"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
July 30, 2014
Choosing the Members of Your Village
by Emily S. Jorgensen

There are many people who come into our children’s life that we do not choose. Primary teachers, school teachers, “interesting” neighbors are but a few.

However, there are others we do choose. Caregivers, private music teachers, and sports coaches are among them. All of these people have the potential to influence our children a great deal. As the Nigerian saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

At this time of year, I am often asked for advice on finding a good piano teacher. Like most types of private teachers and coaches, there is absolutely no regulation in the U.S. of private music teachers. Indeed, the person who styles your hair is required by law to get more training than is the person who styles your child’s talent.

So, parents find themselves at a loss when it comes to choose a private music teacher. I am sure the same quandary exists for any type of private tutor — be it for math or tennis. When anyone can say they are a violin teacher or a calculus tutor, parents and children usually have nothing to rely on but word-of-mouth recommendations and Craigslist.

Having fielded this question several times, and trying to find good matches for my own children, I have learned some helpful procedures parents can use to thoughtfully add people to their “village.”

First, parents need to know what they are looking for. Like walking into a car dealership not knowing if you want a minivan or a sports car, trying to find a private teacher without having first made a list of what you want in a teacher is a recipe for disaster, and you may end up just going with whatever you find first or whoever makes the best sales pitch.

Some questions that can help you decide what you really need in a teacher are:

Are you looking for a highly competitive environment for your child or a more nurturing one? How much emphasis do you think should be placed on performance (like recitals in music or dance, or matches and games in sports) versus skill development?

You know your child best: with what types of authority-figure personalities does he do best? How important is it to your child to choose the music they learn or position they get to play on a team? Does he work better alone or in groups?

Are there specific approaches or methods you have heard about that you are interested in for your child? How much of the family’s time budget and financial budget are you willing to dedicate to this endeavor? What is the one most important thing you want your child to get out of his lessons?

Does your child have as much interest in these lessons as you have in your child participating in these lessons?

If your child is old enough to be doing their homework on his own, (this seems to happen usually somewhere between 10 and 12 years old), I believe he should be involved in this discussion. What does your child most want to get out of lessons? After all, it is he who will be doing the practicing.

Once a parent knows what she is looking for, the next step is to identify the pool of teachers you have available in your area. Word-of-mouth recommendations are a great way to find potential teachers and tutors; many colleges and universities have lists of community professionals — for example, you can call the music department of your local college and ask if they maintain a list of local viola teachers.

Also, many private teachers belong to professional organizations with national websites that allow you to search your area for any local members.

In the music field, some of these are: American String Teachers Association (ASTA), National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), Organization of American Kodaly Educators (OAKE), and Suzuki Association of the Americas.

I imagine there are also organizations and college departments that can help you find dance teachers, math tutors and tennis coaches; I am not as plugged into that world, so I can’t help you there.

This step is a lot like deciding which make or model of car you are interested in; now you must narrow it down to the exact car you want to drive off the lot.

The third step is contacting individual teachers by telephone and/or email and asking them questions you have developed after following the first step and identifying what characteristics of a studio or teacher are most important to you.

Remember to respect the time of the people you are interviewing; ask if they have a Studio Policy page or a website they can refer you to in order to answer your questions, or ask if they give interview lessons for a charge.

Also be aware that many of the very best teachers have studios that are full and they are less likely to answer generic emails that have clearly been sent to a whole list of teachers. They know that desirable students will come to them because of their reputation and they don’t need to spend their time selling themselves to you.

Calling them and actually speaking to them is a much better way to feel out this type of teacher.

Fourth, ask for an interview lesson or a chance to meet the teacher in person. Different teachers handle this different ways. Some will let you observe another student’s lesson; some will charge you for one lesson to come and let your child meet them and discuss their philosophies.

For more advanced students, some will require an audition and your child will be expected to perform something at the first meeting.

Lastly, realize that whomever you choose will have the potential to shape your child’s life in significant, meaningful, and sometimes unpredictable ways. I think it is appropriate to make the choice of a private teacher a matter of prayer and discussion between all parents and the child.

It is also okay to change your mind. If you are not sure if a teacher is the right fit, ask for a trial period. At the outset, plan an exact number of weeks or months with the teacher, with a plan for a parent-teacher conference at the end of that time.

As a teacher, I often suggest this to parents when I am not sure my expectations and philosophies are really a good match for them. It gives me a chance to voice any concerns or tell the parent I don’t think I am good match for them or their child’s needs after I have tried to work with them and really know what will be involved with teaching their child.

I have also had parents request a trial period when they are not sure if their child will enjoy the piano or whether their family has the time and resources to commit to it. When the trial period is pre-determined, it is less likely there will be insult or hurt feelings if one party decides to back out at the end of the trial.

Also, remember that just as you are scrutinizing the potential teacher, she is scrutinizing you. Are you the type of parent that will back up her practice expectations of your child at home? Will you respect her policies and procedures? Will you hover over your child incessantly or let your child learn from his mistakes? What will you expect from her as your child’s teacher?

Choosing a private teacher or tutor for your child can be a time-consuming task. However, just like choosing a car, it can have a daily effect on your family for many years, so the time is well spent.

I cannot tell you how many parents come to me after suffering with a teacher that was a poor match for their child for many years; sometimes a very talented child has grown to absolutely hate music because of such experiences, and the parent is trying desperately to find a way to turn back that clock.

This past weekend I attended the wedding reception of one of my former students (she was the bride). I have been working with one child or another in that family for 12 years now. The mother of the bride expressed to me how significant an influence I have been to her children’s life over the years, and thanked me.

I could see in her kind words to me my own future — hoping to be able to someday thank others who have helped me raise my own children by being another positive adult in their life. Indeed, when I stop and think about it there have already been many such people in my children’s life. I hope and pray that the Lord continues to let me find fabulous people for my village.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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