Finding the right teacher for you, and the difference it can make...


Finding the right teacher for you; it makes all the difference.

Let’s rewind for a minute to when you were a high school senior music student looking for music schools to spend the next four (well…let’s face it…at least 5) years of your life. 

Maybe you ARE a High School senior/junior reading this, in which, I hope you gain some type of tangible information to think about. Or, maybe you’ve already gone through that supposed four years of an undergraduate degree, and decided to continue further in your music studies.  Do you remember this time in your life?  I certainly do (well...I’m still experiencing it, actually.). For me, I lucked out to an extreme degree the first time I chose a teacher, but knew that was not likely to happen again. So I made sure I knew how to do my due-diligence and make the right choice of school and teacher the times after that.  

Applied instrumental study is an inherently important part of any music student’s education.  It’s where the most time SHOULD be spent in the younger years of college music development, and it is where you have the most interaction with your “major” professor.  This means that this person has a profound impact on your career going forward.

When I was in high school, I had some amount of talent, but literally couldn’t have worked less at what I wanted to do.  I loved playing the Trombone sometimes (marching band, jazz band, wind ensemble), but I didn’t know what it took to get fundamentally better.  I took lessons from an amazing teacher in high school, but never practiced for them (sorry Kip…). Which perpetuated the fact that I was a serious underachiever (not necessarily great for a career in music, but I have since turned that around). 

I knew I wanted to go into music at some level but was too afraid to work for it, and knew my natural talent wasn’t good enough to get me accepted into the music schools I thought I wanted to go to. This made me shell up and not try…something I vowed later in life to never do again.

At a crossroads in my young life, did I work harder and actually attempt to audition for schools?  

Nope. No I didn’t.

At that point in my life, did I really care where I went to school, or think about the ramifications of the course of a four year course of study? 

Nope.  No I didn’t…. Imagine that. 

I ended up going to Western Michigan University, and enrolled as a business student.   Did I know that the right teacher, and right situation happened to be at WMU?  Again, no I certainly did not.

Boy, did I get lucky.

Through a series of events during that first year, and much hanging around the music school… I ended up auditioning for the trombone studio, and was accepted on the condition that I switch to the bass trombone during my second (really first) year.  Something I had never ever really thought about considering but since they had actually said yes to me, I decided to switch to the dark side.

Enough background…What’s important to understand is that I fell into a good situation for my four years of undergraduate study. I had a teacher who really cared and had an extremely good grasp on how to teach as well as an understanding of how to help students be successful.  Not only this, but he really, REALLY enjoyed doing so.

What this ended up teaching me, in hindsight, is how important it is to have a teacher like this, helping to guide your development.  How it made all the difference for me and how I see countless amounts of students in music programs who have the choice of schools and teachers, but sometimes get swayed to make a wrong decision based on many different outlying factors.

The type of healthy “teacher-student” relationship I had was something Estelle Jorgensen, in her book “The Art of Teaching Music” calls Reciprocal Empathy. This is the process teacher putting themselves into the student’s psychological shoes, and figuring out how to motivate them from the inside.  She has this to say about it:

“Since teachers and students embody and are essentially committed to particular beliefs and practices and disposed to act in particular ways, our choices of each other figuratively represent other considerations regarding the particular subject matter to be studied, time and energy devoted to practice, rehearsal, and performance, ways in which the subject is taught and learned, and commitments to act in particular ways.”[1]

Even though it’s hard to get a complete sense for how this teacher will teach, or you as a student will learn…here are a few of my criteria on how to determine which person will be the best mentor for you. 

My best advice, is to spend more than just 10-15 minutes of your audition with them.  Get a lesson beforehand, read their book, learn their ideas and really get to know their teaching style before you take the plunge and spend your two most valuable resources (time and money) studying with this specific person.

Things to look for in a teacher/school, or questions to ask (remember, you’re auditioning them as well, a good fit will make all the difference in the world):

·         Depth of knowledge in their field.  How do you know they know what they’re talking about? 

·         Are they a good communicator?  Can they effectively pinpoint problems in your playing, and give you thoughtful, understandable ideas on how to work on these things?

·         Do they seem to know who they are, and what their interests are, and are they true to this?  Do you gel with these ideas?

·         Someone who can recognize, and set you up for success, and help fight for your success.

·         Are able to inspire, and motivate you?

·         Do you enjoy being in a room with them for an hour (for 4 or more years?)?

·         Wisdom from learned experiences, both from teaching and playing.  Are they doing, or have they done, what you want to do with your career?

·         Someone who values other professional’s opinions, and lets his students interact with them.

·         Will you get what you want from this person/school?  Will you have playing or teaching opportunities, scholarship, ability to grow as a person and a musician?

Things to avoid in a teacher/school:

·         Self-contradictory or under-developed musical and technical ideas.

·         A poor communicator, in words or with the instrument.

·         Preaches one specific way of doing things for every student they have.

·         An outdated or inaccurate knowledge, doesn’t seek new or useful information.

·         Going somewhere JUST BECAUSE OF THE NAME. (Many, many places have great resources and teachers, don’t pick the school by the name, and pick the teacher by their ideas and the relationships going forward.)

·         As much as scholarship money is tempting, you have to really consider how your development will be affected by the choice of school and teacher.  If they give you a full-ride, but you don’t reach your full potential by studying at this particular institution, or with this particular person, is it really worth it? 



Only you can decide that.


P.S.  I can't thank these people enough for what they have and continue to do for me.

In my opinion, you should seek these people out.

Steve Wolfinbarger - Professor of Trombone; Western Michigan University

Steve Menard - Professor of Trombone; University of North Texas

Peter Ellefson and Carl Lenthe - Professors of Trombone; Indiana University

Jim Markey - Bass Trombone, Boston Symphony and Professor of Trombone at New England Conservatory.



[1] Jorgensen, Estelle Ruth. The Art of Teaching Music. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008.