A Guide to Private Music Tuition in the UK
What is private music tuition?
Private music tuition is the term used to describe one-to-one instrumental, vocal or theory lessons.
Who is it for?
Children and adults of all ages can take private music lessons.
Many parents are keen for their child to begin learning an instrument at a young age, although the optimum age will differ depending on the instrument (keep reading for more information on this). The Suzuki Method, for example, specialises in starting children as young as three years old.
Many adult learners are returning to an instrument they used to play as a child, but have not played for many years. Others have reached a point in their lives where they are finally able to start an instrument they’ve always wanted to play.
According to a recent ABRSM report on music making, 36% of children currently take lessons in an instrument (either at school in groups or privately). Among these, the number of children having private music lessons has increased from 32% in 1999 to 43% in 2014.
65% of adults who currently play have had private music lessons at some point, but on average only 5% currently have lessons (2.5 million people). However, this percentage rises to 12% when looking at the 25 - 34 year old age bracket.
Where is it held?
Private music tuition takes place in a wide variety of locations. It can occur at the student or teacher’s home, in schools and at music tuition centres. Music conservatoires also have programmes where children can learn a musical instrument on the weekend, such as at the Royal College of Music Junior Department.
Private music lessons are not usually provided by schools as part of the music curriculum, although some schools offer whole-class instrumental teaching for a period of time. Private music lessons in schools are usually charged to the parent and delivered by visiting 'peripatetic' music teachers who may be provided through the local authority or music hub, or engaged directly by the school.
What are the different instruments?
Children and adults take lessons in a large number of different instruments. Here is a list of some of the more popular choices:
- Strings (violin, cello, viola, double bass, harp)
- Brass (trumpet, trombone, french horn, euphonium etc)
- Woodwind (flute, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bassoon, recorder etc)
- Drum Kit
- Guitar (classical and electric)
- Keyboard (electric)
- Voice (classical, jazz and pop)
How do I choose an instrument?
When choosing an instrument, there are a number of factors you should consider:
What age can I start?
Piano, strings and drums lessons can begin at a very early age (sometimes even from age 3). However, many brass and woodwind teachers recommend that children have their adult front teeth before starting lessons. Some singing teachers also recommend that children only start formal singing lessons after puberty.
At the other end of the scale, remember that you’re never too old to learn!
Is there a teacher in my area?
There are hundreds of music teachers across the UK listed in our tutor directory. Remember, it’s entirely free to contact any tutor through our website.
For most people, simple personal preference plays a huge part in choosing an instrument. If you’re a parent and you’re unsure which instrument to choose, consider the pros and cons of some of the most common instruments:
Piano - pros: excellent for developing a knowledge of harmony and a deep understanding of music; many people also take up the piano as a second instrument for this reason. There is a huge amount of incredible repertoire written for the piano - more than for any other classical instrument. Cons: good pianos are expensive. Whether piano practice will disturb neighbours can also be something to consider if living in a flat or terrace (although an electric piano and headphones can be a way of overcoming this issue). The piano is not commonly an orchestral instrument, so if you want to join an orchestra, this may not be the instrument for you.
Singing - pros: singing is unique in that ‘you are your instrument’, so there’s no extra expense. There are many opportunities to sing with others, such as in a choir or a band. Singing lessons will help the student control and use their voice to best effect, and without damage. Cons: as a singer, you have to work hard to take care of your voice - things such as late nights, dehydration and illness will have a big impact on your ability to perform.
Violin - pros: the violin also has a large classical repertoire, and there are twice as many places for violinists in orchestras as there are for violists or cellists. The violin plays a central role in many musical genres - classical, folk, jazz. It’s small and relatively portable. Cons: There are twice as many violinists wanting to join the orchestra - it’s a very popular instrument! The higher register of the instrument is not to everyone’s taste. Other instruments to consider: Cello, viola, double bass.
Clarinet - pros: a versatile instrument with a place in both classical and jazz music. Small and portable. There is quite a bit of classical chamber music written for strings and clarinet. Cons: a common instrument to learn, and possibly strong competition for orchestral places. Other instruments to consider: oboe, bassoon.
Trumpet - pros: can be found in orchestras, wind bands, brass bands and in jazz music. The trumpet often gets to play the main melody line and stands out in the texture of a large ensemble. Cons: there are fewer opportunities for small ensemble classical playing. Practice may disturb neighbours. Other instruments to consider: french horn, trombone, tuba.
Guitar (classical and rock/pop) - pros: a popular instrument in bands, so many opportunities to form groups. The guitar isn’t a loud instrument, so you’re not likely to disturb neighbours when practising. Cons: as a classical guitarist, there are fewer opportunities to play with others (as it’s not an orchestral instrument and there is not a large chamber music repertoire).
The bassoon, oboe, trombone, french horn and viola, amongst others, are less common instruments to play. All of these instruments have an enjoyable repertoire of pieces and are satisfying instruments to learn. Opportunities to play in orchestras, bands or ensembles may be greater, as there are shortages of players of these instruments.
What are they?
There are two main exam boards in the UK: Trinity College London and the ABRSM. Both offer exams from pre-Grade 1 through to Grade 8, with the options of Diploma levels after Grade 8. Exams are offered for piano, voice and a wide variety of string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments.
Grade exams require the performance of three pieces (chosen from a list provided by the exam board), and tests involving scales, studies, sight reading, aural skills, improvisation and musical knowledge. Candidates may be able to choose which three of these tests to include, depending on the exam board and the grade level.
Exams can be taken at a network of public centres across the UK and Ireland, and the exam boards will also send examiners directly to schools and institutions with at least three hours' worth of candidates.
A student does not need to take all of the exams in order. For example, it is possible to take Grade 5 without having taken any of the previous grades. The ABRSM requires candidates for Grades 6 and above to have also passed the ABRSM Grade 5 Theory exam (a written theory test). For more information on theory exams, see here. Trinity College London does not require candidates for Grades 6-8 to have passed a theory exam, so technically it would be possible to take Grade 8 with this exam board without having taken any of the previous grades (though not necessarily advisable!). Trinity does however offer theory qualifications at both grade and diploma levels, and Trinity Grade 5 Theory is accepted by ABRSM.
Grades, like academic exams, have marking boundaries that determine what level of pass a candidate achieves. In the ABRSM, grades are marked out of 150: 100 is a pass, 120 is a merit and 130 or above is a distinction. For Trinity, exams are marked out of 100: 60 is a pass, 75 is a merit and 87 is a distinction. After the exam, candidates are issued with a report form with detailed comments from the examiner, and successful candidates are sent a certificate.
A pass, merit or distinction in Grades 6, 7 or 8 can also be translated into UCAS points to help with university entry.
As well as classical music grades, both Trinity College London and Rockschool provide graded exams based on rock and pop music, for instruments such as guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboard and vocals. The structure of these exams is similar to traditional grades, with the candidate performing three songs, technical work and supporting tests (called ‘session skills’ in the Trinity Rock & Pop exams). UCAS points are also awarded from Grades 6-8.
Do I need to take exams?
This depends entirely on you and your teacher. Some learners do not find them helpful, and some teachers feel that exams promote a form of learning that is not conducive to becoming truly skilled in an instrument. On the other hand, exams can provide an outside assessment of a student’s skill level, and give candidates an experience of what it’s like to perform under pressure and for assessment (which may be useful when auditioning for scholarships/ college entry/ orchestras/ bands). According to the recent ABRSM survey, 64% of adults who currently play have taken an exam, but only 22% of children who currently play have taken one.
Learning music online?
Learning an instrument online can mean watching pre-recorded tutorial videos (such as a ‘how-to’ video on Youtube detailing how to tune a guitar) or a real-time lesson using a video link (such as Skype) with a real teacher.
The Tutor Pages conducted a survey on online private tuition and found that only 16% of music teachers who took part in the survey had taught a student over the internet. Most were sceptical about the auditory, visual and kinaesthetic limitations of teaching via the internet, but there are some advocates.
Most of the music teachers in the survey felt that face-to-face lessons were better, but if there were reasons that meant that this was not possible (no teachers in the local area, illness or disability, or families travelling internationally because of work) then many would be willing to try online teaching.
For a more in-depth article on learning a musical instrument online, please see our Love to Learn blog post on learning a musical instrument online.
One of the most enjoyable and motivating things about playing a musical instrument is being able to meet up and play music with others. The following websites can help you find orchestras, bands and ensembles in your local area:
To be clear, we don’t mean Glastonbury and the like! There are a large number of mainly classical music festivals across the UK that tend to hold competitive classes in orchestral instruments, piano, singing, choirs and ensembles. They are commonly open to amateurs and students and involve a performance in front of an audience. The performance is marked by a group of adjudicators. Cash prizes or cups can be awarded to the winners of each category.
Classes will often be divided by age, and can also be split into categories such as ‘concerto’ ‘sonata’, and even by composer (such as a Bach or Chopin class for pianists). Some festivals or classes within festivals will provide a list of pieces that entrants must perform (similar to a grade exam), but there will often be classes that provide a free choice of piece.
More information on music festivals, and a list of UK festivals can be found at: www.federationoffestivals.org.uk