Top Ten Characteristics of the Successful Piano Teacher


by John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Rio Rancho, NM USA


veryone wants to have a "good" piano teacher; many would like to know how to identify one. For those, we have a substantial amount of information on our Learning to Play page and pages linked there to help with the process of choosing the best teacher.

However, how does one distinguish, either for oneself as a teacher or among other teachers, the "successful" piano teacher? Although people can define "success" in different ways, but are there any general attributes or qualities which might set the successful piano teacher apart? In this article, inspired by my posts on a thread I started in PEP's Forums, I explore, in no particular order, a number of important qualities which one needs to succeed as a professional piano teacher. I'm suspect that many teachers would add or change some of the items on the list, but I hope this list will spur some thinking on the part of teachers as to what "success" means to them. I would also highly recommend to readers Jenny Simaile's PEP article, Top Ten Qualities of a Diligent Piano Teacher, which has some slight overlap with this one, but also explores other personal and professional qualities necessary for successful teaching, per se, which I have not duplicated here.


keyinfo.gif (1045 bytes)Piano teaching success is NOT a "zero sum game."


The successful teacher:

  1. Meets financial needs - This may seem a little cold, but nothing is more important. If you can't support yourself to the degree necessary (including necessary insurance and other benefits) from teaching, you'll either have to do something else part-time, thereby detracting from teaching, stop teaching entirely, or depend on another source of support. Thus, you have to have student numbers and a rate structure which allows you to continue teaching.  You have to have basic business knowledge, such that you can maintain records, keep receipts and records organized for taxes, do basic accounting and billing, make sure bills get paid in a timely fashion, devise and implement advertising, and manage time efficiently, among many other business-related skills. For most people these days, these imply having basic computer skills, since most of the foregoing are either done with, or greatly aided by, the computer. Many other articles in our Teaching Studio section provide basic help with business aspects of piano teaching.
  2. Has good interpersonal skills - This is the part at which most piano teachers excel. Your interpersonal skills have to be sufficient to maintain good relationships with students and parents and provide "word-of-mouth" publicity.
  3. Is knowledgeable at teaching and talented at playing - The successful teacher must know how to play the piano well and how to teach others to do it. Although some might suggest that teaching and playing are different areas of expertise, I would argue that both are required for success as a piano teacher. It's also important to be able to recognize one's own limitations in teaching and playing. All of us have limitations, so there is no dishonor in admitting them to ourselves and, where appropriate, others.
  4. Behaves as a professional at all times - Most teachers would agree that piano teaching is a professional vocation. Unfortunately, some behave at times as if they don't understand everything that entails. Denigrating other teachers, being unprepared for lessons, dressing or acting inappropriately, being unreliable or demanding payment for absolutely everything one does as a teacher are just some of the unprofessional things to be avoided by the teacher. Balancing involvement with students with the need for a degree of professional detachment is especially tough for piano teachers. Virtually their entire relationship with students and parents is personal and immediate - and should be. Successful teaching in any area probably requires that kind of contact. But, one has to exercise detachment in any area outside piano and piano lessons. The successful and professional teacher doesn't try to involve herself excessively in the personal life and problems of her students, nor does she discuss her own personal life and problems with them. I've seen many very good teachers of piano or other subjects come perilously close to crossing that line, precisely because they have a connection to the students. When they do cross it, it almost always leads to problems for both the teachers and the students. Professionalism is such an important topic that I'll say a little more about certain aspects of it further down in this article.
  5. Sets meaningful personal goals - If your only goal in being a piano teacher is to make enough money to survive, achieving that goal might satisfy you, but I doubt that it would make you "successful" in any meaningful sense. If you did nothing but that, your peers in teaching would not see you as successful or as a "good teacher". "Success" does not imply simply working hard until you achieve whatever your goals might be, then simply sitting back and being satisfied. Successful people in any field always look for new challenges and are continually setting new and higher goals for themselves as they achieve interim goals. Such people rarely think of themselves as being "successful", except perhaps at the end of their lives, because they always have new goals and milestones ahead of them.
  6. Works to improve the teaching of piano - The successful teacher works constantly at learning more about teaching piano from others and from published materials like piano teaching "methods". The only way one can tailor lessons individually to the student's needs is to have a broad familiarity with methods and approaches. It simply isn't enough to teach piano the way you were taught, with no regard for learning more and different ways to teach. Improving one's own teaching isn't the whole story, though. The truly successful teacher makes an effort to share his/her expertise and experience with other, perhaps newer or less knowledgeable, teachers. This can take the form of participation in music teacher organizations, personal conversations, writing for teacher publications or any other form of effort which helps to improve the quality of teaching generally. All teachers and students benefit when successful teachers transmit what they've learned, especially if the successful teachers are willing to learn from others, too. If helping other teachers to be successful isn't a criterion for success as a piano teacher, it ought to be!
  7. Gets the best from students - Most of the best teachers have the ability to get the true best from their students. Most of us tend to underestimate our own abilities and talents to some degree. Successful teachers always find a way to help the student discover that he is more capable and "talented" than he realized. This is largely a matter of providing realistic goals which help stretch the student's abilities and the encouragement to achieve them.
  8. Has the respect of peers - If a piano teacher is regularly consulted by other teachers, frequently asked to give presentations to teacher organizations, often asked to judge piano competitions, often given as a reference by other teachers, and often has potential students referred to him/her, the respect of other teachers for that teacher is clear. Similarly, from the student standpoint, if one hears the same name several times when asking for piano teacher referrals, it's a good bet that the teacher is successful. While I wouldn't advocate using peer respect as the only or most important indicator of one's success as a piano teacher, I would suggest that having the respect of many of one's peers and being depended upon by them for advice, counsel, and example is an indicator of success as a teacher.
  9. Fosters musical enjoyment and discernment in students - Another attribute of the successful teacher is the ability to foster in his/her students an appreciation for and impart some discernment of music. A student's piano skills may become "rusty" if he doesn't practice or play for a while, or at all, after leaving lessons, but an appreciation for and understanding of music will stick with him for his entire life.
  10. Enjoys teaching piano! - Successful piano teachers like teaching piano. That's not to say that they enjoy all aspects of it 100% of the time or like working with all students equally well. But, on balance, they look forward to teaching most days, because it's enjoyable. Enjoyment and enthusiasm is contagious and is transferred to students, if the teacher has those qualities. If you're not enjoying teaching piano, it might be helpful to take stock of your situation and determine what you can do to get back the spark of enthusiasm. PEP's article, Teacher Burnout: How Do We Cope With It? may assist in that process.

Once one has defined success in a personal context, it's easier to achieve it. However you might define success personally, I hope that this article has given you some things to think about and a few ideas, too. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about success is that it isn't a "zero sum game", i.e. your success doesn't detract from that of others and theirs doesn't negatively impact yours. When you succeed, you benefit yourself, your students, other teachers and their students. Other successful teachers can, should, and usually will be helpful to you. Everyone wins when piano teachers succeed.

Page created: 5/7/09
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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