Back in August 2021, I celebrated 20 years of private teaching. I taught my first lesson on 21st August, 2001. I’d just finished Year 12 and was about to embark on my last year at school and A-Levels. Like so many of us, it all started when I was asked if I’d teach piano to the daughter of a friend from church. Several others followed via the same route, and soon I was teaching a handful of students, mainly children, flute, piano and singing.
But, 20 years on, a lot has changed, not just in teaching, but in the world too. This blog post is a bit late coming because that 20 year teaching anniversary was rather taken oven by getting engaged on 18th August, 2021! I did, however, want to share some reflections on the first 20 years, and whilst I realise they won’t resonate with everyone, they are very personal to me.
Like many of us, for me, learning an instrument as a child involved limping gradually from one ABRSM graded exam to the next. The repertoire covered was primarily exam-based and it was unusual to do much beyond the requirements of the exam syllabus. Therefore, it’s perhaps no surprise that this formed the basis of my own private teaching in those early days.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen a gradual shift away from exams; however, I’ve also seen a resurgence of interest these past two years with the advent of online exams. My personal experience is that in many cases, the instrumental teaching curriculum has broadened, and the internet has provided a platform for teachers to share and experience new ideas and resources. In some ways, this has pushed exams into the background a little. Their cost has also increased too making them less accessible than they once were. Overall, my experience is that there just isn’t the interest in exams there once was, and I’m all for that. Even where there is, I now make use of a far greater range of exams, notably from LCM.
But, over the past two years, exam boards have begun to offer online options which has made it easier than ever for our students to sit exams anytime of year, anywhere in the world. We’re no longer constrained by exam sessions and centre locations. With that, I sense that exams are making a bit of a comeback. This worries me. Personally, the number of students working towards exams has declined rapidly over the years. These days, I might only enter 4 or 5 students a year at most. I’m not against exams, but what about music? Do we start with exams or do we start with music? Are we in danger of being driven once more by the appeal and ease of online exams?
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the past 20 years is a gradual shift from children learning an instrument, to adults. Whilst I have always had a large number of adult students, they now make up 65% of my teaching studio. Personally, I see this as a huge positive. Not only is learning an instrument open to them, often later in life, but it offers me a good deal of flexibility when timetabling. There is a bit of a myth that adults only want to learn ‘for fun’ (but then shouldn’t everyone be learning ‘for fun’?), but I’ve taught many adults who’ve been keen to work towards exams and diplomas, as well as taking up performance opportunities and making their own recordings. As I was saying to another teacher fairly recently, I could now, if I chose to, fill my entire teaching timetable with adult students.
The number of children learning an instrument continues to decline. My youngest student is now 12 so I no longer teach any primary-age children. There are lots of reasons for this, some of which I’ll explore below, but it’s a concern. With music in schools diminishing, where will our future musicians come from?
One thing which has been very noticeable in the past 20 years has been the way in which music, and indeed the arts, have been devalued. They have been devalued in schools to the extent that in some quarters, they have ceased to exist entirely. But the value placed on music and the arts in society more widely has also, in my view, declined. It’s hard not to find this depressing, and I struggle to see how or when this will change. Time will tell. I have to say that I find it quite exhausting always having to fight music’s corner.
Something which to me is particularly noticeable over the past 20 years has been the increased pressure placed on children by schools (although much comes from higher up the ladder). This means that for many, they are so stressed and exhausted, music, which should offer them a mechanism for relaxation and enjoyment, falls away. This also goes to reinforce the declining value of music: it is often at the bottom of the pile. I’m afraid to say that some schools and indeed, some parents, have actively steered children away from music and often, like the arts more generally, it’s not seen as a viable career option.
That said, not all students are affected in this way, and many have gone on to successfully combine the enjoyment of music with their academic studies. But, it’s very dependent on the individual, and not all children can cope with that pressure.
Has the professional status of private teachers increased over the past 20 years? On the whole, I’d say yes, and I think that’s a good thing. But, as we well know, it’s incredibly patchy. Organisations such as the ISM, Musicians’ Union, EPTA, and the Curious Piano Teachers have all sought to raise the profile of both private teachers, and instrumental teachers more widely. They have encouraged personal and professional development, and in some cases offer mechanisms for accountability.
In some ways, the professional development opportunities available to private teachers has diminished. This started with the removal of the CT;ABRSM course, the MTPP at the University of Reading, and other short courses offered by organisations such as ABRSM. The opportunity to gain a recognised qualification as a private teacher is, in the main, restricted to teaching diplomas. That said, other courses have emerged such as the MEd at the Royal College of Music as well as similar masters level qualifications. These are all positives, but they’re not opportunities available to all for both cost and location reasons.
The internet has, however, offered us many professional development opportunities, not least, the ability to connect with other teachers and to share ideas and experiences, learning from each other. The internet is not without its problems, and it can be easy to fall into the comparison trap. Interaction and connection on social media in particular comes with a health warning. Facebook Groups in particular have offered a platform for discussion and development; although my experience is that these become all too dominated by exams. My own experience of running a group over the past few years has been that the demand is primarily to discuss exams rather than wider issues of pedagogy, curriculum, teaching and learning. Another missed opportunity for wider educational development?
Although it might not seem like it, the repertoire we teach has, at least for me, expanded and diversified. Whilst there are always mutterings that we’re not doing enough to diversify, huge strides have been made, and for someone like me who’s been doing this for 20 years, it’s something we should be proud of. It can be a bit of a battle though, and as I recently highlighted in this review, there can be a huge disconnect between the repertoire teachers are using ‘on the ground’ and that which appears on exam syllabuses. I suspect exam boards have much further to go than teachers themselves.
Private Teaching: The Future
What does the future hold for private teachers?
That’s a hard one to answers. After 20 years, I’ve seen a lot. You know what they say: what comes around goes around, and I think the resurgence of interest in exams is a good example of that.
One thing which I know teachers are having to grapple with at the moment is money. Is private teaching a viable business option in the modern world of increasing costs of living? The wider world has never really been geared up to support the self-employed as the last couple of years have shown. Housing is a good example. Buying a house is beyond most of us, yet few landlords allow teaching from rented properties. There are schemes – shared ownership etc. – which suffer from the same problem. This isn’t a problem only for teachers, and it’s not a problem of their making, but it’s certainly something which more and more private teachers are having to consider.
Am I optimistic about the future of private teaching?
I find that one hard to answer too. In many ways, yes, because I’ve seen some really positive developments over the past 20 years. That said, the place of music and by consequence, private teaching within the wider world, offers me more cause for concern.
Having spent 20 years as a private teacher, I feel very unusual. Who stays in the same job for that long, particularly a job with little to offer in the way of career progression? Will I be here in 20 years? Who’s to say.
But I do know that my commitment to music is undiminished.
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