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May 21, 2015
The Real Issue
Recommending a Piano Teacher
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My children take piano lessons from a friend of mine, who is an excellent teacher, but who can be brusque and impatient with my children. When people ask me if I know someone who teaches piano, or whether I would recommend her as a piano teacher, I don’t know what to say.

What should I say?


Doing business with friends can be hazardous. Your question illustrates one of the many problems that can arise: What do you say when you cannot fully recommend your friend’s work? Do you owe a duty to your friend to support her business — or at least not to criticize it?

Do you owe a duty of full disclosure to the person asking for a recommendation? Should you just be vague and let the other person read between the lines? Or will a non-committal answer leave the worst impression of all?

It is a delicate situation.

In your case, a person who asks whether you recommend your children’s piano teacher will reasonably expect an honest answer. If you conceal your concerns, you might cause that person to sign up for lessons with a teacher whose personality or approach is ill-suited to the person’s child. That situation is not ideal for the teacher or the unhappy student.

And the person who asked for your recommendation would be, I think, justifiably irritated with you for not being candid.

But at the same time, you don’t want to make negative comments about your friend that could cause offence, hurt feelings or conflict.

So, when people ask you if you recommend your friend as a piano teacher, how can you let them know that she’s a good teacher, but also that she can be insensitive and impatient with the children? I suggest a four-step review.

First, tell the person which of your children are enrolled and how long they have taken lessons from this teacher. This information will let the person decide how much weight to give to your opinion.

For example, if all six of your children have been taking lessons from her for four years, the length of your relationship speaks volumes. Any concerns you express about the teacher’s approach would be tempered by your clear overall satisfaction.

Second, tell the person what you like about the teacher. I presume that this teacher’s good points outweigh the bad because you continue to enroll your children with her. You should therefore explain what makes her an effective teacher.

For example, you might mention your children’s steady progress, the quality of the music she selects, the proficiency of her instruction or her price. You could say that your children enjoy the lessons and look forward to them. You could say that she has high expectations and has taught your children how to polish a piece for performance.

You might also describe what kind of student seems to be successful with her. If your children are avid musicians who enjoy mastering challenging pieces with her, you should say so. And if she runs a casual studio where your children learn to play easy arrangements of pop songs for their personal enjoyment, you should say so, too. This information will help the person know whether this teacher is a good fit for his child.

Third, express your concerns. This is the difficult part, because you want to be truthful, but you do not want to disparage another person’s professional reputation. If you can, phrase your concern as one of compatibility between your children and her.

You might say, for example, “She is very intense, which has been fine for Mickey but might be overwhelming for some children.” Or, “I will tell you that she is rarely on time. My children’s lessons usually start 10 minutes late.” Or, “She is very good with beginning students, but I am looking for a different teacher for my oldest child.”

This last example illustrates a situation in which you should be straightforward: If you are planning to leave this teacher because her skills and approach do not meet your children’s needs.

In your situation, for example, if you had decided to find a different teacher you might say something like, “Kelly’s technical instruction is good and she is an excellent musician. But she expects perfection from her students, which is not a good fit for Mac’s personality. So we are looking at other options.” If you are asked to elaborate, you might say, thoughtfully, “She can be a little sharp.”

Whether and how you should raise such concerns with the teacher is a question for another day. In general, though, I think you should find a kind way to discuss them. A professional person will want to know if she is doing something that prevents you from recommending her, or that is causing you to look elsewhere.

If she is open to your concerns and can adjust to meet your expectations, everyone will be more satisfied. But if she becomes defensive or hostile, or if she simply agrees with you that your child is not a good fit for her, you will know that it’s time to find another teacher.

Fourth, consider your audience. The degree of candor you display will vary with the amount of trust you have in the person you are talking to. It is easier to give a candid review to a close friend who you trust to neither embellish your comments nor spread them around.

It is wise to be measured if you are talking to a person you don’t know very well. And when you are talking to an incendiary person who loves to cause a ruckus, you may reasonably decide to say one thing you like about the teacher and leave it at that.

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