Not to brag–OK, sorta to brag–but I feel like I’m coming in to my own as a teacher. I’ve had a surprisingly busy summer so far with lessons and–with fall just around the corner–I’m getting pumped. It seems a lot of people are in the market for a music teacher these days.
I can’t be everywhere at once, though, at least not until I finish my army of music teaching cyborgs. So in the meantime, here’s some advice on choosing a music teacher for those of you who are looking.
Choose a Teacher That Suits Your Needs
Many teachers attempt to distinguish themselves in different ways: One teacher has 15 years of experience and a master’s degree, another has toured with a popular musician for two years, and still another boasts he can teach jazz, glam metal, and psychedelic rock. So many qualifications, who do you choose?
The determining factor here has to be what the student wants to get out of lessons. Do you (or does your child) want to audition for an organized group like All-District Band or an opera company? Hang out with friends and jam? Start a band? Learn how to improvise? Compose? Make music for video games?
You may have not even considered these things yet, but it’s important to do so, even for a young child beginning his first lesson. Ask him what he wants to play, what he’d like to be able to do a few years down the road. Having these goals in mind from the get go is detrimental to success down the line and it will also help you find the right niche to start looking in.
Who Pays the Teacher and How Much?
Imagine two saxophone teachers with similar credentials and experience. Both are conveniently located and priced similarly. Teacher A works for Local Music Academy while Teacher B works at Teacher B’s Private Studio. Which one do you choose?
For those of you who just know that I’m bias and answered Teacher B, it’s time to show your work. Why the independent teacher over the one who works in the music school? Surely the Academy has a larger resource pool and can afford to hire the best teachers around, right?
This is the image that most corporate music schools perpetuate, but, at least in my personal experience, is rarely true. Companies that offer after-school enrichment usually have the budgetary muscle to buy nicer facilities and better ad campaigns than independent private teachers, but at the end of the day, these things aren’t teaching music.
**Note: For the record, this isn’t intended to be an anti-corporate, pro-small business rant. I’m aware of how businesses function and I realize that in order to exist they have to make a profit somehow. I’m not declaring them an injustice, I’m just making an observation about their internal economics.
It all boils down to incentives. When I taught piano at a corporate-minded “enrichment center,” I worked my way up to a full schedule of nearly 40 students per week but barely earned enough to pay my bills. I was even given a title-bump to “Music Director” which, surprise, didn’t come with any kind of monetary bonus. Add to this the fact that my fellow teachers and I were paid once a month a full week after our rent checks were due, and we had a building full of disgruntled teachers worried more about paychecks than student progress.
Not every music school is necessarily this full of tension and unrest, but you can be sure the teachers at these places aren’t in it for the money. On average, they take home around 40-50% of what the school charges per lesson. When the reward for doing a good job and the consequences for doing a bad one have an equally low impact, you get someone who works just hard enough to avoid getting fired.
The independent teacher, on the other hand has at least twice as much to gain (or lose) from your business, and the stakes for word-of-mouth rewards are just as high. If they do a poor job, it’s their own reputation on the line, not the school’s. They don’t take their following for granted and have to be willing to work hard to maintain it.
There are certainly exceptions to both sides; I’ve seen independent teachers fizzle out while excellent teachers remain at underpaid jobs for years, but the facts remain the same: corporate teachers earn less and, not unlike the vast majority of employees on the lowest rungs of Burger King and Wal-Mart, it’s just a job for them.
In any case, you’re probably not going to just hire the first person you meet. There’s still plenty of room to be selective among music teachers and you absolutely should be. Before you start perusing Craigslist or Google, though, ask your friends and neighbors first.
Finding a teacher isn’t something to be left to the whims of the internet. Chances are you already know someone (or you know someone who knows someone) that takes lessons with a great teacher in the area. This is how you find the good ones.
See, **most** teachers don’t get online reviews or even advertise a lot. They rely on their current students to do it for them. They do this because a)it’s free and easy, b) it allows them to be selective with their students (that’s right; we’re selective too!) and c) it requires nothing more than being a good teacher. And who wants to spend the time making fliers and writing email blasts?
Also, don’t forget to ask the teacher for a trial lesson if it’s not explicitly offered. A lot of teachers will at least offer a short trial period of about a month or so just to see if they are a good fit with one another. If they require you to sign up for six months, you could potentially be taking big risk. Consider them very carefully. How high-maintenance a teacher is is almost as important as how qualified they are.