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.
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.
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.
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.
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