The word practitioner is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “A person actively engaged in an art, discipline, or profession.”

Let’s consider this for a moment and how it applies to the music teaching profession. A practitioner is someone who actively and regularly engages, in a disciplined manner, in a profession or art form.

To me, this is epitomised by the memory of my teacher, who was continually enthralled with music. When he was not educating his many students, he would be either practicing technique, learning new repertoire, or listening to music for inspiration.

To me, this conscious and systematic discipline of being actively engaged in your passion is what separates the average music tutor from a music educator. Let’s look at five things that truly effective teachers are always doing…

1. An Effective Teacher Needs to Practice What They Preach

How many piano tutors do you think there are out there?

Yes, most of us took some piano or guitar lessons as a child, learnt to read basic music at school, then probably read some books and watched some Youtube Videos. Some of us even chose music as a partial elective at school, or may have attended a band camp at some stage.

We could then take this limited knowledge we possess, and sell it off to someone who has not yet commenced their musical journey, with the premise that as a tutor or “teacher” you can actually help them improve. Sadly, this is the case with some who call themselves tutors, rather than glorified hobbyists.

A good educator must first have mastered their art and studied the principles underlying human development to fully understand how to teach someone the art of music. This goes far beyond replicating your musical history, or relaying what you think was the right path when you first learnt music.

This means looking critically and objectively at your learning journey, your educators, and at yourself. Were all of your teachers qualified? If not, that’s fine, but what did they teach you that was worthwhile? What didn’t they teach you? How can you fill this gap for your students?

Was your learning journey a structured regimental one filled with many hours of rote repetition? Or were you perhaps brought up in a musical family where playtime meant a jam session with your siblings or parents? In either case, what were you missing? How could your process have been advanced?

Finally, what about your current teaching methodology? Does it remain stagnant and trapped in the past, or does it evolve alongside you?

Bottom line: an effective teacher must practice what he or she preaches and be conscious of how and why they teach the way they do.

2. An Effective Teacher Needs To Stay Up To Date

Still teaching with the same old John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course?

You may think since it helped you learn, then it must help your students in the same way.

Well, consider this: if the system or course was written so long ago that your teacher’s teacher used it, and in 2018 it hasn’t changed at all, should you still use it?

Unless it’s an indoctrinated staple such as Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the answer is a resounding no! You need to stay up to date on the latest teaching resources and methodology, particularly when they demonstrate proven results. One that I particularly like is the Australian Based “Blitz Your Theory” by S. Coates, since it breaks down traditionally difficult and dry theory into manageable and engaging portions, which include rewards and challenges for younger students.

What about the way you teach technique, even classical technique?

Old School piano teacher

Are you stuck in old-school teaching techniques?

Whilst playing four-octave scales based on semiquavers alongside a rigid metronome at 120 bpm was always the epitome of my childhood, I much preferred playing modes with my Jazz teacher who accompanied me whilst we improvised together.

I have applied this principle to my students when it comes to teaching technique. Make it enjoyable, goal-based, and interactive, since that is what they are paying for. Besides, you will create some fond memories in the hearts and minds of your students and their parents if you create music with them rather than supervise them playing scales to the pulse of a machine.

Through study of new methods and techniques, you will remain current. Never stop searching!

3. An Effective Teacher Needs To Engage Their Students

If you’re a teacher, chances are, students today were born in a completely different time than when you grew up. And yes, whilst the greats and classics are always an essential basis for a strong musical foundation, there are many notable current composers and musicians writing repertoire worth learning!

This late Beethoven music which seemed to defy the classical traditions and was frowned upon by some. Recall the introverted Thelonious Monk who was not widely recognised or appreciated to a proper degree until years after his time. Your student’s musical tastes will eventually develop and branch out, perhaps in a different direction from yours.

Hence, be open and willing to learn and teach new repertoire which engages your students.

Young Composer

Not all composers lie six feet underneath the ground.

Thinking classical and baroque? Mix it up with some lesser-known composers whose surnames aren’t Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach. Want to improve phrasing on a melody? Teach your students a jazz piece which requires swung rhythms and 12/8 pulses. Need contemporary repertoire? Then try some modern day composers who are not yet six feet under the earth – you may be surprised by what you find.

4. An Effective Teacher Learns From Others

Meeting and interacting with other teachers of your art form will give you perspective and show you new methods or angles which you may not have yet considered.

Even if you are a respected and established teacher, you cannot deny that somewhere out there is an equally accomplished teacher who may have a few worthwhile ideas and strategies.

This can even be the case for younger or less experienced teachers who have a fresh perspective on the profession. I personally experienced this when observing a lesson from one of the drum teachers at my studio, Contreras Music. Although she was younger and less experienced, she had different ways of building rapport with her students, and even incorporated some music-based games which I had never seen in a private lesson context. I soon recognised and praised her for this, and asked if I could use some of her strategies in my lessons. The results have been very positive and interjected a breath of fresh air into my lessons.

Fresh ideas from new teachers

Be open to learning from other teachers – new ones with fresh ideas and old ones with wisdom.

5. A Effective Teacher Is Constantly Practicing

Ask yourself a last but brutally honest question: compared with your most advanced student, how do your weekly hours and goals compare?

Yes, you have been spending long hours teaching and managing the studio, but have you matched your top student’s daily practice routine? Are you learning songs with the same enthusiasm and determination as themt?

How can you, as an effective teacher, ask your students to practice scales and learn new songs if you yourself are not doing the same? Even if you have spent decades learning one instrument in one style of music, can you honestly say that you have covered every angle of your genre and mastered all of the composers who had written for the period and the instrument? I personally look up to Vladimir Horowitz, who even during his later years has still dedicated himself to being a practitioner, a performer, a concert pianist. See him for yourself here performing the Chopin Polonaise in A flat Major, op.53:

Push Your Students and Yourself!

Being a music teacher who inspires their students and produces results takes continuous self-critique, awareness, and practice.

So take a stand above the rest, prove yourself a true educator, and push your students further than you ever went by being an active practitioner of your art form.

Join Musical U to complement your lessons with at-home lessons in musicality to accelerate your music journey!


Cristian Contreras is a Sydney based educator, composer and producer who has over 2 decades of experience in the arts sector. He is a full time music teacher, who also manages his own studio – Contreras Music – in Western Sydney. Feel free to contact for any creative projects, advice or for professional composition/audio productions.