Music Teacher's Helper Blog

The Nature of Our Business

I am inspired to write this blog entry after reading Kristin Phillips great article “A Teacher’s Job is more than Teaching“.

Independent music teachers are ‘supermen’ and ‘superwomen’. Yes, I am talking about you and me! We do so much more than just teaching, and understanding the nature of our business is important if we are to remain successful and sane. Our job description is but a unique one. Here are some thoughts I would like to share as a private music instructor:

1. Ours is not a 9-5 job.

We are always working even when we are not working. We are always thinking about our students. When we decide to take on a new student, they now share a piece of our heart and occupy a place in our thoughts. As Kristin pointed out, we spend just as much time (if not more) preparing lessons, answering parent questions, dealing with students’ emotional well being, filling out audition entry forms, writing student reports, giving advise on what pianos to get, even shopping for student incentive awards, as we do in actual teaching during lessons. All of it is time and energy consuming. We need to know to set boundaries, so that we still leave personal time for ourselves and our family. If not, we risk burning out.

2. We are our own boss and employee.

While we do not need to report to anyone but ourselves, no one will recognize our good efforts and reward us accordingly. We do not get quarterly bonuses just because our students pass their auditions or win a competition; there are no sick days and annual leave with pay. That is, unless we build it into our studio policy. This is a hard one to implement; I am still working on this myself. My goal is to one day have a studio policy where I am allowed sick days and annual leave, without worrying about reduced income.

3. Students come and go.

We form a bond with our students, and it is hard when parting happens. But parting WILL happen, it is just a matter of time and under what circumstance. Under good circumstances, we part with our students because of relocation (either party), graduation (students going to college), or upon your recommendation that they should move onto a different teacher. But more often than not, we have to deal with students leaving our studio for reasons that are not very pleasant. These can include non-payment, unacceptable behaviors, and especially issues relating to difficult parents. An example of unpleasant situation can be found on Rachel Velarde’s great article on “Ethical Question….Food for Thought“.

I am sure all of us have encountered difficult parents at some point. It is unfortunate that we are for the most part powerless if a parent decides to withdraw their child from our studio for whatever reason. Sometimes the parents are mis-guided or ignorant, they really do not know what they are talking about or doing, sometimes there is misunderstanding, and sometimes, it is just the nature of our business. Learning to be emotionally “ok” when students leave for whatever reason is very important for our well being.

4. Never stop learning.

We must never be satisfied with our skills. We must continue our training through private lessons, masterclasses, attending concerts, conventions, workshops. We must acknowledge our own limitations and know when it is time for our students to move onto another teacher and learn from someone else. This is not easy; we must learn to deal with our ego.

What do you think is the nature of our business? What have you learned in your years of teaching? How can we be successful year after year and remain physically, financially and emotionally healthy? I welcome your feedback!

About the Author

Yiyi Ku
Yiyi Ku is a pianist and teacher. Born in Taiwan, she grew up in New Zealand and obtained her Master of Music degree with Distinction in Composition and Piano Performance from the University of Canterbury. Yiyi also holds a Licentiate in Piano Performance from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano from Music Teachers National As... [Read more]


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  2. William Wilson

    Great list! I’ve been teaching full time for 10 years now. No vacation or paid sick days has been tough 🙂 I think your idea of working paid sick days into the lesson policy is a good one. I started charging a flat monthly fee several years back because when summer came all my students went on vacation and so did my income! If you use a monthly-tuition model, it might be easier to factor in a week or two of vacation / sick days. Still with the economy the way it is I’m hesitant to rock the pricing boat. If anyone has done this successfully I’d love to hear about it.

  3. Kristin Phillips

    Thank you, for the kudos on the blog post. 🙂 And, very nicely written blog yourself!

    Yes, even when those difficult situations arise & the work and the going gets tough, we experience, I imagine, HUGE rewards. Students draw pictures at the very moment we need the encouragement. A family sends a note of appreciation when we feel most worn down. The student who needs the hug most will spontaneously give a hug.

    Those hours spent in preparation, paperwork, billing, scheduling, emails, phone conversations, planning, typing, practicing… they’re all worth it at the end of the day, when we’ve done a good job and are resting soundly – results of loving the job we spend hours and hours and hours doing. 🙂

    In my studio, I teach about 25 hours. Easily 40 more hours go into prep, practice, and all the other things I already mentioned. If there is one family or student who is particularly struggling, add a few extra hours to the total. It is hard to balance work and the rest of life, and sometimes I just need to let my studio families know I haven’t been as faithful in replying or preparing this week. The lessons still run themselves, the students still make progress, and I still am as sane as ever. 😉

    Do what you can, don’t overdo it – and when you’ve put in the effort needed, you’ll know you did a great job… even if the families don’t outwardly appreciate it. 🙂 We’re blessed to be working this job, and professionals in our field. Never forget that! 😀


  4. Kristin Phillips

    As for the working in sick leave and vacation time. The budget has been my life-saver. Figure out your essential expenses, your treats here and there, future major expenses, and then add in a little for the times you’ll need to refund for sick days or vacations. Using that, figure out how much you will need to earn in any given year. Divide that by the number of payments you’ll require from each family – add in a little more for emergencies & taxes – and you’ll know what your minimum income is. Right now, I live month to month and charge in the low to mid bracket in my area (within 20 miles). I am always afraid I’ll lose students when I raise my rates, but if I’m doing my best as their teacher and offer more services & great customer service, the families will come to realize how valuable studying in this particular studio is. Every teacher can do this – and over time, teachers everywhere will be more satisfied with their income, better able to serve students, and earning the income they deserve.

  5. Marie Carnine

    I base my lessons on the calendar year, not the school year, but I do follow the school holidays. Hence, I the teacher have Thanksgiving week, Christmas week and Spring Break week off. Summer schedules are flexible for families to allow for vacations and camps. I charge the same fee monthly regardless of the amount of weeks in the month because it is based upon a yearly calendar. I don’t allow make-ups unless I the teacher miss, or weather is extreme, or on occasion due to a family emergency. Students may trade times though.

    Each parent signs an agreement to the policy. I also charge late fees.

    When a parent complains about the policy, I explain it is my source of income and I treat it professionally. Students don’t get to make up missed ballet lessons or soccer practices or games, so why should they expect to do so with music lessons?. I find when I lay the expectations up front, everyone is generally happy with the policy.

  6. Belinda Rockwood

    You did a great job with your list Yiyi A fellow teacher said something that I have never forgotten, “Nobody takes lessons forever!” Although I agree with you that teachers should always strive to improve by taking master classes, seminars, lessons, etc., this statement is basically true of most students. As much as I love my students (and many of them I find myself helping them deal with everyday life), I must realize that all flowers blossom and must move on. I am only blessed with them for a short time (hopefully until they start college) and I try to enjoy the time that I have with them. And, when they leave, there is always a new bud to come along that needs my help! I have plenty of love to give to incoming new students and I will always remember (and hopefully keep in touch) and love my old students.

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