So You Want to Be a Music Teacher?

October 26, 2006, 10:39 PM · Preaching to the Younger Generation of Musicians

by Rhiannon Nachbaur of http://www.fiddleheads.ca

I've overheard teenage musicians mention casually they are considering teaching music to make extra money. I am compelled to butt in, “Do you enjoy teaching?” the answer I interrupt with “Are you patient?” Their response: “Like, I play wicked, teaching will be an easy gig.”

My response: maniacal laughter.

Teens, let us hear the wise old violin teacher preaching a holy sermon from atop a glorious mountain of experience: Teaching music isn't a luxurious life of sleeping in late, illuminating the unquestioning minds of flocking prodigies through 30-minute jam sessions and writing off all your music gear and fast food meals come tax time. Lord have mercy on our souls.

Simply put, teaching music is weekly customer service, with occasional late night support calls when the instrument falls out of tune or the player is struggling. A teacher is dealing with customers who are exploring new ground, hence requiring lessons in the first place, and is responsible for helping advance them into musicians who no longer require our services.

Sounds easy, except that the most trying aspect of customer service is, oddly enough, the customer. The human collective is a random grab-bag of mixed egos and inhibitions, fears and potential, attitudes and limitations. Even the ideal customer, who listens closely, asks exactly the right questions and retains everything they have ever been taught, cannot master music in an afternoon. (At least we teachers have a semblance of job security).

Music, a vast system of pitch, velocity and rhythm that can take a lifetime to understand, has been further complicated with pedagogy. There are more styles to teach violin than there are ways to cook an egg. Each method claims theirs is the most effective way to master the instrument, they have countless scientific studies to prove it and please enter your credit card number here.

A teacher has to weed through the dogmatic hype and come out with a cohesive teaching concept that jives with their own approach to playing and learning. They also have to understand their instrument inside and out, keeping in mind a clear idea how and when to introduce new concepts as to not overwhelm the student. After carefully formulating a perfect lesson plan, the teacher will then scrap it all and reinvent their method when it inevitably doesn't fit the student's learning style.

A good teacher is not locked into one method or way of explaining ideas. Instead they receive feedback from the player and interpret it into a lesson that will make an impact.

What makes the most impact, you ask? Repetition. Repetition. Then you do it again. Detach yourself from how many times you've played “Fur Elise” or corrected that particular eighth note. There are pin-sized holes in my eardrums from “Twinkle Twinkle” and I develop an itchy rash prior to our annual Christmas recital, but I've found a Zen peace in accepting my fate.

I see each lesson as a new chapter in the life of a musician I am helping along. With experience, lessons have developed their own rhythm and my teaching days swoop past me.

The repetition can get to some people, like the crusty old piano teacher, the one everyone seems to have had as a child, who wielded a nasty ruler for discipling unwanted notes. I knew a guy in high school who whacked his violin students on the head with his bow whenever he, the teacher, became frustrated.

A teacher cannot crack when the student plays the wrong note for the hundredth time, so impatient musicians must carefully consider their suitability as teachers.

“Penny whistle teacher needed: Psychopaths with Intermittent Explosive Disorder need not apply.”

Instead of whopping students with a pernambuco stick with hair, my aforementioned colleague could have channeled his infinite aggression into another enjoyable branch in the music industry, such as fending off broken beer bottles at the country bar or smashing double-neck guitars for screaming mobs at GM Place. Last I heard he's still teaching at the music store, but has invested in a heavy carbon bow and a cocktail of barbiturates.

Once a player has established that teaching is a good direction to take and they have passed all the inkblot exams without incident, he or she needs to lay down a teaching foundation. Selecting a method book to use is one thing, but the teacher needs to develop a mission statement and their goals in teaching.

My mission focuses on two words: Inspiration and Encouragement. My goals include “music as a life experience” and sharing my love for violin among friends. The mission statement and goals serve as a guide whenever I am faced with a decision or problem in my work, it's sort of an operations manual for my business. And that's what teaching music really is: a business.

I urge all musicians who plan to make their music more than a hobby to take business classes on marketing and promotion, finances and taxes, and business plans. Learn to promote yourself because no one will know who you are if you just sit at home chatting on MSN (or posting violin blogs, for that matter).

Keep good financial records so you are prepared for tax season. There are far too many exceptional musicians, performers and teachers who are stuck on the dole or playing for the coming and going liquor store clientèle due to poor business practices.

You don't have to be a marketing whiz or a lawyer, though your mother would prefer such a career change so she can have her basement back. Just learn enough to keep yourself out of trouble with the tax man and to maintain a full compliment of paying, regular students. For more guidance I suggest the book “Making Money Teaching Music” by David and Barbara Newsam, available for a free read through the Okanagan Library system.

It seems to be an oxymoron, but it is possible to make money teaching music! So teenage musicians, nod your head, say “yes Rhiannon,” and do exactly everything I have ordained in the article above, then watch the money pour into your bank account.

Hallelujah!

And try not to spend it all at the music store filling the blank slots in your gear rack.

Amen.

Replies

October 28, 2006 at 01:36 PM · Hahaha! I loved your article! You really do know the trials and frustrations! If no one else has said so, THANK YOU for contributing to the betterment of life and culture by hanging in there teaching a new generation! You have surely made a difference in many lives! Keep going!

October 28, 2006 at 04:28 PM · I myself use an accountant for taxes. I am way too stupid to do my own, so when the (inevitable) audit comes rolling in, having that CPA stationary goes a long way.

October 28, 2006 at 04:41 PM · Love your article. 56-year-old just retired from public school teaching after 35 years. You are so right- mentored 6 student teachers and a bunch of pre-placement observers. I must have been at leaset as clueless, but am grateful I didn't know it when I started. Busy as can be: teaching, playing, jamming and conducting. :) Sue

October 28, 2006 at 11:21 PM · Wonderful article. I've never taught except informally in the family. I'd like to try it sometime soon. I will keep your article posted for reference.

You're very funny, but beneath the humor, I find the philosophy deeply resonant.

Thanks.

October 29, 2006 at 07:09 AM · I believe that teaching any subject -- not just music -- is like doing a Vulcan mind meld. You have to be able to get inside someone else's head, sense how it works, and guide it by moving with it. This ability is even more important than expert technical knowledge of the subject matter. I've found that it's important to communicate my love for music and an overall world view to my students. Teaching can be a great vehicle for personal therapy of the student and, sometimes, the students' family. Teaching one on one is very intense, sometimes thrilling, sometimes maddening. I find that I learn a lot from my students and I become a better teacher because of them. I also learn a lot about many aspects of human nature. For some more on my style of teaching, see my website. I could write volumes on this. I find teaching immensely rewarding in many ways but, unfortunately, not financially.

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