Understanding formal music qualifications in New Zealand and the musical grade system, a brief summary:
In New Zealand, instrument teachers often offer music pupils the opportunity to prepare and sit grade or diploma examinations with an external examination board, based outside the state school system. These boards are usually operated from the UK, Australia or New Zealand. The syllabuses of these examination systems can vary in quality but the established boards have a long record of educational excellence.
Progressing though the grades is roughly akin to progressing through the years of the school system. An average music pupil will comfortably progress through one grade per year, although, unlike the formal school curriculum, it is quite common for a motivated or talented music student to progress through grades at a higher rate or even to leap-frog over levels.
In New Zealand, grade 7 to grade 8 in performance on an instrument are regarded as a reasonable prerequisite level for entry, often by audition, into tertiary performance courses. On some instruments and in some areas of study, performance prerequisites are higher (e.g. for classical pianoforte), in others they are lower ( notably for rock music and popular music courses outside the universities).
An Associate Diploma (e.g. ATCL) is equivalent level to completing a first or second year of music study at a conservatory of music or university, a Licentiate Diploma (e.g. LTCL) equivalent to a second or third year performance level. Traditionally an associate diploma has a slightly broader musical base than the licentiate qualification, the later often emphasises performance skills over theory. Nevertheless, both diplomas indicate a high degree of musical proficiency in both performance and theory. The award of Fellowship to an examination board is the highest award offered by the boards, candidates are often chosen by invitation only.
Prior to the mid 1990s New Zealand universities sometimes offered a three year full-time performance course, awarding a Diploma in Performance, the bachelor degree (performance) then requiring four years study. The diploma has been superseded by a three year bachelor degree (performance).
Some musical examination boards offer diplomas in music teaching, with or without emphasis on a particular instrument. If you are in any doubt regarding type and emphasis of the various diplomas, clarification can usually be found in syllabus descriptions on the examination board's websites.
Modern New Zealand music degrees require three years (Bachelor of Music) to four years (BMus with Honours) of full time study, They can involve a major in composition, musicology or performance. Master degrees usually require a further year of full time study. All are good foundations for music teaching, however in the author's view, when specialising in instrumental teachiing, a non-performance orientated degree is best coupled with at least a grade seven or eight performance qualification.
In the writer's observation, performance qualifications gained from institutions outside universities or music conservatories, such as from polytechnics and community colleges can range in quality from being very poor to being equivalent to the entry level for university study (grade 7 or grade 8).
Classroom teaching qualifications from teacher training institutions are no guarantee of expertise or competence in instrumental teaching.
Choosing your teacher
The following is a personal reflection on choosing a guitar teacher and related subjects, hopefully it may be of some use to readers without being overbearing.
The first question to address is why use a teacher at all? There is an abundance of tutor books, instructional DVDs and internet courses on the market, all claiming to teach the guitar. The answer is that none of these resources can replace or deliver the outcomes possible from a good music teacher. At its most obvious, progress in learning a musical instrument requires constant monitoring and feedback. A teacher will be able to answer your questions, will be best placed to know when you are ready to progress to the next stage of the learning process and will set material appropriate to you. A teacher will be able to correct technical issues before they become a problem and a teacher will motivate you and provide inspiration. All of these advantages allow a student to advance faster, more confidently and more enjoyably than by struggling by on their own.
Musical instrument teaching is also an activity unregulated by any statuary authority in many societies, including here in New Zealand. In New Zealand the Institute of Registered Music Teachers (IRMTNZ) provides some anchorage for instrument teaching standards outside the state educational system and arguably it does so better than the state does within its own system.
Many music teaching websites explain at length and stress the benefits of choosing a properly qualified teacher.
Since considerable investment of both time and money is under consideration, discerning parents and students justifiably regard a teacher's qualifications as as important. After all, they wouldn't expect an unqualified person to design their house or guide their children through NCEA in New Zealand schools.
Enrolling in an established private helps to ensure that you will receive tuition from an appropriately qualified teacher but even that is not a guarantee of such. It always pays to inquire as to the qualifications and experience of your intended teacher before enrolment.
First lessons are arguably the most important a student will ever receive, the first year of learning lays down much of the foundation for future success. It therefore pays the beginner to choose their teacher with particular care as beginners are also the most vulnerable to poor tuition. For example, teachers with a limited understanding of technique can cause damage to a beginner's development. This is often initially unapparent to the pupil but later results in impeded progress, physical discomfort and much frustration. In addition, such setbacks to technique can be very difficult to correct at a later date. At worst they can cause the pupil to blame themselves for their difficulties and then stop learning altogether, accompanied by the loss of self-esteem that goes with such a misunderstood reason for their failure. If a teacher can not teach at an advanced level then they have little qualification to teach beginners.
Teaching experience can go a long way toward providing skills that make for being a good music teacher but experience is best accompanied by formal training. The self-taught teacher is at far higher risk of passing on their own shortcomings to their students. Thanks to their training the formally qualified have been made aware of the wide range of skills that make for a being complete musician. A teacher's training should also include an advanced performance component. You will be learning the mechanics of playing, so it is essential your teacher has a high level of playing expertise and understanding of the mechanics that are necessary to achieve this.
Given that you have made inquiries, your teacher ideally holds a music diploma, degree or other training/qualification - and to put icing on the cake your teacher is experienced as well - you must still feel comfortable with your teacher. A teacher's university qualification is no guarantee of a teacher's ability to clearly convey information and to relate well to pupils.
A trial period can help you get to know your teacher and gain confidence in the future of the teaching relationship.
Once committed to lessons I believe that students owe it to both themselves and their teacher to have good reasons should they wish to discontinue tuition - that a student has not been immediately set to learning music from their favourite artist or can not see the immediate point in persevering through certain exercises and techniques - these are seldom good reasons to discard a teacher or abandon tuition, despite the expectations of today's instant society. Students do not always fully appreciate immediately the reasons a teacher requires certain things of them.
Whilst acknowledging that I learn from all of my pupils I am not of the persuasion that best progress is achieved by allowing the tail to wag the dog in terms of pupils dictating the course of study. The relationship is fundamentally, and rightly, one of teacher and pupil.
Motivation is maintained by success.