This is a question many people ask themselves, mostly because they are unhappy with aspects of their lessons, their teacher's policies, their progress, or how they compare to their peers. There is no cut and dry answer to this question, but I can give some hints.
Just because you may be discontented with some aspects of your lessons, it may or may not be a sign that it’s time to make a change. It really depends. Your feelings here may be extremely valid, but they may also be a hint that you and your teacher might simply benefit from some better communication.
I have noticed that there are times when people simply give up on a teacher without communicating first. They just move on to another. I can tell you also that many (not all, but many) people who do this will eventually end up feeling the same way about the next teacher. If you find this has happened many times, you may benefit from getting up the courage to ask questions of your teacher, and to ask about issues that are bothering you. It’s uncomfortable for some people, but it’s very worth it!
Here are some basic guidelines to setting up effective communication at the start of lessons:
Set Expectations Upfront
Lessons are not a dictatorship; you and your parents do have some say in what you are hoping to gain from lessons, the learning style that works best for you, and the level of time and dedication that you are willing to put toward your lessons. There is some give-and-take available here, but I urge you to realize that this is what your first phone interviews and your first “trial” lesson are for.
The teacher takes his or her time to explain expectations and policies during early communication, and this is your chance to mention any conflict you may have with what is presented. Waiting until later will make things more difficult. You are using this time to discover your compatibility with your new teacher’s style.
Please, don’t feel that you’ll “work around” an issue when it comes up. For example, if the teacher’s policies don’t match your own needs, this teacher may not be the one for you. Attempting to change, re-write or make exceptions to studio policies on your own is a huge step toward creating conflict. If you have a request, please do ask upfront about a possible change or exception before committing to lessons.
When you do meet with your teacher for the first time, please do share with him or her your current playing issues, your hopes, your dreams, and your personal goals (many teachers will actually ask you this, but if they don’t, please do share). Be honest. Tell your teacher that you can’t stand doing hours of technical exercises, or that you hope to make All State this year. This doesn’t mean you’ll get out of technical exercises, but it does help your teacher perhaps find a way to make these necessary evils more fun or manageable for you. It doesn’t mean you’ll make All State, but your teacher will know what you are hoping for and will be able to evaluate you honestly to let you know what you have to do to achieve your goals.
Once lessons have begun, here are some tips:
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Although it’s sometimes awkward to bring things up, honesty and open communication are the best policies here. A good teacher should be able to hear your request or issue, process it, and to be able to articulate to you clearly what he or she can (or cannot) do to help. For example, I can most definitely help a student who feels either over-faced or under-challenged, but I may not be able to help a student or parent who does not feel that my policies are workable due to their wishes for personal convenience. In the case of the latter, it may be better to find a teacher whose payment, attendance, practice and/or absence policies match your expectations (after first discussing possible changes with the current teacher and deciding whether the response was satisfactory or not).
If your reason for change is lack of progress, and you are not practicing enough, it’s not a good idea to hope that another teacher will fix that for you. Be sure to take responsibility for your own part of your progress or lack of progress. Be sure that during lesson time you have an open mind and give it your best shot to do what your teacher asks of you. You do have every right to ask polite and respectful questions along the way (and please, please do!), but choosing what you will do and what you won’t instead of trying to do it all can create issues. Conversely, your teacher should be open to your honesty about your aversions and difficulties and work with you to create solutions, together as a team.
Uninspired? Ask for Help:
I do understand in areas of “inspiration” that students sometimes feel in a funk. I cannot urge you more strongly to share this with your teacher! I recall at one point feeling like I wanted to quit lessons altogether (a very common feeling in about 8th or 9th grades) but thankfully, after discussing with my teacher AND my band director, they worked together to find more opportunities for me, more pleasing music to play, and to basically hold my hand through my tough transition time. Without letting them know how I was feeling, I may have quit long ago and missed out on a lifetime of music.
Your Teacher Should Tell You:
If your teacher has brought you as far as he feels he can (for example, if you are studying with someone who does not play your own instrument and/or your skills have developed beyond his level of expertise), it’s his job to pass you along to a colleague who can guide you to the next level. If you know this to be the case, it may be time to move on, or to ask for suggestions for a specialist in your particular instrument.
Be Careful of Comparisons:
Sometimes you may feel that you are not playing the same repertoire or playing at the same level as other students of the same age. This can be very upsetting if you are a bit competitive by nature. There is a possibility you could benefit from a change of teacher, but many times this is not the case. Some serious self-evaluation should happen first. (For example, are you putting in all the effort that you know you should be?) After thinking about this, please be sure to communicate to your teacher and to ask why you are not playing the music that you wish to play. Your teacher could have very good reason for this. Your teacher could be far more thorough than some other local teachers, or more insistent on the basics being covered first. Being behind (temporarily) could end up pushing you further ahead of others in the long run. Investigate and find out your teacher’s reasons.
It would be a shame to give up a wonderful teacher simply because you compared what you are doing to what someone else is doing and you were jealous! That said, there are times when perhaps you would indeed benefit from a more thorough approach, and the only way to know would be to take a few trial lessons with other teachers.
If, after exploring better communication and self-evaluation, you do decide to leave:
Please let your teacher know in a timely manner that you will be discontinuing lessons. As politely as you can, indicate why. If a teacher continually receives similar feedback from students leaving the studio, it can help her to change her approach for the future.
Don’t burn any bridges. Please do thank your teacher for his effort and his time. He was likely giving you all he had to give. Just because he wasn’t a match for you doesn’t mean he isn’t a perfect match for others. Also, you may have a need for this teacher’s help or expertise in the future. You don’t want to miss out on a great future relationship if you can help it.
Be Careful What You Say:
In my experience, a huge red flag regarding future relations with a parent or a student is when they trash talk another teacher (or even multiple teachers) during their opening interview. It’s OK to mention where your differences with your past teacher(s) may lie if you feel that is important, but you will gain respect as a potential student by treating your former teacher with equal respect. Remember, the music world is a small place. Word gets around. Teachers also tend to realize that a student or parent who will readily put down a previous teacher is someone who very possibly will be doing the same to us in the future if things don’t go their way. We are wary when we receive such introductions, and often for good reason.
Lessons can be such a rewarding experience. Communication is the key to a great relationship with your teacher. Keep that in mind, and you will pave the way for great experiences as you grow and learn and even as you change and move on. Best of luck!