Today did not start well. I hadn’t even taken my first sip of tea before I noticed an unread text message on my phone from one of my new students. I knew what it was going to be about. Nonetheless, I opened it and was faced with a lengthy excuse for why she would not be able to make her lesson scheduled for 10 am. I felt the temperature of my blood threatening to reach boiling point, and decided not to reply until I had finished my first cup of tea. This was in the hope that I would feel less inclined to send a message that would make a sailor blush. There are further reasons for why I should react quite so explosively to a cancelled lesson, but they are not important or ultimately what this post is about.

You see, this particular irritation has happened in the middle of what I can only describe as a major reassessment of my role as a teacher and the business I am running. It highlights issues that private teachers (not only in the field of music) face the world over. This is only one of the many issues we wrestle with in our day-to-day professional lives. Other transgressions sure to raise my blood pressure include late or missed payments, failure to practise, and constantly changing what should be a regular lesson time. Some of these problems create financial discomfort, while others are frustrating to my pedagogical sensibilities. In other words, some students can be bad for business while others can be bad for our professional progress. Here I should point out that such students are always in the minority. The majority of people who make the investment in private lessons for themselves or their children do so out of a genuine desire to learn, or to enrich the educational and personal development of their children.

However, it only takes a few time-wasters to cause a disproportionate amount of frustration and stress. At the earlier stage of one’s career, the notion of terminating lessons is unthinkable unless it’s the student doing the terminating, and that’s never easy to accept. This was certainly my perspective when I was building my practice and really needed more students, not fewer. But thinking back, there was never a “problem” student who didn’t end up quitting their lessons within one year of starting. I might have saved myself a good deal of that frustration and stress if I had shown them the door as soon as I realised that they weren’t going to be long-term prospects. One of the reasons I never did (apart from the obvious fear of reducing my earnings) was the voice of my idealistic inner teacher, which told me I could inspire them to become committed cello students with persistence and the exploration of every possible avenue. I am pleased to say that I haven’t lost that nagging voice. I believe it is a very important aspect of what makes me a good teacher. Everyone who embarks on the journey of learning to play an instrument experiences periods of self doubt and despondency. At times like these they need a teacher who recognises what they’re experiencing and refuses to let their self doubt win. Fifteen years after giving my very first cello lesson I have learned to determine when to embrace the idealistic inner teacher voice and when to listen to my business head, which has taken some time to find its voice.

When I began teaching professionally my philosophy was that anyone – no matter what age, background or experience – could learn to play the cello if they really wanted to. Fifteen years later my philosophy remains the same, but I have learned that a person who decides to take cello lessons isn’t always a person who really wants to play the cello. I used to think that only young children who were forced into music lessons fell into that category. I have since learned that the most enthusiastic adult beginners can lose interest very quickly, and the most unwilling young beginners can turn into passionate players. You can never really tell from first impressions.

What I have also come to realise in my gradual epiphany, is that I am running a business which makes up a significant percentage of my overall income as a musician. That may sound like a feeble epiphany, since any freelance activity in which money is charged for a professional service is a business. But we musicians are not known for having business heads. We work in a nebulous, subjective and ever-changing industry which is notoriously difficult to succeed in. Qualifications, while often required depending on which avenue we choose, do not make us musicians in the way that they make doctors, accountants or lawyers. So we enter our field with gnawing doubt and uncertainty, never convinced we’re good enough to do what we do and always convinced that we shouldn’t charge too much for fear of being arrogant or simply being laughed out of the room. It takes a while to shake those feelings and some never do. But the sooner you realise that your students (the bad apples aside) keep coming back to their lessons because they have confidence in what you do, the better. When you realise that, you’ll realise that there is nothing wrong with telling people you’re good at what you do, and nothing wrong with expecting a certain level of commitment and respect from your students. If they have no respect for your business and the value of what you are doing for them, it is unlikely that they will have any respect for your expertise. Would a lawyer or an accountant take on such a client?

You might be wondering about the content of my reply to the hungover student. I told her to get well soon, and that I looked forward to hearing back from her on Wednesday. Does that negate everything I have just written? No. There has to be a certain amount of leeway. She has two strikes, but she has also shown real enthusiasm. She has only just begun and she knows exactly what my expectations are because I have explained them and given them to her (and every other student I teach) in writing. I still see in her the potential that I see in all of my new students. Should she strike again, she’ll have to find another teacher, and perhaps she’ll treat that teacher with a little more respect when she realises that we’re not mugs who were born yesterday. And she may turn out to be a very capable amateur musician under my guidance. I hope it’s the latter, but I’ve made peace with the fact that not every student who comes through my door will turn into a joyful story to add to my memoires.

© D C Cello Studio


6 thoughts on “Teaching Music: Calling versus Business

  1. Dear Deryn,
    This is so well written, and, you have given voice to to the problems and frustrations that, as you mention, effect you, and so many other private teachers, on such personal, emotional and financial levels.

    For someone to make an appointment with a professional that charges a fee, and then not show up, not follow the expectations and policies of that Professional, is understandably infuriating. Being that timed appointments representing YOUR commitment to be there and available – and representing a planned source of income. When it falls through for any reason, that time-slot and anticipated income is never really made up. It is just wasted, when it could have been filled by another student, or another activity.

    If I try to pull that kind of bovine excrement, I am required to at the very least pay a cancellation fee, but usually the entire amount and reschedule and pay the full amount again.

    This article is written so openly, candidly, and respectfully. You are such a lovely soul. YOU are “insanely talented”, a virtuoso of Cello and Piano. Your ‘credentials’ are impeccable’, and more than that you are a compassionate and passionate “Creative”, Artist, Composer, Writer, Person, and Friend.

    You never fail to Inspire. If that inspiration happens to lead someone to the realization that they are not ready or well suited for Cello, so be it. You have fulfilled your part of their journey. They will find their way, as you have found yours.

    Live – Love – Be Blessed, my friend.
    Music is a Healing Art


    1. Thank you so much Robert for such a warm and generous comment. It really means a lot to me. I feel I should point out that I do charge a full lesson fee for cancellations made less than 24 hours before the lesson. I used to be rather lenient about that, but I make no exceptions these days. Not only for my own benefit, but in fairness to all of my students.

  2. Dear Deryn,
    thank You very much for the nice post again. I was about to leave a long comment detailing how I face similar situations with my supervised students, and how I feel on the other side as a beginner with the cello. But I wouldn’t end up to any world shaking statement, so I don’t waste the characters 🙂 What I try to do as a student is to be honest and respectful with my teacher. If I’ll loose motivation (hopefully not), I’d feel it correct to tell it to Her in a straightforward way, and also finish the semester the best I can, since I assigned myself to that “duty”, when I enrolled to the school.
    Hope to read from You soon again!

  3. Deryn,

    Thank you for this wonderful article!
    I am a piano teacher and can fully relate to this. I used to be very forgiving about rescheduling but not anymore. I now choose to respect my family time and not let it interfere with a make-up lesson for a student who had to cancel her regular lesson due to a play date or beach party.
    I hire a babysitter to stay with my child while I teach so if students choose to cancel I shouldn’t have to loose the expected income. Unfortunately some students don’t see it this way.

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