Planning a Career in Music Teaching


by Jenny Simaile
Goonellabah, New South Wales, Australia


 career in music?  Private teaching; sounds perfect.  Interesting, challenging, fulfilling, new people every day, new talent, people thanking you, watching their enjoyment, their progress, knowing you’ve contributed to their life by doing something you love – music!  What could be better?  I can’t think of anything.  So off you set.  Teach…. Teach…. Teach.  What happened to the best job in the world?

You need a plan!  Without a plan it is easy to fall into routine, which then becomes a rut which can very quickly result in burnout and career plateau, which isn’t fulfilling for anyone.   With a plan, you steadily increase in fulfillment, maintain enthusiasm and move forward and upwards to achieve your highest goals. You may also like to read Professor Leland's article Teacher Burnout: How Do We Cope With It? for related information.




Planning a career can be broken into several stages and goals:  

  • Long term: where do you want to be in ten, fifteen, twenty years. This is your ultimate goal.
  • Middle term:  What do you want to accomplish in 5 years.
  • Short term:  What will you do in the next 2 years.  
  • Immediate goals: what’s going to happen this year, this month, this week, today, this lesson.
  • Let's talk about them one by one.

    Long term goals

    Julie Andrews once sung to a group of ‘music less’ children:  “Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.”  Our beginning starts 20 years into the future.  Long term goals.  This is the most important category for planning a career so we need to spend some considerable time, thought and effort with it.  After all, it’s not much point planning a career when firstly, you don’t KNOW what you want, and secondly, you’re not sure if it’s something you’ll ENJOY aiming toward for most of your life.  

    So I want you to come with me for a moment, into a wonderland where money is no problem, health is the best always, time is abundant and opportunity everywhere.  Sit back.  Relax.  And dream … and discover.  What would be the ultimate fantasy job?  “When I grow up I want to …”  own a chain of teaching studios across the world, specializing in a method I have written myself, where students have to audition to be accepted and the hundreds of teachers under my employ have qualifications and experience rivaling the most prestigious universities in the world.  It doesn’t matter how out of reach your dream is.  The only important thing is that you get tingles and an increase of heartbeat just thinking about it.  

    Once you’ve realized your dream, sit down with a cup of coffee, tea, whisky(!), and write down what elements this fantasy includes.  Did you picture adult students, preparing to be concert pianists?  Did you picture little children laughing and loving music? Were you the one doing the teaching or were you the one organizing and managing a chain of studios?  Was the teaching done one on one or was it done in groups?  Write it all down, in as much specific detail as you can.  This is where you want to be in 15/20 years time.  You now have written down, in front of you, your long term goal.  Congratulations!  You are on the road to fulfilling your ultimate, satisfying career.  

    As an indulgence, go to your word processor or publisher, and write up this long term goal so that you may print it out, and keep it somewhere special; somewhere handy; somewhere you can see it every day for at least the next month.   You want your long term goal to sink in, wash through you.  You want to allow yourself to get excited about the prospect.  This is where you WILL be in 15/20 years.  In the next couple of days, tell your spouse, tell your friends.  And feel proud.  “I have a goal for my career!” You know where you want to be in 15/20 years time.  The most pending question on your mind now, is how do I get there?  One foot in front of another!

    Immediate Goals

    Again, we’ll need pen and paper to write down our discoveries.  Why write instead of just thinking about it?  Firstly, it’s cathartic, and if you’re feeling a little run down, then this is EXACTLY what you need. Secondly, we’re after a ‘gut’ response and our recall capacities may fail when we need them the most! If it’s written, we can better organize thoughts, better focus on one thing at a time.  It also gives us the opportunity of coming back to our thoughts in a couple of days and reading them with a ‘removed’ disposition.  This is very advantageous with analysis.  

    With your piece of paper, describe your current circumstances and teaching commitments. Be as detailed as your ‘fantasy’ was. Read over this list.  Is it accurate?  Have you missed something?  If so, add it on.  Choose three different coloured pens or pencils. With  your favourite colour, use this to circle the areas of your teaching that you LOVE.  It may be a particular student.  It may be a particular day, or subject.  Do not think too much about this.  If you have to deliberate, ‘mmmm, is this something I love,’ then you don’t love it!  Once you’ve done this, another colour is for the aspects in your career that you HATE.  Hate is a very strong word.  Use it in the context of ‘least favourite’.  The other colour is for indifference or indecision, a ‘lukewarm’ response to them.

    Now your list is in categories.  It may be of benefit to write these out again, on different pages if need be. LOVE, INDIFFERENCE, HATE.  Focus firstly on your LOVE list.  Go over it one point at a time.  Ask yourself WHY this point is on this page.  Write your answer. WHAT is it about this point that makes me feel this way? Write your answer.

    Let’s peek in on one teacher’s brainstorming.  His name is Mr. Brayley. * These teachers have been fictionalized  for demonstration purposes.

    Mr. Brayley's LOVE list.  

    1. Rebecca. I look forward to teaching this student, always enjoy the lesson and feel really good afterwards.  Why?  She has always practiced, she pays attention, she asks questions, she picks things up very quickly.  Good.  Keep digging.  She’s a more advanced student.  Aha.  I am now having a breakthrough.  I enjoy her repertoire, the pieces are more complex and are difficult to play so gives me more opportunity to give detailed advice.  What is her repertoire?  It’s mostly pieces I don’t know myself.   This keeps me interested.  Why?  ‘Cause I’m learning too.  She HAS to learn certain pieces for exams.  She has a demanding technical prerequisite.  I like this because I have to be organized and proficient to make sure she has learnt everything in time.  I must thrive on challenges, and deadlines.  I must like working under pressure.  I excel in these circumstances.  Thought to highlight and consider for later.  I think I would like to deal mainly with advancing students.   That makes sense—I pictured teaching older students in my ‘fantasy’.

    Mr. Brayley has made a discovery that he may not have realized, had he not taken the time to analyse.  How has this helped him in planning a career?  Let’s see what he writes next:

    First change I’m going to make:  No more beginning students.  If someone rings up with a five year old beginner, I will recommend a different teacher.  

    Problem:  my older students will leave eventually.  Who will I teach then?  

    1.  Get to know all piano teachers in the area, see what they would like to specialize in.  Find one that would prefer beginners over advanced and try and come to some kind of arrangement through referrals.  
    2. Advertise through high school newsletters only.  Advertise at Universities and colleges.
    3. Take on beginners at a certain age only.
    4. Introduce an audition process.
    5. Raise my fees.

    Mr. Brayley is realizing that there are certain problems with idealism and is learning how to compromise but still move toward his ultimate goal.  It is important for you too, to face any obstacles you may foresee, and come up with a number of solutions that may or may not work, but ones you can at least ‘try’.

    So Mr. Brayley has a plan of action for the short term future.  But what is he going to do with his students now?  They’re not all like Rebecca.  Let’s see what he does. He reads over what he has written about Rebecca.  She always practices. What can I do to ensure ALL my students are like Rebecca in this sense.  WHY does Rebecca always practice?  What do I do differently with her than the other students?  I’m more enthusiastic, I give her more detailed advice because I know she’s listening.  I spend more time writing down what she specifically has to do.

    Once again, Mr. Brayley is making discoveries he may not have made had he not analyzed things in such detail. He has made two pages of notes just on what he is going to do to enable his other students to produce similar behaviour to Rebecca.  His plan can be applied in the very next lesson, and continues over the next year.

    Let’s look at another teacher’s brainstorming.  Her name is Miss June.  

    Miss June's LOVE list.

    Tuesdays.  Why do I like this day?  I look forward to it, and I’m not exhausted afterwards. In fact,  I’m usually in a really good mood, and wish my next day was the same.  Why? Oh.  I only have three students that day.  Is that telling me I can’t really handle any more than that?  Why else do I love it?  Who comes that day?  Erik, Leah, and Sarah.  Do they have something in common?  Yep.  They’re all primary school kids.  They’re still in the beginning stage.  What’s their repertoire?  Oh my goodness, they’re not learning one classical piece!  But I grew up learning the classics!  But yes, that’s why I enjoy Tuesdays.  They’ve been doing movie themes, easy jazz and boogie.  That type of music is really fun!  And now that I think of it, those kids really love coming to lessons, and they’re doing really well.  

    Thought to consider later:  I really like working with young kids who just want to learn music for fun!  That would explain why my ‘fantasy’ revolved around young students.  I love how they get excited; I love their energy and I love how it seems to rub off on me! But  how could I just teach young students and still pay my bills?  And three lessons a day is not much.  I couldn’t survive on that and I can’t really charge much more or I’d lose my students.  And what if my young students want to continue with piano and get into the heavier stuff? My energy levels are diminishing again.  There’s got to be a solution.

    Miss June battles out lots of options on paper.  She also has to deal with a guilty feeling that she may not be taken ‘seriously’ if she doesn’t offer to teach classical music.   Let’s see some of the solutions she’s going to try:

  • Combine 2 students at similar levels.  
  • Increase time slot from half an hour to forty five minutes.  
  • Charge the same price.  
  • Have six students, but only 3 time slots in one day.
  • Concentrate heavily on duets.  
  • Organise a lot more fun piano parties, instead of formal recitals.
  • Advertise through primary school newsletters.
  • Find a teacher who prefers to teach more advanced, serious students, work out a referral system.
  • Develop more ‘fun’ ideas while maintaining student progress.
  • Introduce ‘fun’ elements in my teaching—even to my three adult students!
  • Build my library of repertoire.  Buy some new method books designed for kids.
  • Smile again! At every lesson!  To every student!
  • These glimpses of teachers may not reflect you at all.  What you want to do is emulate their thinking and analysing patterns.  As you can see, this process takes time.  One night may not be enough.  Don’t rush the process.  Be as honest and as detailed as possible, and remember, if you start to experience what Miss June went through (her energy levels began to drop when she got bogged down with ALL the things that could go wrong) stop those thoughts, deal with one at a time,  concentrating on solutions. Remember, this stage is for the short term future—this year, this month, this week, this lesson!

    Middle Term Goals

    When considering mid term goals, think about two areas: Your development as a teacher, both in qualifications and experience and the development of your studio— the actual physical structure, what it contains and its general persona. Much can be accomplished in five years.  Look into colleges, universities and other organisations that offer degrees, diplomas, certificates, courses or workshops that you consider beneficial to your long term goals.  Research these with serious intent. Keep a record of the ones that you can in all likelihood take part in.  Set a deadline of no more than one year to make a decision about which one you will enroll in. Determine that, by the end of five years, you will have achieved these qualifications.

    Don’t exclude personal development lectures, workshops or courses.  There are many applicable to our job as private piano teachers:  e.g. the Alexander technique, yoga,  running a small business, resolving conflicts, communication strategies, stress management, finding the real you—the opportunities are endless!

    As you progress into the teacher you want to be, you will no doubt desire the appropriate environment from which to work!  This too, can be planned.  Small things may benefit short term goals, such as re arranging the furniture, putting up some musically oriented posters or making relevant charts. Another short term goal for your studio would be to paint it, decorating it to be more ‘musical’.

    But what of mid term goals?  Is the room you use at the moment really adequate?  Think of your long term fantasy again.  Did you picture yourself in the studio just as you have it now?  If not, what small changes could you make so that it does resemble your fantasy?  What sort of equipment would you like to have purchased by five years? What of other resources such as CD’s or a lending library of extensive repertoire?

    This is what our two piano teachers have decided concerning development as a teacher and of their studios. Mr. Brayley, already achieving a performance diploma many years ago, is going to enroll in two master classes a year.  He knows that at least one of them for next year he will have to do some considerable traveling, so he is arranging means to do this now.  He is going to arrange local recitals so that his town will become familiar with him as a performer.  In two years, his goal is to offer his own master classes. His mid term goal is have many of his students enter in local and area piano competitions.

    With these goals firmly in mind, he has realised that his piano is not up to the task.  His mid term goal is to accumulate enough of a substantial deposit for a quality grand piano.  He has given himself the full five years to save this deposit, and will begin looking at pianos six months before he wishes to purchase. He also realises that a grand piano requires more space.  In the next two years, he will look into buying a new home or investing in house extensions.  

    Miss June has decided to enroll in a two year music diploma with an emphasis on child education.  She cannot afford to do the course full time, so instead is doing it by correspondence over four years.  Achieving her diploma in five years means having to start in one year’s time! That makes her a little nervous but very excited.  In six months time, she will attend a three day Kodaly workshop.  

    Currently, Miss June’s studio is her lounge room in her two bedroom apartment.  She decides to convert the ‘guest room’ into a studio, and buy a sofa that pulls out into a double bed (she reasons that she only has guests once in a while; she has students every day!)  For now she only has a piano, a small second hand book shelf and two chairs in the studio. Over the next year her goal is to add a small sofa and a table.  In two years, Miss June wants to update her computer for her studies and the business.  After her diploma in five years, Miss June will look at moving not only from her apartment, but perhaps even to a larger town where she could specialise in children’s music.

    These two teaches had been stuck in a rut for over a year. They were even on the brink of giving up teaching all together. Now, they are energised, enthusiastic and determined.  Their students haven’t changed (yet), their qualifications haven’t improved (yet) and their studio is how they’ve left it.  The only thing that has changed is that they now have a plan!  Their plan includes long term goals, mid term goals and short term goals.  On paper, they have problems and solutions and strategies that may or may not work, but are there for trying.

    Don’t be alarmed if you find even your short term goals change. This is to be expected. We’re not the same people as we were when we were fifteen, or when we were twenty—we can’t expect to be the same people in another five, ten, fifteen years time.   It doesn’t matter if you change direction, as long as you’re still moving.  Just remember you have pen and paper ready for you at any time in your life to work out how you can incorporate what you’ve worked on already to complement any changes.  Plan to never be stuck in a rut again!  

    Page created: 4/03/04
    Last updated: 01/30/15
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