Starting Out As A Music Teacher

Starting Out As A Music Teacher

 

 

A friend of mine who is starting out as a music teacher sent me some questions about my experiences when I started. I wrote a pretty comprehensive reply, so I thought it might be useful to put online for anyone else considering starting out as a music teacher.

 

How did you start your music teaching business?

The simple answer is that I just started advertising as a music teacher.

The slightly longer answer is that I made myself a simple business plan, quit my job, took a whole load of grade exams to get some ‘qualifications’ behind me, set up a website and then started taking on guitar students.

 

What were the first two years like?

Overall the first 2 years have been amazing, although there have been tough times along the way.

In the beginning it was very quiet. It takes time to build a teaching practice, so you have a lot of free time at the start. I used this time to prepare for lessons and research styles and techniques, as well as doing my own practice.

This work I did during the early days has been invaluable because it meant I developed a bank of teaching material and a good idea of how I would teach beginners. Now, when things are busy I can draw on that existing knowledge and material and it cuts down preparation time, especially for complete beginners.

The other thing I had to do was be incredibly careful with money. With so little coming in I had to be really careful not to overspend.

The best thing I did was to create a ‘cash flow forecast’ in which I entered all my incomings and outgoings, on a day by day basis, for 3 months into the future. This would tell me if I was in danger of going overdrawn at any time, so I could take steps to prevent it. It would also show me if I had a bit of spare cash, so that I didn’t have to worry if I needed to buy something.

The cash flow has meant that I haven’t had to use any of my savings to live on for the last 14 months. I still fill it in every day and look at it to make sure I’m making the right decisions, financially, at any given time.

So the first two years have required discipline, hard work and a bit of resilience and confidence to get through the quiet times. But overall they have been incredibly rewarding. Of course it helps that I’m doing something I love (playing and learning about guitar and music, as much as teaching it). That makes it easier to get through the hard bits.

 

What mistakes did you make?

I paid for advertising on Yell.com. It was over £300 for a year and resulted in only 1 student, who didn’t even stay very long. Definitely not worth it. I was sucked in by a smooth sales pitch, but it was a waste of money in the long run.

 

What kind of rates can someone starting out expect to charge?

I think £30 per hour is reasonable for music lessons. The Musician’s Union official rate is £31 per hour as of Sept 2014. The ISM published a survey of teaching fees around the country, but I can’t find my copy of it and I’m not a member so can’t get it from their site. It was an average of around £30 per hour, going up to about £35 in Central London.

I have avoided doing discounts, bulk deals, first lesson free and so on (although I have done them very occasionally if people have asked). I’m not interested in fiddling around with prices. I have an hourly rate for teaching. That’s what I think I’m worth (and what my business plan works on!) So that’s what I charge.

I do charge an extra £5 if I travel to the student, for travel time and cost.

 

What kind of initial capital, if any, does it take to get started as a music teacher?

In terms of the technical accounting term of capital – i.e. money invested in the business – it doesn’t take much. I created my own website, printed my own handouts, had some flyers and business cards printed, bought some teaching books. It probably didn’t cost more than £500. I already had guitars and amps – although inevitably I have bought more since, but the new ones weren’t essential for teaching.

However, as far as the total cost of doing it, it was much more. Because for about a year I had to support myself with very little money coming in as I built up my teaching practice.

I think in total I spent about £8,000 of savings in that first year, and even that was doing well. I moved back in with my Mum so rent was very cheap. I eat incredibly frugally, I can spend less than £50 on food a month – I ate a lot of rice! And I don’t drink and I pretty much stopped going out, which saved a bit too.

So I think £8,000 is probably a minimum figure. However, you could reduce it by starting to build up teaching while working a normal job, then leaving the regular job once you had enough students to scrape by.

The sobering thing about being self employed is that it’s your own money you’re using, so it really does give you an incentive to be as careful as possible and cut out anything unnecessary.

In January last year I decided that I didn’t want to use any more of my savings. That’s when I decided to start using a cash flow forecast to help me manage things. Since then I haven’t had to use my savings for living costs at all, although I have dipped in to them to buy some equipment for a musical I played in last Summer, which I decided was a worthwhile investment.

It really helps to have supportive friends, family and loved ones with this. If your partner is always complaining about not being able to go out for meals or jet off on holiday, it’s going to be difficult. For Nicky and me a treat ‘night out’ was getting cheap seats to a theatre show (£10-15 booked in advance) and eating reduced price pasties from Holland & Barrett in the cold outside the theatre beforehand because I couldn’t afford to go to a restaurant. She has never complained and is really supportive of what I’m doing.

 

Where did you find your first clients or customers?

My very first student was a friend, so that was via word of mouth. My second came from an advert I placed in newsagent windows around the local area. But by far the majority of my students have come through Google Search.

When I started out I spent quite a bit of time setting up my website and researching Search Engine Optimisation to make sure that it would be found. I have also noticed that I get more enquiries when I blog regularly, because Google ranks sites higher if they have activity going on, rather than static sites that never change or have new material.

I tried a few other things – Yell.com, as I’ve already mentioned, and flyering and writing to schools, but none of those produced any results for me. I got one student through an advert on Gumtree. A flyer in the local music shop was successful, it got me a few students. Newsagent windows were OK to get me started, but didn’t produce many results in the long run. Really people go on Google if they want to find service providers these days, or at least that’s what I’ve found.

It’s worth noting that Social Media hasn’t been a particularly effective way of getting new students. Although it’s a hot trend in marketing in recent years, I’m not sure how effective it is for one-to-one music teachers, especially with regards to attracting paying customers. Maybe it’s good to have a bit of a presence that people can have a look at, and if you have something it needs to look good and professional. However, I would see Social Media as more of a way of building my presence and reputation in the long term, rather than attracting business in the short term.

Having said all that, I definitely would set up a Google+ page for the business, just because I believe Google is more likely to rank my business highly in searches if it has a Google+ page.

 

What skills are essential to succeed in this industry?

Interesting question. I’m sure there are many different ways to succeed as a music teacher, I couldn’t pretend mine is the best or only way. However, these are the things that I feel have helped me build up my teaching practice successfully.

Proficiency with your instrument – Sort of goes without saying, although this is probably less important than you might think. You don’t have to be expert or virtuoso to teach beginners, although it’s important that you know enough that you don’t train them into any bad habits.

Enthusiasm for your instrument (and for making music) – To my mind this is as important or more important than actual proficiency. Enthusiasm and joy in making music is infectious. Students who pick this up from you will have more fun and subsequently practice harder and learn faster, in my opinion. Also, it means you are likely to keep learning yourself, which will make you better and keep providing you with new material and ispiration for your lessons.

Enthusiasm for teaching / helping others learn to make music – Similar to enthusiasm for the instrument, if you have this you will pass it on to your students. Also, it will sustain you during the difficult lessons where students don’t seem to have made any progress or have any aptitude for the instrument. The ability to make music is a wonderful life skill to have, and a real desire to pass that skill on to others will keep you going during the inevitable difficult bits of working life.

Organisation – Responding to enquiries promptly, keeping track of your diary and all the inevitable changes that happen each week, tracking your income and expenses, recording notes from each lesson, planning lessons ahead, keeping track of handouts, when adverts expire, and so on. All this stuff is necessary to keep things running smoothly.

If you struggle with it you will find it hard to get students in the first place and even harder to keep them. If you get a reputation for being unreliable and unprepared students won’t stay. They’ll drift away and probably won’t explain why. And if you’re not on top of this stuff you will find life very stressful because you won’t feel in control. So a solid, organised approach will give you the foundation for all the fun stuff that goes along with it.

Professional, friendly attitude – No one wants one-to-one lessons with a grumpy person! I know there’s the stereotype of the tyrannical music teacher, but that’s not the way I want to teach. I will teach anyone no matter how much aptitude they seem to have for the instrument. I try to make lessons fun and entertaining, even if personally I’m tired, have a headache or am having a bad day.

Likewise, for parents who are talking to me about time changes, cancelling lessons, holidays and so on, I always try to be as accommodating as possible (within reason!). I think “no problem” is the most common phrase I have texted in the past 2 years!

When I do have to stand up for myself or disappoint a student / parent (charging for repeatedly missing lessons, not being able to accommodate lesson time changes, scheduling clashes, letting them know they need to practice harder, etc.) I do it in as professional way as possible. I will never do it in the heat of the moment. I will always try to explain it clearly and dispassionately, giving the reasons.

Of course, hopefully it goes without saying that I am always honest and never try to deceive a customer, even if it’s just a ‘white lie’ to make my life easier. Get caught doing that just once and you risk losing the student’s confidence completely.

Understanding the customer – It really helps to keep in mind what the customer is looking for. Every student (or their parent) has different aims in mind and wants different things from the instrument. You have to teach them the basics, but it also helps to know their interests and preferences so that you can tweak your content a little bit to suit what they want.

Also be aware of the non-musical pressures and influences on your customers. Parents are busy and they don’t want life to be made harder. So routine and reliablity are good for them, not changing all the time. Some adults have busy working lives and struggle to fit things in so need really concise practice plans. Others are much more laid back and don’t like too much structure. As you get to know your customers individually you can start to react to their specific situations, needs and preferences. For me this is one of the joys of a self-employed, face to face business.

Patience – Both in general and during lessons, patience is vital. At the start you will be waiting for the phone to ring, desparately hoping for students. Likewise during quiet times, school holiday and so on. You need to be able to keep yourself productively busy and not go stir crazy.

In lessons it’s not unusual for your patience to be tested! Students who haven’t practiced, stubbornly refuse to do things the way you’re asking them to because they like their way better, seem to take an eternity to pick up the simplest concept, all these things will happen. I have found that if I am patient and persistent then over time (weeks or months!) I can get them to improve, irrespective of the hurdles that appear. It may not be as fast as others, but they will make progress. I will patiently repeat the same messages week after week and sometimes, eventually, it will sink in.

This is all part of teaching. Slower learners pay the same fee as the quick ones and they deserve calm guidance and support. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath and compose yourself but that’s part of teaching in a professional, effective way. Try to never let any frustration show on your face or in your tone of voice. Patience is vital.

Quick / creative thinking – There will always be times when students throw you a curve ball. They’ll come in suddenly needing to know a piece you haven’t prepared for a school concert that week, or they’ll tell you they don’t want to learn whatever you’ve prepared and you’ll suddenly have to think of something completely. Occasionally a student will learn whatever you’ve prepared so quickly that you find you still have half a lesson to fill and no plan!

The more you teach the easier this gets, as you have hundreds of hours of teaching material and experience to draw on. However, sometimes you just have to think of something fast! I actually quite enjoy this – and when in doubt you can always kill 10 mins doing Aural exercises, which is something that is often neglected and most people find quite fun.

Resilience / Not taking things personally – Sometimes people won’t show up for their lesson. Sometimes they will stop coming for lessons altogether. Often they won’t even bother to tell you they’re not coming back. Sometimes kids can be blunt and tactless, so can adults for that matter. Sometimes they’ll tell you they don’t want to learn what you’ve prepared. You have to be able to deal with all these hurdles, despite them sometimes leaving you wondering how you’ll be able to pay the rent at the end of the month.

It’s OK to find these things annoying, frustrating, scary or a little hurtful. It’s OK to vent your feelings to a friend or loved one. You don’t have to keep it all bottled up. But you have to be able to get on with the rest of the work you’ve got going on and not let it gnaw away at your confidence and self-belief. Otherwise it would be really hard to keep going.

Website Design / Understanding – As I’ve mentioned, the vast majority of my students have come through Google searches directing them to my website. So I believe the website is far and away my most important marketing tool. I built my own (using WordPress), but even if you get someone else to do the tech side for you, it’s a really good idea to research and get a good understanding of how websites work and how to design them to be effective, user-friendly and search engine optimised. Time invested in your your website and understanding how websites and search work is time well spent.

IT Literacy – Most people these days are fairly IT literate with regards to email and so on, so I take that for granted. The things that are really important to me are:
– Microsoft Word: To make professional looking handouts, usually with colour and diagrams
– Microsoft Excel: To keep track of all my expenses, cash flow and business forecasts
– (To a lesser extent) Sibelius: So that I can write out music in a professional looking way, rather than my hand written scrawl.

There you have it, hopefully that’s a fairly comprehensive answer. Let me know if you have any questions. I love all this stuff, as you can probably tell! I guess that’s a massive help in its own right.

 

4 Comments

  1. Ron Light

    Great job, Matt. I’m only a year into guitar study, and I can tell you have a great attitude and really know what you’re talking about. I commend your comments about patience. I have little native musical aptitude and began my study at 65 years of age, so anyone who hopes to help me learn guitar had better darn well be patient! Aside from the one teacher I dropped because of how frustrated he appeared with my own slow learning, I want to something I observed with a popular YouTube instructor. He was answering viewers’ emailed questions about chords, and one young viewer said she didn’t at all understand the underlying reasons for why chords were composed of the specific notes that make them up on the fretboard. Instead of giving her a simple lesson in chord theory and saying something about triads, he told her she didn’t need to understand anything about composing chords because it wouldn’t at all help her at this early stage of study. In other words, he completely dismissed her curiosity and dashed her hopes of getting an answer to her question. I find many YouTube instructors overly doctrinaire and even dogmatic in their approach to teaching, thus dictating exactly how a student is expected to learn. I think you get it, Matt, that a private instructor is a teacher, a guide, a coach and a counselor who tailors his services to the needs of the student. Not the other way around.

    • Hi Ron,

      Thanks for your comments. I think you’ve hit upon one of the main problems with video lessons. The fact that the teacher can’t actually see and interact with the specific pupil means that their approach has to be general and somewhat dogmatic. It would take too long to detail every possible way of doing something so they will usually just show the way that works best for them. I think it’s an unfortunate side effect of the medium they used.

      That doesn’t quite apply to the person who wouldn’t answer the chord note reasons. It does seem a shame that they didn’t even give a brief outline of the music theory involved, even if a detailed explanation would have taken too long.

      From my point of view, I obviously have a way I like to do things and that I have found effective when teaching students. However, I would always encourage students to get information from many different sources as well as my lessons – videos, books, friends, interviews, magazines, etc. They may come across a way that really suits them that doesn’t suit me. That’s fine (as long as I don’t feel it hinders their playing). It’s those differences between guitarists that give them their unique character and style.

      Your description of a private instructor as a guide and a coach is a good one. That’s how I try to think of teaching, especially with the more experienced students who are capable of trying things out and deciding for themselves what suits their style and preferences.

      Good luck with your continued learning. It’s never too late and you’ve realised that patience is the #1 requirement, which means you’re already half-way there!

      Cheers,
      Matt

  2. Hi Matt
    I have just read your article with great interest – very well written I must say. One of my students parent’s sent me the link.
    I have been teaching guitar for the last 3/4 years now and last year took redundancy from a lifetime of factory working to pursue this as a full time career.

    Everything you have mentioned struck a chord ( no pun intended ) with me at every step of the way. It’s a bit like meeting other parents and discussing various hurdles along the way in family life – really good to know you are not alone with situations/problems that you face along the way.

    As you know , Guitar teaching is a solitary business which can be both intensely rewarding and sometimes scary / disappointing in equal measures , so it is very reassuring to “talk” to another teacher who echoes my every experience along the way.

    I could almost have written that myself and it has made me feel I’m on track and doing things the right way , Not saying I doubted what I was doing , but its always good to have your ideas re-enforced by a fellow teacher.

    One of the other ways I try to keep work flowing is to run Live Performance Workshops which enables my students to play in a ” real Band ” situation and can also give a goal to lessons as they learn their songs for performance.

    One area I don’t know much about is building a Google+ page so I shall look a bit deeper into that , thanks for the tip.

    i wish you well with your business and appreciate the time you have spent writing this article

    Best Wishes

    Paul Davies

    • Thanks Paul, much appreciated. You’re right, it is a solitary business. I’m happy if what I wrote provided you with some reassurance. I think those Workshops sound like a great idea.

      It seems like you’re making a success of it, so long may that continue!

      Cheers,
      Matt

Leave a Reply