If you are a musician, then chances are you have taught lessons, thought about teaching, or have friends and colleagues who teach. In this two-part post, I want to give you a few things to think about that should help you decide whether or not teaching might be a good fit for you.
If you already give music lessons, then in Part 2 you will find some ideas that can make your lessons more enjoyable, effective, and profitable.
Why You Shouldn’t Teach—The “Fall Back”
I landed in a music conservatory as an undergraduate music education student in the fall of 2000. By the 2nd semester I had dropped the music education degree and was a performance major. I wanted to play. Constantly. Preferably in an orchestra with a good salary.
After graduation I attempted to earn the music education portion of the degree for a 2nd time. And for a 2nd time I dropped out of the program. I just wanted to play, and not teach—I should have went with my instincts the first time around.
So, I joined the U.S. Air Force and performed for a decade as a full-time musician where I played hundreds of gigs throughout the US and internationally, even finding a bit of spare time to play for local churches and orchestras along the way.
You see, during those two attempts at the music education degree, I viewed teaching as a pay check, as something to “fall back” on, in case performing didn’t work out. But, eventually I listened to my gut. It told me that “fall backs” are a great way to live a mediocre and boring (if at times, more lucrative) life. I decided to lean into the fear (“Join the military?! Me? You’re crazy!) and take a chance. And I am grateful that I did.
I knew I had a lot to learn—knew that I needed to have something to actually say, something to teach about. A degree wasn’t enough. I knew I was still “green” and hadn’t learned the ropes “on the bandstand” as the saying goes.
If this sounds like you, then I encourage you to just play and not teach. Play anywhere and everywhere. Cut your teeth on as many gigs as possible. Learn the skills that you can’t find in a book or in a college class.
If teaching is your “fall back”, then do not teach. There is simply no reason to do work that you generally do not enjoy. I am not saying that every day as a teacher is like hanging out at Disneyland with Keith Richards with meals provided by Gordon Ramsey. What I am saying, is that if you dread every time you step into the teaching studio, stop.
And if you don’t know what other profession to pursue besides music, there are resources that can help. Everyone has transferable skills and is capable of doing work that goes beyond their current job title.
Why You Should Teach—Competency and Meaning
Do you have the right skills to be a teacher? The first step is to understand what level of mastery you have on the instrument(s) you want to teach. Do you get calls to play professional gigs? If so, then that’s a good sign that you have enough knowledge of your instrument to offer quality instruction to students. I believe this is the first step in becoming a competent teacher.
You don’t have to be a world-class performer to be an excellent teacher. But, I do think it is important for teachers to play at a professional level, and also, to continue to perform while they are teaching. Wedding bands, solo recitals, church gigs, Tuvan throat singing ensembles—whatever makes you happy, just keep your skills up. There is a great deal of mental benefit in keeping your professional edge.
Great. So you want to teach and you sound like a professional on your instrument(s), but do you know how to teach? A better question might be “are you willing to adapt your teaching style to the learning needs of the student?” If the answer is “yes” then I think you are well on your way.
Sure, a G natural minor scale will always have the same notes as a B flat major scale, but, different people need different examples, analogies, and periods of time to understand that lesson fully. To be an effective teacher you have to be willing to try new approaches, reach out to colleagues for ideas, and constantly seek more education—whether through formal education or reading books and shadowing effective teachers. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of teaching a young teen followed by a baby-boomer retired doctor (Monday mornings for me here in Thurmont, MD). It is also perfectly fine to have an age group preference and/or be upfront and honest about any inexperience in working with students with special needs.
Is every student going to practice enough, or sound like a prodigy and go on to take the music world by storm? Of course not. The majority of music students do not go on to play professionally—and in my opinion that is not the point of music lessons.
But, can you find meaning and satisfaction in seeing people leave their lesson visibly happier than when they arrived? Or in learning how to follow a system and hear their own improvement? In gaining the confidence that comes from learning new skills they initially thought were beyond their reach? If that sounds like something you would enjoy, then perhaps you should teach after all.
Hearing an adult student tell me that I was “cheaper than therapy” made me laugh out loud, but also meant the world to me.
Music students are people, and people are complex, often irrational and moody, but just as often kind, appreciative and able to make you laugh when least expected. Teaching isn’t easy, not if done with preparation, patience, and focus, but it is a line of work that gives meaning to my professional life and I think it is a worthy pursuit.
Be sure to follow the hyperlinks in this post if you want to find more resources to expand your thinking about teaching a bit.
Stick around for Part 2 where I will offer some thoughts on attracting students, providing them quality instruction, and a few financial tips as well.