Music Teacher's Helper Blog

MBA vs MFA

Guard your MFA, the MBA is invading! The MBA mentality, which today involves doing everything and anything to increase profits, is so revered these days that many believe it’s rational to install business people in government even if they are totally devoid of experience — or interest — in public service. Local school systems successfully argue they can save money through consolidation even though no study since 1980 has indicated that this actually helps any educational (let alone financial) goals in reality. Somehow, when people present themselves as knowledgeable about making or saving money, they become the expert we’re supposed to heed. (In case you think I’m exaggerating about the MBA nowadays, here’s a recent plea to abolish business schools by a long-time business school professor, and one in the Harvard Business Review about why these schools have lost their way — an older article, but little has changed.)

As music teachers, we’ve been hit with lots of MBA-inspired how-to’s — how to make a lot of money by doubling rates to winnow our student list to just the profitable ones, or how to make our job easier by requiring that students sign contracts guaranteeing our income and flexibility regardless of the students’ experience. Maybe you’ve run across other seemingly smart strategies that make you feel like a dummy or a softie if you don’t take them seriously.

Of course, we can all use thoughtful advice on making our businesses run smoothly. Music Teachers Helper’s motto is “You teach! It does the rest!” (It’s NOT “Let us help you soak your students for the most money with the least effort!”) Music Teachers Helper is meant to help us teachers organize the business part of what we do, so that we can focus on the music, the sharing of our skills, the nurturing of our students. There are many articles in this blog which seek to help give business advice to folks who may not have much experience in that side of things, in addition to the many articles encouraging better teaching and understanding of music.

Nobody goes into music for the money. And yet, whether you teach or perform, you find out pretty quickly that if you want to be able to take the time to do it right, you have to acknowledge that you are running a business. Maybe not a corner store or a corporate chain, but you do have to learn or invent systems to organize, be predictable about your policies, fees, and collection of lesson payments, and to be transparent to your students about how it all works for them. I once taught at a music school which hired a new director simply because she was an opera conductor. She did not last long because she had no understanding that a music school is in fact a business. Being a conductor, she basically thought everybody would do what she wanted if she pointed her baton at them and told them to do it!

My plea here is that music teachers keep their priorities in mind. Maintain confidence in what moves you to play, share, and nurture music in your listeners and students. Take from economic experts what feels helpful to you but never feel intimidated into taking steps to “modernize” your business if it feels unfair to your students or runs counter to your own priorities or instincts. Adhering to a fair policy is fair and honorable if your policies have been made clear, especially if you have them on your MTH policies page and ask all to read them. But sticking to a policy blindly without consideration for your students or their learning is neither fair nor honorable. I’ve seen a website promising that you’ll make $10,000 a month teaching music and one of the things it recommends is NOT to bother with publicizing your policies! Of course, to find out the juicy details about how to make all that money you have to sign up for the site’s special offers and pay for their golden words of advice.

As the Harvard Business School article linked above suggests, running a business is an art and a profession, not a science. The other article linked above (about bulldozing the world’s business schools!) is especially interesting because it emphasizes how essential it is to maintain ethical behavior, rather than focus only on strategies to make money. At a coffee shop recently, I overheard a business consultant advising a museum fundraiser to ditch their annual fundraising gala because they could squeeze people for the same amount of money without all the work of organizing a nice cruise! It’s this kind of “smart” MBA advice to be very wary of. If you reach out to students, their families and your community with music parties, recitals with food, or free public performances at nursing homes or malls — these do not have to make money to be worth the investment of time and effort. Good will is valuable, and giving students performance experience is part of the job. Teaching music is an art, not an exercise in bookkeeping!

Enjoy your music and your teaching, and build methods and business practices to support this enjoyment. Nurturing your own love of music as well as that of your students is an investment that no expert can measure, and will sustain you and your students for as long as you care to share your musical knowledge.

And what are my credentials in talking about MBAs and MFAs? I have neither degree, but I wouldn’t mind if some school wanted to confer honorary ones on me (I’ll wait by the phone as soon as this article is posted)! My honorary-MBA credentials come not only from running a teaching studio for many years, but also from directing a nonprofit music organization for 18 years, and from owning a small business for 11 years that distributed CDs to U.S. stores with help from several employees. Being in business helped me learn a great deal and put business and business attitudes into perspective. On the music side, I’ve taught, performed and written about music for 40 years. So I’m waiting for that call. (I better get a couple of frames ready and clear space on my wall for those degrees!)

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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