Starting a Private Teaching Studio
by Nancy L. Ostromencki and
e are often asked by beginning teachers how they might go about the business of setting up a private teaching studio. Our usual answer is "with a lot of work!" While it does take a lot of hard work to get a new studio started, the experience can be less difficult if you are properly prepared and organized to run your new studio. Here we provide some basic tips on starting a studio which should be generally applicable in most areas of the United States. You'll find that there will be a number of issues and problems peculiar to your own area of the country, but this article should provide a useful starting point. Others of the over 40 articles in PEP's The Teaching Studio will help you with just about every other aspect of starting, running and teaching successfully in a teaching studio.
Being an accomplished player is not enough, in and of itself, to prepare you to teach properly.
Try to stay away from any method that stresses "position-playing."
It is critical that the beginning teacher learn how to teach piano. Being an accomplished player is certainly valuable and desirable, but it is not enough in and of itself to prepare you to teach properly. Of course, probably the best training experiences can come from piano pedagogy classes available to piano major and /or minors at most colleges and universities. However, not everyone has the opportunity to attend such classes and/or to achieve degrees in Piano from colleges or universities. In that event, there are other ways to obtain the knowledge and experience necessary to teach beginning piano.
One of the first things we would suggest would be to audit lessons of three or more "Master" teachers for at least one year. Of course, the teachers would have to give their consent, as well as the students and/or parents involved in study with these teachers. Take notes, have copies of the music available to follow, and listen and learn. We would strongly suggest that the auditor set up a regular time to discuss and analyze what has transpired during a week of lessons. Of course, this time should be considered professional time and the master teacher should be paid accordingly or you should work out some kind of in-kind arrangement to reimburse the teacher for their time. Some master teachers will suggest that the auditor practice with the specific students, thereby getting an even stronger feel for the processes involved. Sometimes also, if the master teacher takes time off, the auditor can substitute for the master teacher; provided of course, that the auditor follows carefully the written specifications that the Master teacher has provided for each student. Doing the actual teaching, after months of preparation, can help with getting the auditor's feet wet and be a very positive teaching experience.
Another way that a person can learn about the different types of teaching available is to attend workshops. There are various types of workshops available - those offered through music publishing companies, music teachers' organizations, and musical organizations such as local orchestras, schools, conservatories, etc. Workshops organized and run by music publishing companies are usually designed to advocate the use of the method that they publish. If you attend this type of workshop, keep a healthy level of skepticism about the specific methods espoused. It is the responsibility of the teacher to ascertain what will or will not work with each individual student; no one method is correct for all students. Keeping that in mind, it is absolutely necessary to be familiar, at least generally, with as many different methods of teaching as possible, so that you can tailor your teaching to each individual student's needs and method of learning.
Most music teachers organizations hold workshops or educational seminars to help their membership. The more enlightened groups open these seminars and/or workshops to the public, so that the educational experience is available to all, usually free. After all, educating teachers, parents and students is one of their goals. Check the newspapers regularly to see if seminars or workshops such as these are available to you; if not, then contact the local music teachers organizations in your areas and ask for a listing of their workshops/seminars. Attending such workshops is also a good way to determine if you want to join that organization and to build the network of contacts among other teachers that can lead to student referrals.
Often, guest artists with local performing groups will also present master classes or seminars. These master classes are usually open to the public. If you are near a university or college and can find the time to take some classes, by all means, do so! Many universities and/or colleges offer piano pedagogy classes; usually, you do not have to be a full time student in order to attend these classes. Check out your local colleges, universities, and/or junior colleges to see if such classes are available.
If you live in a remote area, many of these options may be inconvenient or simply inaccessible to you. In that event, you can still help prepare yourself by careful study of books on piano pedagogy. You should try to obtain several of the following standard piano pedagogy works:
Plan on spending a period of at least a year preparing yourself to teach piano. It sounds like a long time, but you and your students will be rewarded by the time spent. Even after you begin teaching, you should continue learning in every way you can to stay up to date and to extend your own skills.
One of the first things that a teacher of beginning students should recognize and always remember is that no two students will learn or retain the materials that you have taught the same way. Nonetheless, it may be easier and psychologically more comforting for the beginning teacher to teach using an established "method" rather than to tailor teaching to each student. Your choice of method should not be made based simply on how you were taught to play, but with some consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of each method and how those strengths and weaknesses mesh with your own abilities and those of your potential students. We can't tell you what method is right for you, but there are some "do's and don'ts" that you should consider in choosing any method for teaching your prospective students.
After many unfortunate experiences having to pick up the pieces and fill in the blanks left in the music education of students who have been taught this way exclusively, we cannot advise strongly enough to avoid any method connected with position playing. These methods can get the students to crank out tunes after only a few lessons, or even minutes. But after teaching literally hundreds of transfer students who were initially trained in various manifestations of position playing, I find the lack of musical knowledge of such unfortunate students almost overwhelming and difficult to overcome. Too often, we have found that the students trained in the position methods cannot read music. In addition, they can only play in a five finger position and have not made the relationship or correlation earlier on that finger number 2 does not always imply that you will play the note right in between the thumb and finger number three. Very often, these students have no technical background or need to have any technique, because they are playing exclusively five fingers in a row. One of your most important goals should be to turn out students who are musically functionally literate. Position playing approaches rarely do that. A major weakness of the Alfred and Bastien methods is their inherent emphasis on position playing.
Pick a method that stresses intervalic reading of notes, in addition to learning the specific names of all the notes in both clefs, at the same time. Not only should the student be able to read notes equally well in both clefs, but should also be able to see the interval relationships between the notes, thereby utilizing both methods (individual note reading and interval reading) to learn how to read and smoothly play music. Choose methods that stress technique from the beginning. Even pre-schoolers can begin to develop a strong and solid technique. Stress finger-equalization, where all five fingers are developed independently and equally well. I have seen many beginning methods where there is absolutely no mention of technique; the students end up flopping around the keyboard and have no idea of how to place their hands on the keys or how to technically negotiate their way around a piece of repertoire. Teaching the students correct musical terminology from the very beginning should be an important part of any method or approach you use. Terms such as forte, piano, ritard, crescendo, and diminuendo should all be taught and students should be comfortable and fluent with understanding these terms after a few months of lessons.
Methods that we would recommend include: The Music Tree by Frances Clark and Louise Goss. These books are published by Summy-Birchard Inc. and distributed by Warner Bros. Publications Inc. 15800 NW 48th Avenue, Miami, Florida 33014. The Music Tree is a series of books starting with Time to Begin, and followed the Music Tree Books A B C. One can also use the Workbooks that go along with the Music Tree Books. These workbooks stress reading, rhythm, theory, and sight-playing. A teacher's manual is also available to help beginning teachers become accustomed to teaching this method.
Another great method for beginners are the books written by Louise Robyn. They include Keyboard Town, a great book for learning how to read notes fluently in both clefs. This book also has the student develop strong sight reading skills after the second lesson by the use of traffic signals in the music. That is, a red light in the music tells the student they can look down at their fingers to find their notes; for as long as the green light line is in the music, the student is to keep their eyes on the music. Another great feature of this book is that the student is always to sing or say the names of the notes aloud when playing the little songs or exercises in the book. So many students deal too late in the game with the idea of the piano singing; having the student sing out loud really helps with teaching phrasing. Other wonderful books written by Louise Robyn include Technic Tales Books 1 and 2, and the Robyn-Gurlitt Pedal Exercises. Technic Tales Books1 and 2 not only stress development of total finger equalization, but also tackle from the very start the issues of relaxation of the wrists, total finger independence and strength as well as how to smoothly and easily approach scales, arpeggios, and chords. These books can be easily used with preschoolers and the kids have a blast with the exercises, if the care is given by the teacher to follow the concepts that Louise Robyn specified for each exercise. Although many of the pictures (graphics) in the Technic Tales Books 1 and 2 are dated, the technical ideas and concepts for each exercise are pedagogically and physically sound and healthy.
We have seen and heard many students who do not know how to pedal. Their pedaling is often blurred; they pedal on the beat instead of waiting until after the beat, and they have no concept of the different pedaling skills needed for the different types of music. The Robyn-Gurlitt Pedal Exercises book covers it all. Once a student is fluent with their note reading (upon completion of Keyboard Town and/or The Music Tree) they can easily move into the pedal book. The books by Louise Robyn are published by the Theodore Presser Company, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. They are still in print, so don't let your local music store tell you otherwise.
You can find detailed descriptions of the strengths and weaknesses of various established piano teaching methods elsewhere on The Piano Education Page.
Most of us would like to think that teaching piano should just be a matter of teaching interested, receptive and talented students. If we're lucky, we may even be able to bring that part of our perceptions into fact. Even in that case, though, you cannot forget that running a piano studio is, at root, a business and subject to all the vagaries and occasional unpleasantness associated with any kind of business. Thus, your goal should be to reduce unpleasant surprises to the bare minimum by planning ahead and acting accordingly. An excellent resource which includes all kinds of information on running a piano teaching business is: How to Teach Piano Successfully by James W. Bastien, Neil A. Kjos Music Co; 3rd edition, ISBN: 0849761689, 396 pages.
You will almost certainly need an accountant to help you, not only with keeping the books, but also in dealing with acquiring any necessary licenses, tax matters, any local ordinances relevant to running a studio, and providing an overall view of the growth of your business. It's also a good idea to have a business attorney. In our society, litigation is almost a way of life for some people and if one of those finds his way into your studio, an attorney in your corner can be very helpful. Even if you don't face a lawsuit, an attorney can be essential in making sure you meet all the local regulations and rules applicable to running a studio and also help in dealing with non-payment by clients of the studio. You will want to take the issue of licenses and ordinances up early to avoid later problems that could actually lead to your studio being shut down. You will also want to make sure you have adequate business insurance. Separate business insurance is necessary because most personal homeowners' policies will not cover losses associated with the operation of a business in the home.
By far the best way to avoid misunderstandings with students and/or their parents, while at the same time providing yourself with legal protection is to have the terms under which you give lessons spelled out carefully and thoroughly. This is best done in a written studio policy. This is a document which spells out the terms and policies under which you, as teacher, agree to provide lessons. Typically, a studio policy will provide information about payment terms, refund terms, deposits for loaned materials, late payment fees, lesson scheduling and studio business hours, the conduct of lessons, lesson cancellation and rescheduling, the standards of conduct expected of students and parents while in or around the studio, policies for participation in studio events (concerts, parties, etc.), and suggested or necessary equipment and teaching materials. If your studio will also include a computer learning lab or other special learning tools, the policy can include rules or regulations specific to that lab or (preferably) simply mention that a separate document has those rules and terms and is made a part of the policy by reference. Two copies of the studio policy and all special purpose policies are given to the responsible party at the time they sign up with your studio. He or she reads and signs both to indicate agreement with the policies of your studio and keeps one for his files while you retain the other. A well-written studio policy is probably your most effective defense against misunderstandings with parents and the legal actions that can sometimes arise from them. You can find tips for preparation and use of a studio policy in our article, Preparing an Effective Studio Policy.
No matter how good a teacher you are, you'll need to advertise your studio to bring in students. A Yellow Pages ad, while not cheap, remains one of the most effective tools for reaching potential clients. If you are located in a reasonably large city or town, a site on the World Wide Web can be very effective and costs virtually nothing to run, once established. If you decide to go this route, you might want to look at our series of articles, Establishing a Studio Web Site, for tips on how to set up and run your site to best advantage, what to include and what to leave out of your site and how to write most effectively for the Internet. Whatever advertising you choose to do, it will be most effective if it is targeted narrowly to the audience you wish to reach, i.e. people who buy pianos and music, those who attend concerts, those who listen to classical radio, etc. Blanket advertising is rarely cost effective. More information on studio marketing can be found in PEP's article, "Marketing" Your Studio.
One of your best resources for students when starting a new studio is other teachers in your area. In many locations in the U.S., most teaching studio are full with waiting lists, so other teachers are usually happy to direct people your way. You can get to know the other local teachers, if you don't already, by joining the local music teachers association or group.
Copies of your studio brochure, placed in music stores and other relevant sites can be a good way to attract clients. The studio brochure is a different, and equally essential, document from the studio policy. Basically, it describes your studio, your capabilities, your background, and your strengths in teaching piano. In the past, such documents were time-consuming and expensive to produce. These days, you can easily produce an attractive and effective studio policy with a word processor and laser or ink jet printer. Once completed, the studio brochure, along with your studio policy, can be given to prospective students so that they have something to take with them to study after the initial interview. You can obtain copies of pre-written, studio-tested brochures which you can adapt for your personal situation. The latter course is probably best for the beginning teacher, since you can benefit from the experience of established teachers this way and also get a variety of other useful studio documents as part of the package.
Chances are that you'll want to communicate with students and parents in an ongoing fashion via a studio newsletter. The newsletter gives you an opportunity to describe changes or additions to policies, announce events, give short discussions of various teaching issues, and generally let your clients know you care about them. Again, computers have made it possible to generate attractive and informative newsletters with a minimum amount of effort and little or no special qualifications other than the ability to use the computer and associated software. The newsletter can also be given to prospective students as a means of demonstrating that your studio is an active place with lots of interesting things going on. You can reduce the costs of publishing the newsletter by putting it on your web site, printing only enough copies for those few students who don't have access to a computer connected to the Web.
Determining a fee schedule for lessons is one of the most important things you'll do when you start a studio. While the prevailing rates differ widely from area to area and, to some extent, reflect the level of education and accomplishment of the teacher, the best advice we can give you about setting your lesson fees is do not underrate yourself or your time. People tend to value lessons by what they pay for them, so there is really little short term and no long term advantage in trying to "undercut the market". Try to base your rate on the prevailing fee in your area, with additional increments in hourly rate for additional services that you may provide over those provided by other teachers, e.g. a free computer theory lab, support for and participation in competitions, opportunities for students to play in public, provision of a high quality student manual, etc. For more information on this important topic, see our article, Setting Lesson Fees. In all your interactions with students and parents, keep in mind that you are a professional and, just as you should behave in a manner consistent with that status toward your clients, you should expect that kind of treatment from them.
Especially if you plan to teach piano as your sole source of income, you will need both to set a realistic fee schedule and reduce the costs of running the studio as much as you reasonably can. Since you probably won't want to skimp on the quality of the lessons you provide, what this really means is that you have to control all the "other" costs of running the studio (printing and reproduction, music, method materials, advertising, utilities, piano tuning, performing space rental, etc.). There are lots of things you can do in this arena to increase your net profit. We have compiled a number of suggestions for accomplishing this in our article, Reducing Costs in the Teaching Studio.
All good teachers have a sense of involvement with their students and try to develop a good personal relationship with the student and the parents. As a result, one of the most difficult things for most teachers to face is the realization that clients sometimes view them as merely another paid service provider who can be replaced "at will" with someone cheaper or nearer to home. Eventually one of your clients will hurt your feelings by this kind of callous attitude - one they would not accept from you as a teacher. You can minimize the impact of this kind of occurrence if you keep in mind that you are running a business like any other business in that respect, at least.
Your relationship with your students and their parents will sometimes be like that of love relationships - "when it's over, it's over". In practical terms, what this means is that you have to protect yourself from losses, both financial and emotional. Often, parents will simply refuse to return loaned music and equipment or pay for lessons given when their children leave the studio. This can get very expensive given the price of music these days. A way to limit your losses from this is to implement a refundable music and equipment deposit to be paid before the student begins lessons. If all materials are returned and lessons paid for when the student finishes study at your studio, the parent receives the deposit back in full. If not, you have the deposit to insulate you at least somewhat from financial loss.
We have certainly not covered all the issues that you will have to deal with in starting a new studio in this short article. Your best source of information regarding the specifics of starting and running a studio in your area may be other teachers in that area. By networking with them, you can not only get the benefit of their experience and insight, but develop a referral network that can help you get students. Become a member of local teachers organizations and participate in their activities. Starting a private studio is a big undertaking; take advantage of all the help you can get in the critical early stages of that process.