For the second part of the Double Bass Blog series Thoughts from the Trenches – Double Bass Private Studio Teaching, I would like to offer some thoughts on recruiting & building a studio. This is often a topic that never comes up in traditional music programs and ends up being vitally important as a means of income for many freelancers. Recruiting students is an interesting nut to crack. I have watched colleagues who may have one or two students ask me how to get more. The big key? Networking! Be careful of what you say to that friendly music education major you knew in college – he or she might be the person who brings you into their school district to teach their students! You will need to become friendly with orchestra directors and often do work for free – now that may come to a shock, but it works to recruit the students who will be paying for your services. You have to be prompt and professional when returning email and phone calls. The time you invest will pay you back.
I cannot tell you how much time & money I have saved with the internet as a tool. When moving out to the suburbs, I was able to locate all of the string orchestra teachers in a 50 mile radius of my home and email them. What did I put in said email? I introduced myself, stated that I was moving to their area, described my background (performance and pedagogical background), and that I had openings for students. Now this method does not always bring in sudden results. Many schools have their own private bass teachers that come into their schools to teach. Community music schools & music stores often do their own recruiting, but take a large cut of your income, and often don’t line up the kinds of students you want to teach. For about a year I taught two days a week at a music store teaching mostly bass guitar and guitar kids. I only had one double bass student the whole year there! You want to recruit students you will find it worthwhile to work with. I can’t say how many guitar students don’t want to work on technique – reminds me of being in my own high school metal bands. When networking with students, be prepared to make lots of phone calls and most importantly, be prepared to do lots of pro bono work (for those who don’t know – it means ‘free’ work).
Work for free? What are you crazy? Look at it like this. Your teaching studio is your home business, and any pro bono work you do you can deduct as a business ‘loss’ on your taxes. Remember, we self-employed people get both the employer and employee taxes from the government – we’ve got to hold on to our hard earned income. Back to my point. At the beginning of a teaching year (it coincides with the school year, even when we have summer students), I often go out to middle schools & high schools, work with the bass students and play for the entire orchestra classes. It makes for a long day of classes, but I ALWAYS come away with at least five new students. I find that I don’t do as much work at the high school level since most of those kids are my students already – keep that issue in mind. Don’t try giving the free taste to students you already have. That will maximize the return for your effort. Give them a free taste, the orchestra directors, students and parents have you on their radar, and then the directors will push on your behalf to get them signed up. This in their best interests too. The better you work with their kids, the better the school programs’ performances will go. It is truly a symbiotic relationship – network!
When you go into a school to work with the students, impressions are important. Dress well, speak clearly, and when it comes time to play for classes (and yes, playing for all of the non-bassists will usually get them to talk to their bas playing friends), try to pick pieces to demonstrate not only technical proficiency, but will demonstrate mastery over numerous styles. I often play Bach, but a school group will not easily understand what is awkward about performance issues. Try and demonstrate your knowledge by entertaining questions about your instrument. In addition to mundane questions about your own specific instrument and about practice habits, they will often bring up more philosophical issues as well. What interested you in the bass, why you pick certain works, etc. When you think about what motivates you, it will also help motivate them in their own studies.
Now, for a while I had about 75-80 students a week, but really didn’t have time to freelance. Teaching is steady work and can be more reliable. Sometimes the pendulum swings the other way. Don’t overburden yourself with so many students you don’t get to do the creative work that still is meaningful to you. I do a lot of orchestra and chamber work, in addition to a lot of Early Music. It keeps things diversified for me and keeps me creative in addition to being employable. Remember, we all ‘pay our dues’ playing gigs and teaching students we don’t always find rewarding. The more ‘in demand’ and marketable you make yourself, the more you can pick the gigs and students you want. Hope you found these thoughts helpful and I hope to expound on them in future installments as well as incorporate horror stories, issues of methods, and other topics into the column. For now – Happy practicing!