When I was studying music in college I taught lessons from any unused practice room that I could find. Usually after K-12 schools were finished for the day the stuffy white rooms would start to clear out as well.
This set up was far from ideal, however. My instrument was perched on top of the room’s out-of-tune old piano and students (who were often too short to reach the top of the clunky chordophone) were forced to unpack in one of the room’s dusty corners. If parents wanted to observe the lessons they had to find whatever space was available and dodge flying bows.
As I have started to break into teaching in the real world, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good studio good, beyond the teacher, of course. What can we change about our studios to make them inviting and encouraging to students? Or if we’re moving into a new studio, what should we look for before we sign a lease? When 50% of young musicians quit after two years, it’s clear that we need to grab onto every advantage we can in order to maintain student interest.
(1) Consider your windows. There’s no simple answer to the question of windows in studio rooms, but it’s much better to think about how you want them than to ignore the issue. Some students will be energized by sunlight and a view of the outdoors, but others may be easily distracted and dispense with your lesson in favor of a bird that’s flying by.
In my experience younger students tend to be the easily distracted ones, while older more self-directed students are able to avoid the distractions and stay upbeat with the aid of some natural light. However, it’s up to you to judge what’s appropriate for each student. Consider investing in some curtains so that you can change the room on a fly.
(2) Think about your position in the room. If you’re like me then you’ll be all over the place to observe the student and watch his or her technique from every angle, but you’ll always default back to a specific spot. Maybe you’ll have a chair there, or a desk, depending on your situation, but one thing is clear: you need to give your students room to breathe.
No one likes to have their teacher breathing down their neck and we need to remember that we can often be intimidating to our students. Give your student some space. You’ll both be happier.
(3) Spice up your studio with some music-themed decoration. My viola teacher in my high school years had a Beethoven action figure that gave the room a sort of fun vibe. That’s not the only way to get your students excited about music, though. Maybe think about a poster of a famous composer or perhaps a page of one of your instrument’s great concertos. Reminding students that they’ll be playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto one day can inspire and motivate them through difficult times.
A few inspiring measures can go a long way.
Perhaps a life size cutout of a famous violinist is what your studio calls for. What student doesn’t want Jascha Heifetz’s stony gaze scrutinizing their every note? Or maybe a get a cutout of yourself so that you can take a well-deserved nap.
(4) Give your students some space to unpack their instrument, resin their bow, or do whatever else they need to do in order to get set up for the lesson. Don’t repeat my mistake and stand idly by while your student slides their case along the floor, picking up dust and God knows what else along the way. All you need here is a low table, which can double as a place to keep your lesson box. That one investment can go a long way.
(5) Keep photos of your old students around. Every student who sticks with their instrument after they’ve stopped taking lessons is a story worth telling. On top of inspiring your current students to stick with it, having a reminder of your successes around can help you keep going through the rough days.
(6) Get yourself some sort of audio setup. This can be as simple as a pair of mobile speakers to hook up to your laptop or phone. As long as you’re getting your student to listen to some of the music for your instrument, you’re on the right track. I’m reminded of the story of a young Lynn Harrell, who listened to the records of Janos Starker for inspiration in his youth. Having your own equipment “in house,” so to speak, is more important than it seems here, since many students won’t have the resources or the motivation to go out and find recordings on their own.
These are some of my ideas, but I’m not the perfect teacher. Let me know how you make your teaching studios exciting in the comments!
About the author:
Nick Cesare is a violist and teacher from Boise, Idaho. He has a degree in viola performance from Boise State University, where he learned that the viola belongs in the left hand and the bow in the right. When he’s not practicing, Nick likes to write about music, bike in the Boise foothills, and cook.