Teaching Music: Calling versus Business

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

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Finding Your First Music Students: a Comprehensive Guide for New Music Teachers

One of the most daunting aspects of starting out as a private instrumental teacher is finding your first students – especially if there are already several established teachers in your area. The good news is that there are a number of effective ways to advertise your service. The less cheerful fact is that that you are highly unlikely to acquire a vast number of students overnight, or get enquiries from intermediate or advanced players until you have built up a reputation. It is important not to adopt the attitude that teaching beginners is somehow a “lesser task” than teaching more advanced students. It is teachers who can transform their students from barely knowing how to hold the instrument to playing it competently and artistically who become oversubscribed and have the luxury of picking and choosing their students.

So how does one go about finding these students in the first place?

INTERNET ADVERTISING

The Internet has become so integrated into our everyday lives it really is hard to think of how we managed without it. All businesses with very few exceptions use the Internet in some capacity to attract new customers. Music teachers are no different, and there are three main ways in which we can exploit the online world without needing anything more than novice computer skills: online music teacher directories, classified websites and dedicated websites.

For private music teachers there are literally hundreds of online directories dedicated to advertising music lessons. Unlike Internet resources for promoting music, which are littered with scams and rip-offs, the vast majority of music lesson websites are trustworthy if not all hugely effective. They tend to follow a similar model, offering a basic free listing or a paid listing which offers the ability to add additional information and a picture or two; and comes up first in all relevant search results. These fees tend to be charged as an annual subscription which varies, but is normally a fairly modest amount. In the interest of getting noticed, it is worth paying for one or two featured listings, but don’t expect your phone to be ringing off the hook as a result.

There are several elements you should examine when signing up to one of these sites. Try to determine how popular it is – look at how many teacher listings there are and look for testimonials from users of the site – both teachers and students or students’ parents. Run a search for the site using basic keywords in popular search engines such as Google or Yahoo to see how well the site ranks. If it doesn’t show up amongst the first 5 – 10 results, it has much less chance of being found by prospective students. Keywords should be along the lines of “music teacher directory” or “find music teachers”. You can also be more specific and include the instrument you teach amongst your keywords – you may find some good specialist sites dedicated to your instrument or the family your instrument belongs to. Examine the site thoroughly and see that it runs smoothly and efficiently, is easy to use and has adequate search capability. Try to look at it from the perspective of someone seeking lessons for themselves or their child. If you’re searching for a piano teacher based in South London and your search pulls up trombone teachers based in Glasgow, you’re likely to abandon the site before you find what you’re looking for. Here is a list of reliable and popular UK-based teacher directories and classifieds:

1. www.musicteachers.co.uk

This is a highly user-friendly site with over 5000 teacher listings. The site also has very useful free resources for teachers ranging from articles on a variety of teaching issues, music curriculum material, manuscript paper and a page of useful links to other music and teaching-related sites. The cost of a premium listing is currently £12.99 per annum. Basic free listings are also available with no images or external links.

2. www.musiclessonsonline.co.uk

MusicLessonsOnline is a well-designed site which is incredibly easy to navigate and is very well geared towards students with a wealth of useful information. Articles include information on the cost of music lessons, finding an instrument, the difficulties faced by beginners and how to overcome these, and background on music history and theory. Featured listings cost £9.95 per annum and free listings with no images or external links are available.

3. www.thetutorpages.com

This is a directory for private tuition in a number of disciplines including music. The Tutor Pages has an interesting and unique model. In order to get a listing, you are required to submit a specialist article which is featured in your listing and included in the site’s information library. This is a great way to impress potential students and to get your creative teaching juices flowing. There are no free listings available, but profiles are very comprehensive with a “Q & A” section and the ability to upload documents like testimonials, your CV and more articles if you wish. Each profile is assigned a unique website address, making it much easier to be found on Google. The annual subscription fee is £19.50.

4. www.vivastreet.co.uk

Vivastreet is a general classifieds website and is free to use. There is a section dedicated to music lessons. Listings can include pictures and a link to your website if you have one. Although the site is not dedicated to music education, listings tend to rank highly on search engines and can be refreshed every week to make them easy to find.

5. www.partysounds.co.uk

Partysounds is a musician finder website and has a section dedicated to music teacher listings which are also free of charge. There is no facility for uploading images, but you can link to your website or a more comprehensive teacher profile.

6. www.yell.com

Everyone is aware of yell.com, the online version of the Yellow Pages directory. For that reason alone, it’s a good place to list your service – it gets a phenomenal amount of traffic. Yell does offer very basic free listings and unless money is no object for you, don’t consider paying for a more detailed and visible one. Furthermore, if you register a free listing, expect sales calls from them in attempt to get you to pay for a featured online listing or a Yellow Pages listing.

The above list is by no means comprehensive. There are many more sites worth exploring and the more you list your services on, the more your name will get noticed and associated with your instrument. Although there is very little chance of any of these sites being fraudulent, there are scamsters who target them. If you receive an unusual request – especially something that just seems too good to be true, you can rest assured it probably is. A recently popular scam involves tricking teachers into thinking they’re taking on a student for intensive lessons over a relatively short period – something like 5 lessons a week for 1 month. They will be asked to give a quote for this, and will be given an elaborate story about the student, who apparently comes from a foreign country but is visiting a relative in the UK and wishes to take music lessons while they are there. Should you take the bate and agree to teach them, you will then be given another elaborate story regarding the payment, which will go something like this: the student will be needing money to live off whilst they are in the UK, and you will be receiving a cheque for an amount that far exceeds the amount you have quoted. You will be told to keep the amount you quoted and withdraw the balance to give to the student. If you do this, you’ll find that the cheque has bounced, the student has disappeared without a trace and you have been defrauded of a substantial sum of money.

This particular scam is now fairly well documented and therefore less likely to happen, but there are many like it circulating the Internet, and it always pays to be vigilant. Any enquiry that doesn’t seem quite right probably isn’t, so trust your intuition. Be wary of how many personal details you share on your profile – an email address is sufficient for people to contact you in the first instance.

Having your own website can be excellent additional advertising but unless you have a fairly large budget to pay for it to be professionally designed and optimised to rank at the top of search engines it serves more as a brochure to direct people who have already found your details to than a means of finding new students. The cost of registering a domain name (i.e. http://www.yoursite.com) and hosting a website has come down so dramatically over the past few years that it has become a viable and affordable option for small businesses and freelancers. Having your website professionally designed can be pretty expensive, but with the much improved quality of easy-to-use website templates and web building software there is no need to pay someone to do it.

Social networking sites make a great alternative to having your own website and don’t cost anything at all. You can upload music and videos such as footage of a lesson you’ve taught that you have permission to use or something inspirational featuring your instrument from YouTube. You can also encourage existing students if you have any or colleagues to leave positive comments about you.

OTHER MEANS OF ADVERTISING

There are many other things you can and should do to get your name out there and acquire precious students. As previously mentioned, you may live in an area that already has numerous well-known teachers of your instrument. Although this is a daunting prospect, you can make it work to your advantage. Introduce yourself to them – ideally in person – and let them know that you are actively looking for students. Ask them to pass on any students they are unable to or would prefer not to take on. Some may already have a preferred teacher to take on their overflow, but it never hurts to ask, and striking up positive dialogue with experienced teachers has many other benefits. They will almost certainly be willing to offer advice when you need it, and may even be willing to watch a lesson or 2 of yours and provide you with valuable feedback. It is also worth introducing yourself to teachers of instruments in the same family as yours. Often their students will have a younger sibling who wishes to (or whose parents wish them to) learn your instrument.

There are plenty of old-fashioned advertising methods that are still perfectly adequate. Make sure that all of your local music shops know about you, and if they will allow it, ask them to put up a post card or poster in their shop window for you. Some charge a nominal fee for this, but nothing that will break the bank. You should also make yourself known to independent instrument makers and/ or repairers. Look around your local area for notice boards that you could post an advert on, see whether you can leave fliers at your local library and even consider putting up an advert in the window of your newsagent. These are all free or very inexpensive ways of getting your name about.

Although most schools use peripatetic instrumental teachers checked and supplied to them by their local authority, not all independent schools do. They are worth getting in touch with to discuss making their pupils aware of your service. You can ask them to mention this in their newsletter, let you put up a poster on their notice board or get their music co-ordinator to mention you to pupils already taking music lessons. You could even suggest that you visit the school to give the pupils a brief demonstration of your instrument. Be advised that unless you have an enhanced CRB certificate, no school private or otherwise is likely to recommend you.

Finally, you might consider paying for a listing in a business directory. Depending on the size and distribution of the directory and the amount of space your advert takes up, the cost can vary from reasonable to extortionate. The best known of these is the Yellow Pages, and they do not fall into the reasonable price category. They do offer a few additional services such as a dedicated 0845 number which tracks the number of calls you get. This is all very well, but from my experience the cost does not justify the number of students you actually end up acquiring. I have had better results with free online classifieds than I did with the Yellow pages. The smaller local directories of which there are many offer a more reasonable price and some actually hit a much better target. Overall, business directories are considerably more expensive than most online advertising and the results they produce can be a bit hit-and-miss. They also tend to nag a lot when your listing is approaching its expiry date.

CONCLUSION

So which of these advertising and search methods is the best? Simply put, they all have advantages, some have a few points to watch out for, and not one is a magic quick fix. So try them all – get your name known in your area as far and wide as possible. The real advertising starts when you achieve good results with your students. They will often be asked who their teacher is and if their parents are happy with their progress and see that they are enjoying their lessons, they will inevitably talk about you to others. But you have to get there first, so get online, get those posters and post cards printed and up in the shop windows and start chatting to other teachers in your area. Good luck!

 

© D C Cello Studio

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Setting Up Your Teaching Studio: Preparation for Private Instrumental Teachers

For most people – even those with a very natural ability to teach – the first lesson is a pretty nerve-racking experience. There is no magic fix for this. As you gain experience your method becomes more fluid and your confidence will naturally increase. There are however, several things you can do and take into consideration before you start searching for students, which will go a long way towards putting you and your first student more at ease and making those difficult early lessons run more smoothly.

TEACHING SPACE

This may appear to be pointing out the blindingly obvious, but there are several points to consider about your teaching space which are easily forgotten. If you are teaching from your home, it is essential that you have a quiet, reasonable-sized and well lit room where you are unlikely to be interrupted.

If you’re a student living in digs, this is probably going to be your bedroom. Providing there is enough space for two people with instruments and you ensure that it is kept tidy, this should suffice. You will need to let your housemates know that they should keep noise levels down and not disturb you. If you have more than a handful of students, tensions may begin to run high and you will need to consider an alternative location. It is also worth baring in mind that if your digs are more on the bohemian side, you may scare off your more conservative students.

This brings me to my next important point, which is that your teaching environment should serve as far as possible to put your students at ease. This is where teaching in your bedroom can be problematic – especially if your habits lean towards being untidy. An unmade bed, clothes lying around, piles of books, magazines and other clutter may mark it as your territory, but it will easily make strangers feel uncomfortable. A room that looks and feels like a music room – a piano, music books, musical pictures on the walls – is what your students will probably expect and will therefore help to make them feel more comfortable.

If you have the luxury of a designated practice room at your music college you may well be able to teach from there. This is obviously dependent on the rules and regulations of the building. If it can be arranged, it is by far your best option – especially if you teach a louder than average instrument that requires a sound-proofed room. Furthermore, a music college offers an inspired, creative environment and is far less likely to present the widespread distractions that a home environment can.

Your home situation may be better suited – i.e. fewer people living there and access to a living room rather than your bedroom. In this case you should probably still ensure that the neighbours won’t be bothered: this is more likely to be an issue if you teach in the evenings. If you know that your neighbours work during the day and you have thin adjoining walls you’ll be best off limiting your teaching hours to afternoons. You don’t want the stress of unnecessary neighbourly disputes or face having to lose students who can’t make lessons during the afternoon.

You may also consider teaching at your student’s home. This is often the best solution for students who don’t have suitable teaching space at home or college, and is ideal for the student who does not have to travel to his/ her lesson. The obvious drawback for you is the time and money spent getting to and from lessons, and this needs to be factored into your fee. You will need to plan your lessons carefully according to location (your students’ schedule allowing) to avoid spending as much time travelling as teaching. The points already made about having a quiet room free of distractions still stands and you will need to stress the importance of this at the earliest stage of contact. It may seem silly to point out that your student will feel completely at home being taught at home, but it is worth bearing in mind that this can have drawbacks of its own: predominantly that they are more likely to be distracted. This is why it is essential to stress to the student’s parents when organising lessons that they need to set aside a room roughly matching the aforementioned criteria where you will not be disturbed.

LESSON FEES

One of the most important factors to consider is how much you will charge for your services. This is by no means an exact science and will require research by you, as typical fees vary according to location, experience and instrument. For this reason I am not going to suggest figures as I could end up filling an entire book attempting to cover all areas and by the time I’d finished it would all be out of date.

If you have no teaching experience behind you and/ or you’re still working towards a qualification, you are not in a position to charge the same fees as someone who has been doing it for over a decade. Even if you’re a prodigy on your instrument, this does not by any means guarantee that you will be equally skilled as a teacher. You will need to find out what your compatriots are charging for their lessons, or find out what the going rate is for experienced teachers of your instrument and reduce it by 20 – 40%. This may seem like a lot, but essentially you’ll be learning on the job and you’ll still be making several times more than casual bar or restaurant work is likely to offer. Add to that your potential earnings from gigs if you do them and you’ll be far better off than most students! If you’re an experienced teacher who has just moved to a new town or city, find out what teachers at your level are charging. Don’t assume that your previous fees will be appropriate.

As previously mentioned, you need to factor in travelling costs if you teach at your students’ homes. You should make this clear to prospective students when advertising or quoting for lessons and explain that you are spending more of your valuable time and hard-earned money in order to teach them at home. Depending on how much travelling you do, you should increase your fee by 5 – 10% to cover your costs.

Beware of under pricing yourself in attempt to get more students or over pricing yourself when your experience does not stand up to your asking price. It may initially seem like a good idea to undercut the fees of all local teachers to lure more students, but there are reasons why this is not a good tactic. As silly as it may sound, when people are accustomed to paying a certain price for something, they become sceptical when they see it available for appreciably less. They will assume that you lack faith in what you can achieve as a teacher, and will have little faith themselves. You will find yourself in a position where you have fewer students than you were expecting and you’ll be earning under the odds for the amount of focus, skill and work required. For the same token, charging more than your experience is worth is risky. Ultimately, your reputation as a teacher is what enables you to gain and keep students and becoming an excellent teacher takes time, trial and error. If you are charging the same fees as teachers who are achieving great results with their students and you are not achieving similar results, you will loose students and you won’t find many new ones knocking at your door.

In summary: do your research, know your worth and cover your costs. Don’t give it away and don’t overprice.

STUDENT-TEACHER AGREEMENTS

It is essential that you establish an understanding with your student right from the start. Let’s begin by looking at your obligations to your student. These extend beyond teaching someone how to play an instrument. In as much as you expect your students to show up on time for each lesson, you have the same obligation. You expect them to practice; you should keep track of their progress, plan their lessons and set their goals. When they have performances or exams, you should make every effort to be there at no extra cost to them. If they need an accompanist it is up to you to find them one who is reliable. You need to assist them with instrument hire, purchase and upkeep ensuring that they don’t get ripped off, make an inappropriate purchase or get shoddy repair work.

Your student should understand your commitment to them and similarly what is expected of them in order to get the most out of their lessons. You need to decide whether you will charge cancellation fees: my advice is to stipulate that lesson cancellations are made within at least 48 hours of the lesson. Cancellation fees can be set at a sliding scale from 20% of the lesson fee to full fee for no-shows. This may sound a little on the harsh side, but your time is valuable and your students need to appreciate the importance of committing to a regular lesson time. There may be extreme circumstances in which you can wave the fees – that is also up to you. Whatever you decide, you need to stick to it and make your student fully aware from the start. Similarly, you need to stress the importance of consistent practice and make them aware that if they are not making sufficient progress due to lack of practicing, you have as much right as they do to terminate lessons. If they are aware of this from the start you will have open lines of communication however things go.

It is entirely up to you whether you wish to put these points into writing or not. You may feel that handing your new student a list of term and conditions is a bit on the draconian side and you may be right. But after all, you are entering into a business agreement and very few business agreements happen without a written and signed contract to protect the interests of both parties. To view the agreement I use, go to www.cellostudio.info/agreement.pdf. Feel free to download and modify the document to suit your own needs.

LESSON PREPARATION AND PROGRESS

It is not possible to plan instrumental lessons too rigidly as everyone learns at a different pace, and it will take a while to get a feel for each of your students’ capabilities. However, an outline of what you wish to cover – especially for a first lesson, be it yours or your student’s – makes things easier and more relaxed.

Your plan will obviously depend on what stage your student is at which is why it is also important to keep track of each student’s progress in order to set short and longer term goals. A first lesson teaching a beginner will be more focused on breaking the ice for both of you. This can be done by finding out a bit about them – hobbies, favourite subjects at school, what drew them to learning to play your instrument, etc. You will also spend a fair chunk of time explaining how the instrument works and how to take care of it. It is most important that they are given the opportunity to play something – no matter how basic – so that they have something to work on from the earliest stage apart from basic exercises. This means that you need to manage your lesson time carefully so as not to over run or finish earlier than planned.

Finding suitable teaching material is perhaps the most important aspect of lesson preparation and needs research. If you’re new to teaching, a good place to start for beginners methods is the first books you used. If these methods are still in print, it means that they are tried and tested and you will remember how they worked for you. It is also important to find out what new methods are out and try to find out what other teachers think of them. There are hundreds if not thousands of music communities on the Internet, many of which have at least some focus on teaching and these are excellent places to communicate with other teachers, compare notes and get advice. Your own teacher – whether you are still taking lessons or not – will also be able to point you in a good direction and advise you on which material to try. With time and your own experience, you will find which books you prefer and gravitate towards. You will need to inform your student of which books they will need and where to buy them. A good instrumental method will help enormously with lesson preparation – especially at earlier stages of learning.

How you keep track of your students’ progress is up to you and will depend on how you prefer to organise your admin. I find a simple Excel spreadsheet the most effective means of keeping track.

PRACTICING YOUR LESSON

If you’re new to teaching and feel nervous about taking on students, you may find it very useful to find friends or family members to practice on. This way you can familiarise yourself with your plan and the potential difficulties that can arise when trying to communicate something completely new and unfamiliar to a stranger. You’d be best off finding a fellow musician who does not play your instrument to give a few trial lessons to – ideally someone who has some teaching experience. Ask them for feedback after each lesson – they may not know anything specific about teaching your instrument, but there are principals of teaching that are universal and they will be able to help you with these.

Even someone who is not a teacher or even a musician can be helpful providing you know them, feel comfortable with them and can expect honest feedback from them on how they feel about your method. They may help to make you aware of certain things that you as an accomplished musician take for granted and thus encourage you to think analytically about these things so that you can find useful ways of explaining and describing them.

If your teacher is willing, ask him or her to observe one of these lessons for further constructive professional feedback.

CONCLUSION

So you see there are a number of important issues to think about and plan before you set yourself up as a teacher. The better you prepare yourself, the more at ease both you and your student will feel, and you are far more likely to give yourself a good start, which will hopefully develop into a successful and rewarding career.

© D C Cello Studio

Order or download my latest electronica-cello feast, Cellotronics