10 Things I’ve Learnt in 18 Years as a Private Music Teacher

Pile of sheet music with pencil, rubber and pencil sharpener

I’ve recently celebrated 18 years as a private music teacher. In that time, there have been many ‘ups and downs’, and after 18 years, I’ve definitely learnt a few things and I’d like to share some of them with you here. If you’re just starting out as a private music teacher, I hope they might offer some reassurance and some food for thought.

1. You need to set boundaries (and stick to them).

When I started teaching in 2001, I taught whenever people wanted a lesson. I was completely at the beck and call of the students/parents themselves, seemingly available 24/7 whenever it suited them. It took a long time for me to realise that actually, they respected me far more for having clear boundaries. Admittedly, you’ll never please everyone, but boundaries do help. Everyone’s boundaries will be different, but here are a few of mine:

  • I have set days and times when I’m available to teach. I don’t accommodate teaching outside of those times;
  • I teach one-to-one for no more than 5.5 hours a day, and for no more than 2.5 hours without a 30-minute break in between blocks of lessons;
  • Breaks and mealtimes are built into my teaching timetable;
  • I don’t teach at the weekend.

2. Some people always pay late.

Dress it up however you like, but no matter how many policies you have, no matter how clearly you think they’re worded, there will always be one or two who think these don’t apply to them. There will always be the ones who pay late, even when the invoice clearly states when payment is due. There will always be one or two who attempt to find a loophole in your cancellation policy. I’ll be honest, these people are few and far between, but, they are incredibly frustrating. That said, by accepting that these people will always exist, it can be just that little bit less stressful when they do rear their heads.

3. Some students won’t practise.

I used to worry about students who didn’t practise. I used to worry a lot. The reality is that progress is inevitably linked to practice, so in some ways, these worries are justified. One thing I’ve come to accept over the past 18 years is that as a teacher, I do not have a monopoly on why students come for lessons. I know that for many of them, the experience and enjoyment of he lesson is the most important thing, and therefore, practice is not a priority. Yes, there are times when a lack of practice becomes problematic, but I don’t think that practising at home is the ultimate pre-requisite of having lessons. Let’s be honest, I don’t know about you, but I did very little practice when I was having lessons as a child!

4. You cannot specialise in everything.

I’ve already alluded to this above because this also comes down to setting boundaries. You cannot be everything to everyone, and that is a fact of life. I’ve written previously on this topic, but it’s OK, and in fact, I think should be encouraged, to be honest about where your skills and interests lie. Over the years, I’ve set some fairly clear boundaries in terms of what I do and don’t teach; for example:

  • I teach singing, but I only specialise in classical and music theatre;
  • I set a minimum age for the subjects/instruments I teach, and I stick to these.

There is a general myth that the self-employed and freelancers are always short of work, and therefore, should take on everything offered to them. Ultimately, this never works.

5. Don’t forget to nurture your own creativity.

This is hugely important, and it’s still something I struggle sometimes to balance. I think it’s easy when you’re teaching to become consumed by the work itself. I think this is especially true when many of us started teaching as a result of music being our hobby. But, if we want to nurture the creativity of others, then we have to nurture our own on music-making and enjoyment too. There have been times for me when the act of teaching has taken away the enjoyment of music itself. Striking a balance is so important. Never lose sight of the reason you learnt an instrument right in the beginning. I often talk about this as well as offering some inspiration in my monthly newsletter Creative Notes which you can sign up for here.

6. You’ll invest in resources you never use.

New books, methods and resources appear on the market at an alarming rate. I’ve blogged about this previously. The advent of the internet has only increased their availability. We’ve all been guilty, at one time or another, of jumping on a bandwagon, buying the latest ‘thing’ which inevitably we use once and which then sits on our shelves gathering dust. I think it’s worth taking a moment to accept we’ll all acquire books and resources in a moment of enthusiasm which ultimately, we won’t use in the longer-term.

7. Music isn’t everyone’s number one priority in life.

As teachers, music is inevitably a huge part of our lives. For many of us, it was a hobby before we made a job out of it. We are passionate about music, and it’s as much an escape as it is a business for us. The same however, does not apply to everyone else, including some of our students. I often come across teachers who are frustrated to the point of exhaustion because they cannot fathom why music isn’t their students’ number one priority. Sometimes, we have to take a step back. Just because music isn’t always our students’ number one priority, it doesn’t mean they are any the less enthusiastic, committed or interested. As I said above, we don’t have a monopoly on why they come for lessons and we should be happy to meet them where they’re at.

8. We are not creating clones of ourselves.

One of the things I love about my job is being able to inspire others in their own music making. That said, I think there’s a fine line here, and I’ve always been absolutely clear that my job isn’t to teach in a way which means my students simply copy what I do. I love being able to share my passion and enthusiasm for music with my students, but I’m also aware that I need to facilitate an environment which supports them to develop their own passions. I am always cautious of terms such as ‘passing on’ musical skills and knowledge. It’s true, passing these on is inevitably part of teaching, but it’s not the same as creating an environment in which students can construct their own knowledge and develop their own skills.

9. There will be times when you wonder why you’re teaching.

I know this might come as a shock to some people I know, but there have been plenty of times over the past 18 years where I’ve considered throwing in the towel and stopping teaching. I think it’s a fact of life that whatever we do, there’ll be times when we feel like that. I think this is often the time when we need to nurture our own enjoyment of music even more. Sometimes, it’s a good thing to go back to where it all started.

10. Cake.

Cake possesses a magical power to make so many things in life OK. It’s also a great way to bring people together and create a sense of community. I shouldn’t say this, but it can often be a good bribe too! Anyone who’s worked with me will know that cake, more often than not, baked by me, features prominently.

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10 Things I've Learnt in 18 Years as a Private Music Teacher

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