Many professional musicians or aspiring professionals will, at some point in their career, teach private music lessons. Not every performer will turn private teaching into a long-term career, but almost every professional musician will teach a few lessons at some point in his or her life.
Personally, I began teaching while I was pursuing my DMA, which, in retrospect, was an odd time to begin. Presumably, one pursues a doctorate in music because they intend to teach at a university, and it’s hard to know whether you actually like teaching if you have never done it before. Nevertheless, I began teaching only after I chose to pursue a degree that would set me on a path towards a career in teaching. It worked out well in the end, because midway through my degree, after opening my first private studio, I discovered how much I truly loved teaching, and, I suppose that was a particularly lucky revelation.
In spite of having completed not one, but two pedagogy courses specific to the clarinet, I ended up learning quite a lot on the job. There weren’t enough pedagogy courses in the world to prepare me for the scenarios that I encountered in my first two years. Since shifting my career from teaching pre-college to college students, many of those issues no longer appear in my day-to-day life. But, since I still enjoy teaching beginning clarinet students, and I intend to do so again in the near future, I thought it might be helpful to create a sort of guide-book for my future self, based on my past self’s experiences, mistakes, and successes. Subsequently, I realized that it might be nice to share my solutions with the world, so that others may benefit as well.
Before I continue, I’d like to emphasize that my self-help notes are not intended to replace a semester’s course on the subject of pedagogy, nor can they replace personal experience. That said, I hope that the following suggestions prove helpful for others who are starting out with their own teaching endeavors. Enjoy!
Design a Syllabus
It doesn’t matter if you are teaching six year olds or graduate students, you need to have a long-term and short term plan for your students. A good method book can help you with this, but if you don’t know what you want your students to learn, they will inevitably become bored, distracted, and may begin to wonder why they are taking lessons in the first place. You may choose to discuss those goals with your older students, to help them understand why they are repetitively completing trill exercises between the third and fourth fingers on their left hands. Explain to them what you hope they will learn in the next three months, or another chunk of time of your choice, and plan out very specific etudes, exercises, and repertoire to help them reach that goal. With the youngest students, keep your goals short, and very specific, remembering to limit your expectations to simple achievements, like learning new notes, improving embouchure, and breathing properly.
2. Set your Prices
This can be difficult to do. It is hard to evaluate your own worth, knowing that you want students, you need to earn money, and you don’t want to charge more than your clientele can afford. It can be uncomfortable, but you might want to ask colleagues with similar credentials and experience how much they charge—politely! Most people don’t like to talk about money, especially how much they personally earn. This can be a very personal subject, so only ask people with whom you feel comfortable discussing this subject.
3. Write a contract
Write a short but detailed contract that specifies weekly rate, payment options, and how you charge for no-shows and last-minute cancellations. Most private teaching will require you to travel. It can be deeply frustrating to arrive at a teaching location, only to discover that your student has forgotten to meet you. While your time and gas money will have been somewhat wasted, if you have a policy in place, you are within your rights to ask for payment for your time.
4. Don’t accept week-by-week cash payments
There are just too many other ways these days to pay for services rendered, that are frankly more dependable than good, old-fashioned cash. While it can be convenient to have an extra few dollars in cash in your wallet, it is more likely that you will be frequently left without any cash in your wallet or your checking account when your students inevitably forget to pay you. Even if you get around the discomfort of asking to be paid, sometimes, frankly, students or parents forget to send their kids to school with a check that day, or were unable to because someone else had to take the kids to school. In no other business is it acceptable to walk into a store, take a product, and leave, without any explanation, or with a simple “I’ll pay you next time.” In your studio, the product you are selling is education. Perhaps because it is not a tangible object, we are more likely to accept “I’ll pay you next week,” as an acceptable form of payment. Unfortunately, grocery stores do not accept IOU’s, so neither should we. Be polite but firm in your policies, and I suggest you have them set up automatic payments that transfer the day of your scheduled lesson, through a trusted money-sending app, such as Venmo or the Cash App. You may even set up a semesterly or monthly payment plan, with discount options for longer-term enrollment. Everyone loves a good discount! This works well for you, because you can enjoy the benefit of a guaranteed enrollment for an extended period of time, while the parents get to save a bit of cash. Of course, in conjunction with your cancellation policy, you may owe a few refunds when illness or emergencies occur. But a bit of security goes a long way, and after several years of no-shows, I would certainly shave a few a dollars off my paycheck if it meant fewer headaches in the long-term. I worked for a company that offered additional discounts for sibling enrollment, and I have also considered discounting students below a certain age, following the example of many museum and concert entrance policies. You’re running a business, and although you don’t want to compromise the value of your time and expertise, you should remember all of the spam you receive via USPS for $5 foot longs at Subway, and how many times you cashed in on those opportunities. Businesses aren’t donating their sandwiches, they’re bringing in customers who would not have otherwise walked in the door. I’m not paying 8 dollars for a sandwich. I’ll make my own! But if it’s 5 dollars and I’m realllly hungry…
5. Don’t feel (too) bad when students quit
I remember my parents throwing me into every group activity and enrichment class they could find when I was between the ages 5 and 10. I took piano, ballet, soccer, gymnastics, I even tried jazz dance classes, and volleyball. I was terrible at most of them, and ultimately only clarinet remained. The truth is, many parents just want their kids to be happy, and to find enrichment in something in their lives outside of school. Music seems like such a great and fun activity, that most parents hope their kids will enjoy learning an instrument. Sometimes they will, and sometimes, frankly, they won’t, but they’ll stick with it as long as their parents make them. If you are really, really struggling to get your student to practice, no matter how fun or exciting you feel you’re making the lessons—seriously, you wouldn’t believe the games and gimmicks I have purchased over the years to try to make music MORE entertaining. Sometimes, music really just isn’t for everyone. Of course, you should always be evaluating yourself as a teacher, and what works and is enjoyable for one student simply isn’t ideal for the next. Some kids love the challenge of learning new scales, while others only want to learn how to play their favorite song on the radio, and literally nothing else. You will have to find a healthy balance between helping the students have fun, so that they stay in lessons, and actually teaching them valuable lessons about the nature of music and their instrument. It’s a balancing act, and sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. The point is, don’t feel too badly when you lose your first student. I quit many, many things, and hope now, looking back, that I didn’t offend or hurt anyone’s feelings by doing so. In selecting only one activity, I was discovering what interested me, and it wasn’t necessarily a reflection on my teachers.
6. Yes, you can fire students
Now, in some cases you won’t really have a choice. If you work for a school, they might have policies that force you to continue to teach students that are continually showing up unprepared. If you’re teaching independently, you get to set your own policies about student behavior. If you are charging money for your lessons, that means that you value your time. If the students continually disrespect your time by not practicing adequately, forgetting their books, their instruments, or are using you as a glorified baby-sitter, then you should have a clause in place in your contract to terminate the lessons as you see fit, because they are disrespecting and wasting your valuable time. You may of course consider speaking with the parents and explaining your concerns and frustrations, as well as re-iterating their child’s responsibilities (although those responsibilities should be in the contract that they signed), but if the pattern returns or does not resolve within a pre-determined number of weeks, kind of like a probation period, then you should cut your losses and remove them from your roster. It can be very difficult to turn away students knowing that in doing so, you are voluntarily shrinking your paycheck. But your time and energy, as well as your mental health, are more valuable than an extra few dollars a week. And, you can use the opportunity to do other things, like practice, study, rest, have a lunch break, or set up an appointment to recruit students at a new band program you haven’t been to yet. You will find other students, and you won’t return home every day complaining to your roommates/partner/spouse about that same problem student who never practices. Your roommates/partner/spouse will thank you for it.
7. Organize your lessons
This goes along with designing a syllabus, and knowing what to teach the students. But, more narrowly, you should design a lesson format and stick to it, without exception. If your students learn what to expect in a lesson, they will learn what and how to prepare for it each week. If you suddenly stop hearing them play their etudes, because you got too into a discussion of voicing and tone quality, then pretty soon, your student is going to stop practicing etudes. OK, OK, there will definitely days when you need to spend time talking about a certain topic, but that should be a very rare, rare exception. If you start every lesson with long tones, scales, and etudes, your student will absorb that schedule in his or her mind, and begin practicing each of those items in that order. But I do concede, some days really are just Galper-only days. We all have those days.
8. Make them learn their scales
This sounds like a joke. Of course you will be teaching them scales in their lessons! But do they really know them? Find ways of ensuring that your students really have learned their scales, and once they’ve learned their linear scales, make them learn thirds and arpeggios. Give them regular quizzes on scales and discuss multiple practice methods. Hold them accountable for not learning their scales. Back when I was teaching pre-college students more regularly, I toyed with the idea of instituting a semesterly progress report to send to the parents. If the students know that you’re holding them to the same standards to which they are held in their STEM classes, they will begin to apply more effort to their musical studies. I think partly because music is partly a subjective area of study (don’t get me wrong—I strongly believe that the study of music is almost entirely objective), that students sometimes get the impression or approach music lessons from the perspective that it’s less important, less challenging, or demands less work than their other classes or activities. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and they need to learn from the very beginning that private lessons take hard work, time, and commitment. Rather than waiting for them to slip up with their practicing, lay down the law from the very first lesson! Let them know you will be evaluating them every week and providing their parents with progress reports, based on a very specific grading system. Set metronome markings and key signatures for the entire semester in advance, designate specific dates for midterm quizzes. If they haven’t been able to learn the material required of them, let them know that it will reflect poorly on their grade. Just because their private lessons grade won’t appear on their school report doesn’t mean their parents won’t be upset! After all, they’re paying extra for the music lessons. Now, some kids won’t need the threat of progress reports to make them practice, not all kids are this resistant! However, just the idea of setting goals and deadlines can impact and improve their rate of progress, and I encourage you to try it with your next batch of students.
9. Write down EVERYTHING
Require your students get a notebook or, better yet, a three-ring binder for their lessons. Have them include both college-ruled paper and staff paper. At the end of every lesson you should take a significant chunk of time to write down exactly what you want the student to prepare for next week. If you give them exercises or practice methods during the lesson, write those down, too. It’s not entirely their fault, but students will always forget something if it isn’t written down in the fine print. Memories are like that. So, to make sure they remember, (and so you remember) write down the assignment, in pen, with precise and specific practice methods. For the youngest students, you can write down things like “On Monday, practice numbers 4-12 3 times each. The first time, play the exercise at x bpm, the second time, y bpm, the third time, z bpm. On Tuesday, play the exercise 3 times in a row, beginning at a slightly faster tempo than yesterday’s starting tempo.” With your older students, you can include a list in the front of their binder of everything they should practice every day. My older students should practice 1. Long Tones, 2. Walking Long Tones, 3. Voicing exercises, 4. Scales (with a huge list on a separate page about how to practice scales) 5., Etudes, 6. Repertoire, 7. Additional technical exercises, if any (Klose, Kroepsch, Articulation, Intonation…) Identify exactly what part of the etudes you want them to improve upon, specifying tempo, measure numbers, fingerings, volume, sound quality, articulation quality., etc. Give them specific practice techniques. Remember, your students don’t have decades of experience with learning notes and prioritizing practice time. That’s what you’re there to teach them, so be specific, and don’t assign more than they can handle within a reasonable time. If you expect them to practice one hour a day, don’t give them 3 hours of assignments. Estimate practice time next to each assignment, so they don’t get overwhelmed, and so you know you’re being reasonable.
10. Make sure their equipment works
I’m not sure why this is coming last on my list, but in my experience most students’ instruments do not work. You should be prepared to speak with parents about repairing or buying new instruments. Most will not know the cost of musical instruments, so be upfront from the very beginning. Let them know that from time to time, their kid will need new equipment, like reeds, mouthpieces, and repairs to inevitable problems. Get them to buy a good reed case that will protect and hydrate their reeds, as well as the best instrument they can afford. Check their equipment regularly, and make sure they have a working mouthpiece. It wouldn’t hurt to know some basic repair techniques, as well, for those days when a student comes in with a missing cork or torn pad, or bent key. Get yourself a reputable repair manual, some replacement corks and pads, and start learning! If you have a backup instrument, and a few extra dollars in cash to spend on cork and pads, you could use it to practice basic repairs.
11. Make them practice long tones. And Galper. Every day is a Galper day.