I’ve got story for you, and I promise it’s true!
When I was getting started as a freelance musician at the tail end of my masters degree, I was quaking in my boots about my future prospects. After all, I was regularly buying CDs at Borders and Barnes and Noble from former Northwestern doctoral music students. If the best they could do was retail bookstore work after getting a doctoral degree, what were my prospects going to look like?
Now I just needed some teaching!
I got a call for at the…. well, I’ll call it the Jimbobo School of Music for the purposes of this post. I’m sad to say that this “school of music” still exists here in metro Chicago, and it’s a truly rotten operation—the perfect representation of everything that’s wrong with the private lesson “music school” system.
In fact, I’ve got some choice words about this whole system at some point in the near future. Oh man, do I ever have some stuff to share about this system. But that’s for another time…..
Landing the Teaching Gig
I was delighted to be called for an interview at the Jimbobo School of Music. A gig teaching the bass? This sounds great! Adding some private students into my freelance mix seemed like the perfect thing to complement the work I’d already lassoed. I drove out and met with the director of the Jimbobo School. Everything sounded fine to me. I was to get $34 an hour (the parents were almost certainly being charged $80 for this lesson, but hey, those administrative costs are mighty high, right?), and I was to have one student. I was to travel to their house in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago to teach them.
But wait! This was only going to be a half-hour lesson. So only $17 for me per trip. Um, OK…
Hmm…. $17… plus traveling to the Gold Coast, where there is absolutely, positively no parking whatsoever…. well, I could take the train…. if I left 1 1/2 hours early I should be able to make it… and then there was the train ride home… another hour or so.
OK, so I’d be getting $17 for teaching plus the 2 1/2 hours of commuting, minus the $3 I’d pay for the train (or $12 for parking if I chose to drive). That came to $4.67 an hour if I took the train, and $1.67 if I drove (crappy Chicago traffic made the commute by car about as long as the train ride).
Alright, $4.67 a lesson after getting a masters in music from an expensive private school! I was on my way up in the world, sure to pay off those $40,000 in loans in no time flat. Right? And hey, if I chose to drive, I’d actually have enough money for a coffee… before taxes.
But hey, some teaching was better than no teaching in my mind, and maybe I’d get some more students…. in the Gold Coast…. that I’d have to get to…. but whatever, sounds good to me!
I made it to my first lesson with time to spare, and I sat in the south end of Lincoln Park doing some people watching. This area of Chicago has always fascinated me, as the truly opulent bump right up against homeless people sleeping in the park. Fur coated women walk poodles walk past men wrapped in blankets, and limousines drop dapper young hipsters at The Pump Room (where Sinatra used to hang out when visiting Chicago) just down the street from the Cabrini-Green housing project.
All this was happening nearly ten years ago, and the Cabrini-Green housing project has largely been demolished to make way for more high-rise condominiums. But the homeless still sleep in the park, right next to statues of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Schiller, and other historical luminaries.
Meeting My Student….Yikes!
My student was a seventh grader at a prestigious private school in the area, and though I was pretty green as a teacher, I knew from the outset that he was trouble personified. To call him spoiled would be an insult to spoiled children—he was basically every private teacher’s nightmare: inattentive, inappropriate, uninterested, and just basically impossible.
I was led upstairs to his room, where our lessons were to take place (the worst possible place to teach a student—don’t teach them in their room!). He promptly flopped on the bed, closed his eyes, and refused to respond to my cajoling.
This lesson was going great! This was worth the $4.67!
I finally convinced him to stand up and play a few notes, though he tried at one point to climb back on his bed with his bass (don’t teach lessons in kid’s rooms, remember?). I think that we got through a D major scale…. maybe…. before calling it a day.
Teaching experience! Yay!
Needless to say, at this point I did not think that teaching was something I was interested in developing, career-wise. These early experiences made gigging seem like striking the jackpot.
One quick aside—I now love teaching and actually prefer it in many cases to playing. You can read a more contemporary reflection on my thoughts on teaching here. I’m just trying to illustrate how truly bad this situation was, and how it turned me off of teaching altogether for a time…but only a time.
Where’s My Paycheck?
Weeks went by, with these agonizing lessons continuing. I had been instructed at the Jimbobo School of Music to send in a timesheet (fax-not mail) at the beginning of every month. Lacking a fax machine in my grad student hovel, I trudged down to my local Kinko’s and plopped a few bucks down to fax this over to them.
I faxed my September timesheet.
I faxed my October timesheet.
I called the office.
I left a message.
No call back.
I called again.
I left another message.
The Lessons Grind On – Still No Paycheck
November came, meaning that I had taught this student for two months with no compensation and no response to my faxes or my phone calls. I could drive out to the Jimbobo School, but this place was located on the opposite side of the suburban area, over an hour away from my place in Chicago at the time. Did I really want to spend more money on collecting my $4.67 hourly wage?
Coming out of one of my lessons in late October, I ran into a former colleague from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. He was heading in to teach violin to another sibling for the very same family!
I stopped him for a moment, determined to get to the bottom of this:
Jason: Let me ask you something…. does this school take a long time to pay?
Violinist: Oh, heavens, yes! I haven’t gotten paid for months! I call the office and yell at Ms. _______, but nothing seems to get done.
Jason: [incredulous guffaw]
Violinist: You know, none of the teachers are getting paid. the husband of one of the piano teachers calls the office all the time, yelling at them in Russian to get paid, but nothing ever happens. I am just about to quit myself.
Even though I was new to the “teaching business,” I knew that something was rotten in Denmark. I mean, c’mon—no paychecks and no phone calls for two months? In no way, shape, or form was this worth it. Not for experience, not for musical satisfaction, certainly not for income! Just not worth it.
I decided that quitting time for my association with the Jimbobo School had arrived, and I called the office to “tender my resignation,” as it were.
I left a message
I faxed all my timesheets again, having to go to Kinko’s and shell out some more $$$–I was well into negative figures on this teaching “gig.”
Taking it to the Board Members
I went to this student’s house a couple more times in November, noticing that the leaves had changed on all the trees in Lincoln Park. The residents were dressed in their finest, like 19th century industrialists, while the homeless continued huddling in the park.
I recalled the Jimbobo School’s director mentioning that the parents of the student I was teaching (really quite nice people, despite the frustrating behavior of their son) were on the board of directors for the school. I decided to tell them about the whole situation.
Jason: Sorry to say it [keeping true feeling bottled up deep below surface!], but this will be our last lesson.
Parents: Oh no!
Jason: Did the Jimbobo School fill you in on this?
Parents: This is all news to us. We had no idea you were quitting.
Jason: Well, I haven’t gotten paid once since starting to teach for the Jimbobo School, so I told them last week that I’d have to quit. I just can’t work for free!
Parents: What?!? We’ve been paying them! We donate to them and everything.
Jason: Well, I though you’d like to know that none of the money is reaching any of the teachers.
At Last: A Response!
Guess What? The next day, I get a frantic call from the school’s receptionist.
Though I’m a stickler for calling people back, I decided to let this one sit and marinate on the answering machine.
Later that day, guess what? Another phone call! This time from the director of the Jimbobo School.
I let this one marinate as well. Apparently, I’d gotten their attention! They informed me that a check was being issued and would be mailed that day.
Sure enough, a check arrived in the mail.
I opened it.
It was for half of the first month’s lessons! A whopping $34.
For years, I’ve kept a file folder labeled ‘Evidence’ (kind of like my lame version of Nixon’s enemies list… only not about enemies…. uh, never mind). I’d put any material directed at me that I thought I’d need to possibly refer to later. I’ve got all my car explosion papers, nasty notes left under my windshield wipers from 10 years ago…. and the pay stubs from the Jimbobo School! I kid you not.
I got on the phone and called up the Jimbobo School, quaking with frustration and anger.
The receptionist picked up. Caller ID? Maybe they were instructed to actually answer calls from my number this time.
The conversation that ensued only added to my frustration:
Jason: This is Jason Heath, the bass teacher. I just got a check from the Jimbobo School.
Receptionist: Good. We sent it out earlier this week.
Jason: Right….the problem is that it’s only for half of one month’s pay!
Receptionist: That can’t be right. We sent you a check for all of September.
Jason: No, I only got a check for half of…. wait a minute! You only sent a check for September? What about all the October lessons I taught and the one I did in November?
Receptionist: We’ve only issued checks to teachers for September at this point.
Jason: Well, actually, you didn’t send me a check at all until I told your board member I hadn’t gotten paid. When will I get a check for October?
Receptionist: We don’t have that information at that time.
Jason: Don’t have that… information? OK, I need to get paid for all my lessons now.
Unsurprisingly, this encounter ended without resolution. Lovely.
Up the Chain of Command
The next day, I got an angry call from the Jimbobo School’s director:
Director: The ____________ family says that you’re quitting? What’s going on? You can’t quit! This is unacceptable!
Jason: Why haven’t I gotten paid? That’s unacceptable!
I won’t bore you with all the details–suffice it to say, I was informed that I would be paid the remaining amount owed promptly.
After finally making it clear that I was in fact quitting, I was asked if I could recommend anybody for the “position.”
Why on Earth would I recommend that anyone deal with this organization? I wouldn’t inflict that o my worst enemies, let alone my double bass friends and colleagues. I informed him that he’d not be getting any recommendations from me and hung up.
Least Profitable Venture Ever
Not only had I invested all those hours teaching and commuting, plus shelling out money to park or take the rain, but I’d also frittered away considerable time on the phone, walking to Kinko’s, and gnashing my teeth in frustration as I tried to fall asleep late at night, fuming about this ridiculous situation.
My compensation? After 2 1/2 months of frustration, indifference, and lack of communication?
I love teaching! Especially for private music “schools!”
Angry Jason Takes the Stage
Determined not to let this school continue getting away with scamming inexperienced music graduates like me (my violinist colleague was going through the same exact thing, remember?), I called up the Civic Orchestra of Chicago office (where the Jimbobo School had gotten my name) and filled them in on all the gory details, strongly suggesting that they refrain from giving any more teacher names to this organization.
They let me know that I wasn’t the first musician to complain about this school (!), and that they weren’t planing on giving out any more Civic Orchestra member names to this school.
Full Payment at Long Last
My check for the complete amount finally arrived by early December, along with a Post-It note imploring me to come back and work for the Jimbobo School. I ran to the bank as fast as I could and deposited the check.
I’d now make a little over $100 from teaching, and I only had to invest $40-60 in commuting costs plus a few dozen hours of my time.
Teaching rocks…and it sure is profitable!
The Final Confrontation
I got one more phone call from the Jimbobo School, this time from the executive director. He was a doctor with a practice near the Jimbobo School, and he seemed like a very nice fellow. I’ve probably never let loose in a professional situation like I did with this person, and though I am convinced that I was completely justified in my frustration and anger, I definitely feel more than a little chagrined as I remember my words. He called me as I was walking into the local grocery store, and I remember standing in the entryway ranting and raving for a solid fifteen minutes on my cell phone, the spitting image of the eccentric musician.
He listened quietly as I said my piece, apologized for the treatment I had received, and filled me in on the background of the school. Apparently, this school had been run into the ground financially and had reorganized the previous year, and all efforts were being made to get things on the right track financially.
I felt ashamed at becoming so frustrated, at telling my board member parent about not getting paid, at calling the Civic Orchestra office and warning them about this organization. After all, arts organizations are always dancing on the precipice of financial disaster, and I as much as anyone want to see them succeed.
But this wasn’t a case of a symphony financially imploding, a summer festival losing their funding, or a school budget facing governmental shortfalls. I was teaching a private lesson to one student, and this group couldn’t pay me the less than 50% cut I was owed? C’mon, we’re talking about a hundred bucks here!
This is a prime example of why I like teaching private students privately, and not through some music school framework. Local music schools offering private lessons to K-12 age students often charge twice as much (or more!) as they pay their teachers. Why should a parent have to pay a 50% premium for a lesson? Aside from providing the teaching space (which is usually at a premium in local music schools anyway), what benefit does this arrangement offer either teacher or student?
There are many examples of stellar programs that incorporate private teaching, music theory, orchestra, and chamber music into a cohesive experience for their students. The Merit School of Music here in Chicago is a prime example of such a school, and many others exist in the United States and beyond. Many people prefer this kind of arrangement, allowing the school to handle student recruitment, collect payment, and in many cases even arrange teacher schedules.
I prefer to handle these things privately and maintain my own studio. This is not a ideal arrangement all teachers, but it works for me. In fact, the whole private music academy versus independent private teacher topic is worthy of a more extended discussion, and I’ll try to get into it at a future time here on the blog.
For now, however, just take this tale of the Jimbobo School as a cautionary lesson in assessing a teaching situation. Could I have avoided this situation? Probably, though I was so inexperienced that I didn’t really know what sort of teaching situations existed out there.
Readers: How have your experiences working for private music schools been? Better? Worse? Similar? Have you gotten reeled into inequitable teaching arrangements like this in the past, and if so, how did you disentangle yourself? What benefits (and there are certainly many, despite what I’ve written here!) to such schools provide in your eyes? I’d love to hear from you!