Most musicians will change teachers several times throughout their lives. Each level of player requires a different skill set, and some teachers are naturally better at teaching some skills
than at others.
Beginners need someone who can nurture their love of music, teach the fundamentals, and help establish productive and positive practice routines.
Intermediate players need help with specific practice strategies, new concepts and literature, technical skills, and building the consistency and robustness of their practice routines.
Advanced students benefit most from a teacher who can continue to bring new challenges, who helps fine-tune skills. An advanced teacher may be focused on musicality more than technique, or help more with self-management and performance skills.
Sometimes it’s obvious that you need to change teachers. Other times, it may just feel like something isn’t quite right. Here are some things to look for.
They are emotionally abusive or overly critical
Let’s start with the obvious: There is never a good reason to put up with an emotionally abusive teacher.
This type of teacher seems especially common in college music programs and conservatories, where the ego and reputation of the teacher can outweigh the growth and emotional health of the students. These people should be fired. If you are in a music school with one of these teachers, you should do whatever it takes to get away—request another teacher if there is one available, submit a formal complaint to the dean (document specifics and enlist the aid of other students when possible), even transfer to a different school if necessary. If you’re not in a music school, the solution is even simpler: stop working with this person immediately. Finding a new teacher should be secondary—first, get away from this teacher now.
A good teacher should be focused on solutions; if they offer a lot of criticism without offering solutions, it’s a good indication that they are a bad teacher, even if they have a good reputation (Often a reputation is based more on performing history than teaching ability). Don’t believe the toxic mythology that “this teacher could ruin your career.” That mythology is itself a pretty good indication that the teacher is abusive. The trauma of emotional abuse has ended far more careers than a damaged reputation ever has.
You’ve outgrown their knowledge
Even the best teachers have a limit to how much they can teach you. The acquisition of knowledge is asymptotic—at the beginning you’ll learn a lot from a teacher, but as time goes on and the easy improvements have been absorbed, it will become more difficult to improve. If you feel like your progress has stalled, it may be time to move on to a teacher who has more to offer.
They lack clarity
Performing and teaching are two different skills. Often, the best performers are not very good teachers, and vice versa. If your teacher can’t clearly express next steps to improvement, or is assigning exercises without telling you the purpose, or without offering strategies on how to approach them, it may be time to start looking around.
You feel regularly discouraged or bored
Sometimes even the best teachers are a poor fit. When I was in college, I decided to take piano lessons as an adult beginner. My piano teacher, who was clearly doing amazing work with the piano majors, was at a loss for how to teach me. She regularly assigned music that was too difficult and expected me to practice two hours a day (in addition to my voice and trumpet practice and my other schoolwork). I quit after only a few lessons. She wasn’t a bad teacher, she was just the wrong teacher for me. Lessons should involve some frustration as you struggle through new concepts and skills, but if it’s all frustration or all boredom, you should find a new teacher.
You’re their best student
If you’re the best student in their studio, it’s a clue that you might be ready to move on to a more challenging teacher. However, it’s not a guarantee, and you should look for other clues, like your levels of frustration and boredom. Unfortunately, few teachers have the self-awareness to realize that you may have grown beyond their abilities, and they are unlikely to tell you it’s time to move on.
A good teacher can be invaluable in helping you improve, but your growth is primarily your responsibility. A teacher can guide you, but they are there to serve you. If you feel like they aren't serving you, either because they are too full of their own ego, too concerned with their own reputation, or simply can't offer you what you need, you have the right to find better help elsewhere. And you should exercise that right.