Most musicians engage in at least some degree of private teaching. The tradition of passing down skills, knowledge, and experience from generation to generation in a one-on-one setting has been happening for hundreds of years. Musicians stretching back in time to J. S. Bach and W. A. Mozart (and earlier) derived a substantial amount of their income from private teaching, and this practice has continued to the present day, with musicians from organizations ranging from the Chicago Symphony to the Southeastern Palatine Symphony engaged in the art and craft of teaching.
Musicians avoid teaching for a myriad of reasons. Inexperience, disinterest, and a lack of consistent availability are among the chief factors in a musician’s choice to not teach privately. More often than not, however, performing musicians choose to teach at least a few students.
Financial considerations aside, private teaching can have a positive effect on both the attitude and psyche of the performing musician. Working with young minds helps to put one’s own technical and musical issues in perspective, and the act of communicating musical and technical concepts to develop and shape young performers can help inspire the teacher as well as the student. Forcing oneself to learn how to teach repertoire to students can help to give clarity to the teacher’s own conceptions of the piece, making lessons a win-win situation for both parties involved.
I don’t want to sugar-coat private teaching. There are lots of students out there who are not exactly founts of inspiration for teachers (and vice-versa), and lessons that don’t have both parties engaged in the activity can be a real drag. The full-time performer can usually cherry-pick their students more than the part-time or freelance performer, allowing for a handful of students that do provide the sort of satisfaction and musical stimulation that good performer/teachers crave.
The whole notion of differentiating between performer/teacher and performer is a somewhat modern notion. I remember poring over the
Domenico Scarlatti: Performer/Teacher – Teacher/Performer
Fernando Sor: Performer/Teacher – Teacher/Performer
Pablo Casals:Performer/Teacher – Teacher/Performer
Most musicians of previous generations were, to some degree, teachers, just like most musicians from these generations would be classified as freelancers today.
Delving into teaching in a series on being a freelance musician is a bit dicey, which is why I wanted to lay out the groundwork at the beginning for the examples that follow. Having a “teaching career” can mean so many things, and there are a myriad of divergent paths for teaching musicians. I will briefly describe some of the various roles that a teaching musician can inhabit before discussing the considerations and challenges of private teaching for the freelance musician.
These categories are fluid, and musicians may inhabit several of them during the course of their careers. Some may straddle the line between two categories or simultaneously work in several separate categories. Generally, however, musicians find themselves predominantly functioning in one or two of the categories described below.
- Full-Time Orchestra Musician who teaches
This musician has a primary source of income from a performing job but still engages in some sort of private teaching. This can vary from just having a student or two on the weekend to holding down a university studio with a dozen performance majors. This teacher may be the best kind of instructor for a student interested in obtaining an orchestra job. They are intimately connected with the art of performance and can relate the experiences they are having on the job at that exact moment to the student, allowing for a window into the life of a professional performing musician and lending a great deal of credibility to their advice.
The busy lifestyle associated with holding down a full-time performing job while teaching can make for periods of great stress and difficulty for the teacher. The teacher may be full of relevant and invaluable information but may often struggle to manage time and balance performing and teaching. Many individuals with good scheduling and time-management skills can handle this load without a problem, but it can be a real struggle for others.
Full-time orchestra musicians may sometimes concurrently fill tenure-track positions at universities, but they much more frequently hold adjunct positions at these universities. See the first installment of this series for more about adjunct teaching.
I put musicians with salaried, full-time orchestra jobs in their own category because these musicians rarely view their teaching as their primary source of income. It can be a supplement (sometimes a very nice supplement) to their primary income stream, and these musicians may in fact depend on this income to pay the bills (especially those musicians in orchestra jobs with more modest salaries), but the fact that they have a primary income stream makes them more independent than the freelance musician. Also, the fact that they hold a full-time orchestra position tends to automatically lend a degree of prestige and credibility that the freelance musician lacks. This is a topic that has been analyzed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, and it will be explored further in later installments.
- Full-Time University Instrumental Instructor
This musician holds a position dedicated (largely or fully) to private teaching. The responsibilities of the teacher vary greatly from university to university. Larger institutions will often employ a teacher solely to teach their instrument and studio class, while smaller institutions will often have their instrumental faculty double as theory, history, and ear training instructors. These teachers may be just as busy as the full-time orchestra musician who also teaches, but their activities are usually more focused around their particular academic institution, and as such they are likely more frequently available and accessible to the student.
For some instruments (and double bass is certainly one of them), the beliefs and approaches of many non-orchestral university faculty do not gel with the beliefs and approaches of the majority of orchestral musicians, and the student must take care when selecting a teacher if they are interested in securing a position in a full-time orchestra. Read my article titled Advice for Aspiring Music Performance Majors for more information on this topic.
It is bad if these beliefs don’t gel? One of the goals of this series (which you have undoubtedly realized if you have read the previous six installments in this series) is to question the wisdom of pursing a job as a member of a full-time orchestra, and this is a subject which will be revisited in future articles.
- Part-Time University Instrumental Instructor
People in these jobs make up the dark underbelly of higher education, working deep below the ivory tower of academia in the salt mines, usually earning modest wages and rarely receiving benefits. I have covered life as an adjunct faculty member extensively in Part 1 of this series and in my article titled Tainting the Academic Waters.
- K-12 Music Instructor
I won’t spend much time on this career path, as it does not really fall within the scope of private instruction, and it requires qualifications distinct from the other sources of employment described in this article. Many school music teachers do quite a bit of performing, however, and they are thus able to find a great balance between performing and teaching. This career path is a third option for a musician who desires the security (pension, benefits, vacation, sick leave) of a full-time job in the world of the performing/teaching arts.
There is a perception among other music performers that musicians who teach in a K-12 elementary or secondary education position are not good performers. This is an unfortunate perception, but it is a common one nevertheless. One’s musical talent is independent of one’s current employment (some of the best double bassists I know are full-time web developers, for example), and most musicians realize this fact. Anyone who thinks that the life of a full-time freelancer (50,000 miles in 2006 for me, with similar mileage racked up in previous years) provides for more practice time than the life of a schoolteacher is kidding themselves, and combining such a job with regular performing can make for a great musical life.
- Private Music School/Music Store Instructor
These teachers are hired through an existing organization to provide instruction to students at their facility. Students usually pay the organization (Music Institute of _______, The _________ Conservatory, etc.) directly, who then pays the teacher after taking a percentage of their earnings (typically 30-50%) for administrative purposes.
The upside to this arrangement is that the teacher usually has to just show up and teach. Managing a large studio is like running a small business (I know—as little as 6 months ago I was teaching 40 students per week plus 2-4 concerts per week), and having someone to take care of these details can often be worth the massive cut these organizations take from one’s earnings.
It can be difficult to make a living just working in one of these teaching jobs (unlike the other jobs on the list) due to the fact that you are often working at half the rate of your other non-institute colleagues. Teachers inhabiting this role are very similar to that of the freelance performer/teacher.
- Private Studio Instructor
There is a quiet army of private studio instructors out there in the world, peering out from behind their curtains, cats sitting on the piano, stacks of Suzuki books on every available surface. They teach kids before school, after school, and on the weekends. They may perform in a select few groups, but the vast majority of their income comes from private instruction.
Running one’s own private studio involves inhabiting the roles of both teacher and business manager (as alluded to before), and it is actually a very different trajectory than any of the others described. These people have essentially started their own small business, and their independence from performance income puts them in a very different camp from the freelancer/teacher described below. These teachers usually have much more consistent schedules but without the thrills (and duds) of life as a performer.
- Traveling/House Call Teacher
I always remember seeing fleets of Ford Escort wagons double parked, flashers on, all over my former neighborhood in
Being a “hobo teacher” has some pluses and some minuses. I do my fair share of this teaching, and I actually don’t mind it. I think of it as a series of ‘mini-gigs’ all in a row, and the little break traveling between people’s places helps to reset my mind and leave me fresh for the next lesson.
The downside? Well, it doesn’t take much for you to start feeling like the maid. You are, after all, hired help to some degree (albeit more like a tutor than a maid), but there is a big difference psychologically (to the teacher, at least) between being in charge of your classroom/studio and being that guy that comes between the paper boy and the lawn maintenance guy.
How These Roles are Inhabited by the Freelance Performer/Teacher
Freelance performers teach under many different circumstances and with many different roles. To me, the freelance performer/teacher uses the type of part-time performing work described in previous installments of this series (regional orchestras, work from contractors, substitute/extra work in major symphonies) as the core of their income, and supplements it with teaching. This reliance on income from freelance/ad hoc performance creates a lifestyle and a set of circumstances quite different from the other teaching roles described above. Adjunct teaching positions typically fall to either full-time orchestra musicians or else to freelance performer/teachers, and as such they make up a piece of the freelance puzzle for many musicians.
The freelance performer/teacher may do some of the work described above (private music school/music store instructor, traveling/house call teacher), adjunct university teaching, teach private lessons in a public school (during or after school hours), teach out of one’s home, or (like me) a combination of all of these types of teaching. The performer/teacher often arranges their private lesson schedule around gigs and other obligations, creating an ad hoc schedule much like their performing schedule.
Benefits of Private Teaching for the Freelance Musician
- Stable, reliable income
For many people, teaching can provide a steady stream of income to the freelancer and a financial foundation upon which to build their performing work. This has certainly been the case for me over the past decade. As I look back on previous tax returns for the last several years, I notice that no matter how many gigs take, my income from performance has remained stagnant or only risen modestly. This is in part due to the problems discussed in the second part of his series (Realities of Professional Freelancing) and the fifth part of this series (Regional Orchestras).
My teaching income has risen dramatically over the last five years, largely because of my diversification into adjunct university teaching, house-call teaching, and teaching private lessons in the public schools.
- Schedule Control
With so many elements of the freelance musician’s schedule in a state of constant flux, it is nice to have at least one thing under their control. Although many factors dictate when lessons occur (school schedules, availability of facilities), the freelance teacher has at least some degree of control to say when these lessons will take place, often filling a hole that would not normally be taken up with a gig. Making what would otherwise downtime profitable is one of the keys to financial success in the freelance world, and teaching is, for most musicians, one of the main methods of boosting income.
- Less Driving
Non-freelancers may not understand why references to driving occur so frequently throughout this series (not to mention this entire blog). Well, for most freelance musicians, the time spent on the road far exceeds the time spent actually working. Many Chicago-area freelance musicians work in many neighboring states. It is not uncommon for a freelance musician to work one week in
Over the years, I have often found myself working in southern
Problems with Combining Teaching and Freelance Performing
For the freelance musician, the benefits of teaching far outweigh the drawbacks. Under good circumstances, private teaching can be a very efficient way to double the weekly take home pay of the freelance musician. Intelligent scheduling of students combined with an active gigging lifestyle can make for a stable and satisfying career for many freelance musicians. There are a few problems worth briefly touching upon:
- Bad scheduling
One needs to guard against over scheduling or inefficient scheduling when combining freelance performing and teaching. It is very easy to fall into the trap of scheduling people with wide spaces between lessons, making a trip to a distant music school to only teach one or two students, or to otherwise invite complication into the scheduling process. One must be careful to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of accepting students who do not neatly fit into the performer/teacher’s schedule, particularly once the teacher’s studio begins to grow. If one must devote three hours for travel time plus lesson time, one has actually reduced their hourly rate to 1/3 of what it would be were the students back to back in a home studio.
Creating a private teaching schedule is one giant balancing act requiring cajoling, pleading, and compromising, and adding a variable gig schedule into the mix is like throwing a cat into a hamster cage—total chaos.
- Inconsistent lesson schedule
I am constantly canceling lessons for gigs. Always. The more students I have, the bigger a problem this becomes. When a musician considers themselves first and foremost a performer, this performance activity usually trumps scheduled teaching obligations. Rescheduling thus becomes a major concern for the freelance performer/teacher.
Constant rescheduling is detrimental to both student and teacher. Having consistent, regular lessons each week is an established method for advancing one’s craft, and having to skip weeks or cram several lessons in a few days apart to make up missed lessons lessens the effectiveness of these lessons.
Bottom line—if you are an active performer, you will be canceling lessons. If you teach at a university or music school which requires x number of lessons per semester, you may be in for some make-up pain. At my former university job 93 miles away from my home, I would sometimes start teaching make-ups at 7 p.m. (after a full day of performing and teaching other students) and teach until midnight, then drive two hours home and be up by 6 a.m. to drive out to he Chicago suburbs and start teaching again.
Performing takes time. Teaching takes time. The gigs come in, but inconsistently. The teaching calls come in with their promise of consistent earnings. The teacher’s studio grows.
I know performer/teachers who teach 50, 60, 70 or more private lessons each week in addition to their gig schedule. Approach those sort of numbers for weekly lessons removes virtually all time for personal practice and development, chamber music, and other essential aspects of the creative and professional life of an artist. Some of these teachers manage to handle all of these responsibilities and keep their practicing up, but more often than not these people become “teaching zombies”, wandering the halls of the local high school, eyes red, mouth hanging open, searching for a cup of coffee between lessons, not keeping up their craft, and stagnating or declining musically.
I know that we musicians need to earn a living, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone’s desire to maximize their earning potential by taking on huge numbers of students. I used to teach 40 students per week and should therefore at least receive an honorable mention in the teaching zombie club. I also believe, however, that if performer/teachers do not keep up their craft, always striving to improve their own playing and further hone their abilities, they have less to offer the student and are acting as a questionable role model for the future performing artist.
Read the complete series:
- Part I – Adjunct University Teaching
- Part II – Realities of Professional Freelancing
- Part III – The Rise and Fall of the Full-Time Orchestra
- Part IV – Rising Tide, Shrinking Pool
- Part V – Regional Orchestras
- Part VI – The Vicious Cycle
- Part VII – Private Teaching
- Part VIII – Burnout
- Part IX – Rethinking Music Performance Degrees
- Part X – Refocusing (Musical Entrepreneurship)