

Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Other costs
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Music exams
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Switching instruments
Violin & Viola
Double Bass
French Horn
Trumpet & Cornet
Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
What's copyright?
Links to other sites

Where to get lessons

At school
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 such services.
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 complain.
• 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 teaching.
• 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 you.
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.
Private tuition
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 suitable.
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.
Music 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?
Teaching yourself
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.



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Copyright © David Bramhall 2001