Finding Your Mentor

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

Here’s a very positive trend within the world of piano education: many teachers are enthusiastic about refreshing their skills by attending training courses and seeking out a mentor who can support their ongoing professional development.

Unfortunately though, while there are plenty of courses to choose from, finding a suitable mentor isn’t always so easy. In this post I will consider the qualities to look for, but first of all we need to ask: what is a mentor? 

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us:

With this definition in mind, I will begin by sharing my own journey…

A Personal Story

Some years ago I reached a crossroads in my career as a music teacher. In no small part due to the immense encouragement and efforts of my boss (who was effectively also a great mentor) Nigel Mainard, I had quite quickly advanced from being a part-time teacher to Head of Keyboard for the local Music Service, leading a team of nine colleagues.

I had also become a published author and composer, which led to consultancy work and regular speaking engagements across the UK. Reducing my teaching commitments in order to focus on writing, consultancy and training others became an attractive option for career progression, and even more so once I was appointed as a mentor on the CT ABRSM course.

And yet I was hesitant. My regular daily teaching remained genuinely fulfilling, despite its challenges. I sensed that the lure of consultancy might be a trap. I could see that many pursuing such a path had little or no time for actual teaching, and began to notice that my own students were starting to miss out as I cancelled lessons to go to meetings.

The disappointing reality is that we have become used to a situation in which many of those people who are advising us how to teach don’t themselves actually teach very much, if at all. Their expertise is often based on dated experience, academic theories, second-hand information and so-called “research”.

It was around that time, searching for professional direction, that I was struck by a particular image…

The Oak Tree

The image of the oak tree is certainly a striking one: deep roots supporting a magnificent structure that stretches to the sky, and a panoply of leaves that are a joy to behold.

Using this as an image to reflect on my own professional life:

  • The ROOTS represent my education, qualifications, and ongoing learning. These feed and energise everything I do.
  • The TRUNK is my active teaching practice, and the deepening experience I gain from working with my 50+ students of all ages and abilities.
  • The LEAVES are my composing, writing and consultancy work: all of my more public, visible engagement with the wider teaching community.

It is the trunk, my active ongoing teaching practice, which provides the living connection between my roots and my leaves, giving life and authenticity to the latter.

This realisation has made a profound difference, helping me maintain balance as I juggle my many activities, while also giving me a better perspective on how to give useful, quality advice to others.

Piano teaching remains my daily delight; I deliberately limit my other activities so that my own teaching practice and students remain my top priority, often turning down other opportunities. The image of the oak tree keeps me on track!

Of course in my latter years I will likely slow down, but by keeping daily teaching central to my career I already now have three decades of experience, never with fewer than 50 or so regular students, and have had the privilege of working with a wide range of learners in different contexts. Oh, and I have no plans to slow down just yet!

I would suggest to readers that when considering a possible mentor, it would be wise to look not just at their roots and leaves, but also fundamentally to consider their trunk, their teaching practice past and present.

A Good Mentor

It makes no sense to study with a mentor because of their fame alone. The ease with which slick marketing and social media presence can lead to public recognition should give us ample reason for caution.

What does matter is that the mentor is suitably qualified, has active teaching experience, and will give of themselves in an authentic, selfless relationship to help you develop your own teaching career.

So what should we look for in a potential mentor? I would suggest first of all looking at their current teaching practice, remembering that if the trunk is neglected or the roots shallow, the leaves (their mentoring and advice) are unlikely to be healthy.

Ask yourself the following simple questions about a possible mentor (but bear in mind they need not necessarily “tick every box”) :

  • Where and when did they train, and what are their qualifications?
  • What performing experience do they have?
  • Have they ever taught piano in an established organisation, or only alone?
  • What has become of their former piano students? Do they still play?
  • How many regular students do they currently teach, and in what context?
  • Do they mostly teach children, adults, or a mixture? Beginners or advanced?

Of course we have much to learn from those who teach in different circumstances from our own; indeed it is hugely important that we do so. But the role of mentor goes beyond instruction and inspiration: active modelling, informed practical support, professional and personal empathy are all important.

Four ways to find your mentor

There are a number of routes that you can take when looking for a piano teaching mentor. Here, I will highlight four in descending order from the most ideal to the less-so.

1.  Firstly, looking back on your own musical development, can you think of a special teacher who might be able to offer ongoing support? If so, make an effort to reconnect. Don’t rush, but see whether that experienced teacher might actually be the mentor you are looking for.

2.  Secondly, if you teach within an organisation then (as I did earlier in my career) you may find the ideal mentor in a senior teacher who is willing to go above and beyond their job description.

3.  Thirdly, do you know of a successful, highly respected local teacher who might be willing to provide the support you are looking for? If so, make contact; although some might turn you away, most would be delighted to support you.

4.  Fourthly, there are many courses and training programmes which will pair you with a mentor as part of their overall programme. Care will hopefully be taken in providing a good match; the assigned mentor will have been vetted and will invariably do a wonderful job of supporting you.

Whichever route you take, the key is to make sure that you quickly form a positive connection with your mentor or else seek an alternative.

Realistically you might not find your mentor through any of these routes; if this proves to be the case I would suggest looking for comparable support from other friends and peers. Be open to the possibility that a mentor relationship may well initially develop informally.

It is important to avoid teaching in isolation, with nobody to turn to for advice and support. Becoming a member of a professional organisation, joining or forming a local teacher group can be of real value.

For all the benefits of Facebook and internet forums, you might equally receive the very best or worst of advice online, so caution is advised here. Always make sure you really know who it is who is giving you advice, and if possible check out their qualifications and ongoing teaching experience.

Avoiding mistakes 

This brings us to another important question: how do we spot those who are unsuitable to give advice or, dare I say it, the charlatans?

First of all, be very wary of anyone who suggests that established (“old fashioned”) methods of piano teaching are wrong; such a claim discourages you from questioning or comparing their advice to that of others, so can quickly become a very dangerous and misleading path.

The simple truth is that we have a tremendously successful, rich and varied heritage of great piano pedagogy to draw on; fresh new ideas are absolutely essential, but must always be tested and applied alongside those which are already well-proven to be effective. A good mentor will recommend that you try out a wide range of approaches, reflecting and evaluating what works best for you and your students.

Here’s some further tests:

  • The younger mentor’s teaching studio will be open to you, and thriving.
  • The older mentor may be slowing down, but will have a decades-long success story to draw on, and hopefully much wisdom to impart.
  • They will develop a genuine personal relationship with you.
  • A good mentor will be an attentive listener, focussed on helping you.
  • While some are forever promoting their own career, a good mentor will help you build yours.

Concluding Thoughts

This brings me to perhaps my most important thought: be discerning, and always reflect carefully on any advice and training you receive.

This commitment to ongoing reflection is just one of the many areas where having a truly sympathetic, supportive mentor can be especially rewarding; they will carefully and positively help you work through your questions, doubts, and concerns.

They will identify and encourage you to develop your unique strengths, and look for potential opportunities and avenues for you to continue exploring.

Their input will be profound. And they will do all this with integrity.

Finding such a mentor is invaluable indeed, as I myself happily discovered early in my career. It can be a hugely significant step on the journey towards becoming a mature teacher.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.