Helping your students choose an instrument

Picture this, a brand-new family is about to board your studio but they have no instrument at home to begin studies. Or a current student/family is attempting to purchase or upgrade to a newer (hopefully better) instrument (a piano, trumpet, guitar or violin) for lessons and as their teacher we are trying our best to get the student to commit to some serious practicing, study and enjoyment and we know the job will be made easier.  How do we coax these lovely parents into setting aside enough money and to believe us that the investment they make now may help to create tone and to nurture a better and more engaged musician and student?

In my guitar and piano studio, I almost can’t count the number of times a student moves up to a semi-professional instrument and tells me of their new found joy and happiness: how much fun it now is to practice at home and in the school band or with friends.  And their parents each tell me that they wish they would have believed me and made the move sooner.

We understand, it is sometimes an affordability issue, sometimes it’s the parents waiting for their elementary student to show more interest and desire in practicing.  But it’s really an issue of total commitment by the parent.  They must commit in the beginning to practicing with their child and heed our advice to put the repetitions and time in at the onset. If they do that the child will understand the instrument and structure and will be making terrific progress thus creating a more satisfying experience for the student.  Sometimes I see my parents get so wrapped up in thinking I can create the change without them and that dropping little Bobby or Suzie off at my office and paying for our time will create the next amazing and excited child musician and that their job is now done. As if I have a magic trick up my sleeve to “gift” the child with desire and talent.   Sadly, we teachers realize this never works, as the parent is too busy to get involved with their child and our music making.

The first step to getting that student to want a new instrument is to get the parents onboard, and to have them commit whole heartedly at the very beginning, helping us to create the magic and generate the forward energy and excitement with their child at home.  The parents need to schedule the home practice time and listen in at the practices, that is key.  As a teacher, our lesson assignments and methodology have to be very well defined and our expectations need to start in the very first lesson and that needs to continue with every student, every week.

When you do have that parent and student on your side, desiring to achieve excellence with tone and musicality, you do also have to take an interest with what is happening inside their home at their practice space.  What instrument are they practicing on, is it a 60-note keyboard without touch sensitivity, is it a newer model digital piano with drums and metronome onboard, or is it an old spinet console or a newer upright or grand piano? Is the instrument in a well-lit room, or is the child buried down in a dark basement without much natural light and so far away from the family that the student is alone most times they practice, as no one would ever drop in and listen?

As a guitar and upright bass instructor too, I do usually get to see the home practice instrument because it shows up in our weekly lessons.  I can usually work with anything as long as the instrument is sized correctly to the students hands and physical height and arm reach, but at some point the cheapest of student guitars will impede my students progress. Since I have been working on that parent-teacher relationship from day one, I have some accrued friendship and credibility when it comes time to bring up the idea of going out and spending $1500 to upgrade their classical guitar, or $7000 for an upright bass, or $12,000 for a nice upright piano, capable of getting them through high school and into a college music program.

I don’t know how many students I may have overlooked in my earliest time of teaching, because maybe I felt they just did not have it or they were not that motivated with music, but then I was shocked when their mom would mention to me two years into their lessons that they really want to move up a level from their cheap keyboard on an X stand with the miniature keys and no action and they needed my help with shopping.  I was horrified that I did not even think to ask the question in my early teaching years, “So what do you practice on at home?”  Time after time after a piano recital I would hear students complain of about how difficult it was to push the keys down on the grand piano at the church where we host recitals.  I would dismiss their complaints as maybe they are just too young and do not practice good technique enough to get the tone out of the recital piano.  Then I started reviewing with them what they practiced on at home and I was shocked.   We live in an affluent area in Virginia, just outside of Washington DC, and so I always assumed my younger students would have a reasonable instrument in their home, as the parent drove them to my office in the newest mini vans and BMWs, but I found that I had many students practicing at home on their grandmother or uncle’s old upright piano that was missing keys, or strings and the pedals did not work, plus it had not been tuned for 10, 20 or 30 years.  The worst was when they gleamed at their savings by purchasing a Costco or Walmart keyboard or guitar that cost less than $300 as it really was a good deal in their eyes.  My poor student had been playing for two years on those awful non-instrument things and I did not connect the dots that this could be the problem.  They were uninspired and complacent as they had passed the abilities of their home instrument long ago.

Now I use our recitals and everything I can as leverage points.  Recitals, concerts and gigs in town and at church and even recital videos are terrific tools to show parents other similarly aged students who are very successful players and practicers.  I then use this “tool” to help upgrade my student’s instruments.  At our performance events, all parents (and students) can compare their child’s progress and tone with other participants and I encourage them to ask me questions about the more accomplished students and how long they have studied and practiced. This allows them to see a more accurate picture of the other student and family’s dedication and developments as related to their home practice and the amount of home practice, weekly and year(s) long commitment.  Oftentimes after a very exciting recital performance by an advanced student, that student and their family is rushed by younger families and students who give praise and congratulations and they ask the important questions…so how does your student achieve this much at his age?  And I always comment in our recitals how excited I am for this continued excellence that we just heard portrayed in that high level performance and that I believe that this is possible with every student of mine, they too can achieve great success and confidence if we show them how.  We all have to believe it and strive for it daily in our practice and in our weekly lessons and our instruments have to have enough of a voice to challenge and support each student. Parents and students will usually approach me in the next weeks lessons about the superstar student and this allows me to reopen and continue that dialogue between us and discuss lessons plans and instrument changes that could propel us all to a new level.

So, take heed and ask some questions to your parents and students and always suggest to parents where it is needed, to get them to upgrade to a nicer instrument as it will help their child develop his musicianship, confidence, tone and many more abilities in the long haul.  And make sure you study the various instruments and price ranges, talk to your local piano and guitar sellers, friends who teach, local middle and high school band and orchestra directors to see if they can help and recommend ideas, instruments, brands and models that might fit the price ranges that parents are using as a budget tool in their households.  Also which instruments to stay away from as they are cheaply manufactured and end up being repaired more often than played.  Remember too that nicer instruments can be resold at higher prices should your student decide to bail out of music later. I sometimes buy back some of these better instruments and/or have my sellers connect with buyers in house to keep better instruments with our families and within our studios.

Using all our resources to ensure that our students are having satisfying musical experiences at home only makes for happy students! And happy students make life-long music learners.

Catoctin School of Music
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