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

2011 in review

The very clever folks at WordPress.com have compiled this lovely report detailing The Cello Companion’s reader and blog statistic for 2011.

Thank you for reading, subscribing, sharing and making this blog a success. I hope 2012 is a fantastic year full of musical inspiration for all of you and I hope this blog continues to inform and entertain. I welcome ideas and suggestions for new posts, so if you have any please post them here!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 29,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 11 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

 

© D C Cello Studio 2012

Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing by Christopher Bunting: A Short Review

An essential read for any serious cellist or cello teacher. Christopher Bunting (1924 – 2005) was a world-renowned cellist and pedagogue whose methods and compositions have become an integral part of the cello-verse. He singled himself out as a teacher with his deeply intellectual and holistic approach to the learning process, stressing the importance of the psychological influence over the physical act of playing in each individual.

Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing goes into great detail on the psychology of playing, offering a great deal of food for thought and encouraging each cellist to closely examine his or her emotional and intellectual workings in order to assess why they encounter certain (well-known) physical hurdles on the instrument, and work out how to overcome them. Bunting clearly didn’t believe in short-cuts, and his playing was certainly a testament to this fact. Described by the Daily Telegraph as “a Master” and Die Welt as having “highly developed musical comprehension, prodigious technique and outstanding artistry”, we are left in no doubt as to what incredibly good hands we’re in from the first word to the last.

Christopher Bunting was by many accounts an intense and inspiring teachr with a fertile musical imagination and a dry sense of humour, all of which is evident and comes across rather beautifully in his writing. Expect silly puns at unexpected moments along with fabulous analogies and comparisons that put difficult concepts into sharp perspective.

Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing is more than a treatise on playing the cello, and also contains imaginative and hugely helpful exercises (many of which feature in the much more condensed Portfolio of Cello Exercises) with detailed explanations on what each is for, and how best to approach it.

Not an easy read, being fairly dense and packed with a remarkable amount of information and thought, but I can’t recommend it enough. Persevere if you find it heavy-going at first!

© D C Cello Studio

Can Cello Really be Self-Taught?

Speaking as a classically trained cello teacher who herself underwent years of tuition at school and Music College, I won’t deny that I am extremely biased. I simply can’t get away from the notion that learning an instrument like the cello can only be a successful endeavour under the instruction of an experienced and capable teacher, and even under those circumstances it certainly won’t work out for everyone. Am I being close-minded? As I conduct research for my own video/ e-book companion for cello students, I keep stumbling across teach-yourself cello methods that promise to enable literally anyone to play. Since none of the methods I have encountered thus far have actually given a definition of what “playing” actually is, I suppose they are not necessarily offering false hope – providing those subscribing to the methods do not equate playing with being able to perform great repertoire or play in a professional level orchestra. Many might argue that drawing the bow across the string to make a passable sound is also playing.

Furthermore, I don’t deny that certain instruments have a long list of outstanding self-taught players. It is more than possible to teach oneself to play an instrument and even take that skill to a professional level. However, I don’t believe that certain instruments – particularly the violin, the viola or the cello – lend themselves at all well to self instruction. I should add at this point, that I will not be drawn into the utterly pointless arguement of which instruments are “easier” or “more difficult” to play, and I am not suggesting that stringed instruments fall into either category. What I am considering, is the accessibility of these instruments when the student has no idea how to hold them, how to hold the bow, or where to place their fingers. I’m sure we can all agree that one of the most disagreeable sounds in the world is that of a violin or cello in the hands of a beginner. Whereas a piano or guitar – both instruments being more “user friendly” with a more intuitive interface to those who have never attempted to play them – may sound dull or uninteresting in the early stages, but never quite as dreadful as a stringed instrument.

Perhaps you think I’m being a snob, and that my concern is not based on the actual practicalities of learning the cello without a teacher, but on the implications of this actually being possible. If more and more people begin to realise that playing the cello is an achievable goal without the costly help of a tutor, people like me will be out of a job. I’ll tell you why I don’t lose sleep over the prospect of losing my business to self-instruction methods: even if it is possible to become a skillful cellist with only the assistance of a book and a few videos, there is a limit to the number of people out there who prefer the “DIY” approach.

As for whether anyone can learn to play the cello as well as they’d like to by following video and book instructions, I believe I’m looking beyond my personal bias when I say that I am far from convinced. Without regular feedback and correction on fundamental issues such as posture, balance, intonation and bow technique (and that’s just for starters) it simply isn’t possible to develop technique that isn’t fraught with tension and bad habits. One of the greatest sources of frustration for musicians is physical tension, pain and injury caused by inadequate technique. So even if your motivation for learning the cello is “just for enjoyment”, there is very little enjoyment to be found in trying to do something that just makes us feel out of our depth. Am I saying that those who study cello with a teacher will not encounter these problems? Sadly not. You may find yourself with a perfectly good teacher but simply not “gel” with him. You might end up with a less than capable teacher whose motivation is to earn a few extra bucks as opposed to helping you to find and develop your musicality. Or you might have an inadequate practice routine. There are many factors that can hinder the development of a music student of any instrument. My feeling is that without a good teacher, all of these factors will be stacked much more heavily against you. A good teacher gets to know her students on a number of different levels – personality, intellect, physical aptitudes, musicality – in order to develop an individual approach to each student. She will never take a one size fits all approach when helping a student to solve problems. A book or video series, no matter how well written and demonstrated, can only offer one approach which won’t work for everyone. It cannot offer several alternative means of explaining each concept without becoming saturated, unreadable and far too lengthy.

I would welcome comments from anyone who is currently teaching themselves to play the cello or has ever attempted to do so. What method did you chose and why? How would you describe your progress? What are your goals for your cello playing?

© D C Cello Studio